Have you ever been in the midst of an exercise, say squat jumps, and suddenly felt a cramp in your calf muscle that forced you to grab your aching leg? Exercise cramps are painful, and they can interfere with or cut short a good workout, although they usually resolve fairly quickly.
Muscle cramps brought on by exercise are common and most people have had one at one time or other. Although the exact cause isn’t clear, one theory is that muscle fatigue is a trigger. Therefore, you’re more likely to experience one if you’re working out intensely or for a long period, such as running a marathon or when you increase the intensity or duration of your workouts too fast. When a muscle tires, it’s more likely to shorten and spasm.
Where are those spasms most likely to strike? The most common place to get a cramp is a calf muscle. When a calf cramp hits, the pain might be so intense that you have to stop and massage the cramping muscle until the spasm lessens. Fortunately, the pain doesn’t last long, but exercise cramps can be a recurring problem.
What about prevention? Although there isn’t a surefire way to prevent exercise cramps, here are some ways, backed by science, to lower your risk of being sidelined by a painful muscle spasm when you exercise.
Drink Enough Fluids
Some experts believe that not drinking enough fluid can bring on exercise cramps, but is that supported by science? Studies looking at whether dehydration is a factor in muscle cramps are inconsistent. However, cramps are more common in people who don’t drink enough fluid during a workout.
How does dehydration trigger cramps? One theory is the amount of fluid surrounding muscle cells drops when you don’t drink enough fluid, and this causes them to contract. The contraction stimulates nerve endings, and they discharge in a disorderly manner, so the muscle goes into spasm.
Based on this, it’s wise to drink fluids before, during, and after a workout. However, drinking water may not be enough, as you’ll soon see.
Maintain Electrolyte Balance
Drinking pure water for rehydration may not be enough to reduce the risk of muscle cramps if you exercise for longer than an hour. During a workout, you also lose electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chloride through sweating.
Rehydrating with pure water improves hydration but doesn’t replace the lost electrolytes. If you do long bouts of exercise, especially in the heat, and drink pure water, it can dilute the sodium content of your blood to the point that it leads to a dangerous drop in sodium. You’re less likely to cramp if your electrolytes are in balance.
So, drink an electrolyte-rich beverage if you’re prone to exercise-induced muscle cramps. You don’t necessarily need a sports drink; you can replenish electrolytes during a workout by drinking coconut water with a pinch of added salt. With this approach, you avoid additives and colorings in many sports drinks.
Consume Carbohydrates Before a Workout
There’s some evidence that preventing carbohydrate depletion during a workout lowers the risk of muscle cramps. If that’s the case, you don’t want to launch into a workout in a low-carb state when you haven’t eaten in hours.
The solution? Be proactive and have a snack that includes some carbohydrates and protein, like an apple with peanut butter on it, an hour before a workout. Yogurt with added fruit is another pre-workout snack to munch on. Yogurt is a good source of calcium and a healthy calcium level may reduce the risk of exercise-induced muscle cramps.
If you still have cramps during a workout, drink a sports beverage or coconut water that contains carbohydrates during and after your workout.
Condition Your Muscles
Muscles that are better conditioned are less likely to spasm and cramp, so keep your body in shape through strength training. Be sure you’re doing a workout that conditions all of your muscle groups in a balanced way. Don’t try to tackle a challenging exercise without starting slow and building a baseline level of fitness first.
Condition your muscles over time by gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions. Based on the neuromuscular theory of muscle cramps, overloading a muscle and subjecting it to stress it isn’t ready for creates an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory signals within a muscle.
Don’t Suddenly Increase the Intensity or Duration of Your Workouts
When you increase the intensity or duration of your workouts, do it slowly. Don’t try to run a marathon when you’ve never run a 5K or do a 40-minute high-intensity workout when you’ve never worked out before. If you run, increase your running distance by no more than 10% per week. Doing this will also lower your risk of overuse injuries too.
Take a Closer Look at Supplements and Medications
Certain supplements also increase the risk of muscle cramps. One example is creatine, a supplement some bodybuilders take to enhance muscle size. Unfortunately, one side effect of creatine is that it can cause muscle cramps. If you take creatine, drink more water and if you have repeated muscle cramps, consider stopping it and see it if helps.
Some medications, especially diuretics and certain heart and blood pressure medications, can trigger muscle cramps. If you’re taking medications, check with your physician, and see if they could be triggering your muscle cramps.
Get Checked Out
If you have frequent muscle cramps that don’t respond to these measures, see your physician. They can check a chemistry profile to make sure you don’t have a calcium, sodium, or potassium imbalance that’s contributing to the cramping. Rarely, muscle cramping during exercise can be a sign of poor circulation to the lower extremities. So, get it checked out!
The Bottom Line
Muscle cramps are frustrating and painful. Try these tips to lower their frequency but keep working out! It’s one of the best things you can do for your body.
Sports Health. 2010 Jul; 2(4): 279-283.doi: 10.1177/1941738109357299.
Current Sports Medicine Reports: July-August 2008 – Volume 7 – Issue 4 – p S50-S55. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31817f476a.
Cleveland Clinic. “Creatine”
Sports Health. 2010 Jul; 2(4): 279–283.doi: 10.1177/1941738109357299.
WebMD.com “What medications can cause muscle cramps?”