You’re in the midst of your workout, focused, pushing your body to its limits, and then it happens. The pinching, tight muscle pain that hits you out of the blue. Muscle cramps can bring your workout to a sudden full stop. However, besides the agonizing pain, a lot more is happening at that moment. Basically, the muscles wind up stuck in the “on” position, because the body has run out of the fuel that helps them relax and contract. The muscle is in full-on flex mode, and this is why it feels hard to the touch.
Muscle cramps can happen to anyone, and there are things you could do when they hit you.
What to Do?
Muscle cramps usually hit during endurance events or at the end of an intense workout, because fatigued muscles are more likely to cramp. Novice athletes fatigue more quickly than seasoned exercisers, thus are more likely to have cramps. Also, the frequency of cramps increases if you’re not used to the heat. Unnecessary cramps can be avoided if you carefully progress your workouts and by easing into them in the heat, when the hot, summer days come. By carefully planning your carbohydrate, electrolyte, and fluid intake, as well as turning to moist heating pads when you feel the need to relax, you can delay or avoid muscle cramps.
How can dehydration result in muscle cramps? Fluids in the human body are either outside of the cell or inside it. When the body dehydrates, the outside fluid decreases, which causes the nerve endings to get squished together. As they are getting overexcited, they spontaneously discharge, and that discharge is the muscle twitch which leads to a muscle cramp. By preventing a dramatic shifts in fluid with proper hydration, you can prevent these abnormal muscle contractions. Consuming enough fluids during your workout is not a fully guaranteed way for preventing cramps, but hydration has a lot of benefits, so do it anyway.
Start by drinking fluids according to your own sense of thirst in order to prevent dehydration. Weigh yourself before and after you exercise, and if there’s any weight change, it’s a change in your fluid balance. The risk of muscle cramps is increased if your loss is more than 2-3% of body weight. Your hydration guide can be your thirst, if you realize that it prevents body weight fluctuations during exercise. Otherwise, make a hydration schedule.
Muscle cramps can be caused by carbohydrate depletion. During exercise, your body uses carbs as its primary fuel. The amount of glycogen stored in our muscles and used to provide energy for our workout is finite. Once it gets exhausted, the risk of muscle cramps increases. Muscles need energy to relax as well as to contract, thus muscle relaxation gets impaired without adequate fuel.
Glycogen stores are depleted in about 60-90 minutes of exercise, so consuming carbs during activities that will last longer is required. Consume a meal rich in carbohydrates or a snack before an intense or endurance exercise.
When it comes to maintaining body fluid balance, electrolytes also have an important role. They control the shift of fluids in and out of cells, and the most important electrolyte during workout is sodium. We lose it through sweat along with water, and drinking water without sodium can lead to hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels). Hyponatremia can also happen if you’re simply sweating a lot. When the concentration of sodium in the blood gets too low, muscle cramps may occur. If hyponatremia isn’t treated, cramps can turn into a medical emergency. To keep sodium levels up, consume high-sodium sport drinks or simply eat salty foods.
To avoid or reduce the risk of cramps, one should train appropriately, consume the right amount of fluids to prevent dehydration, drink high-sodium sports products, eat salty and carbohydrate-rich foods before and during workouts, and get used to the environment before the training gets intense.
About the Author:
Mathews McGarry is passionate about many forms of strength training, and spent years lifting, dragging and flipping all manner of heavy objects. After graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences, he started writing about his experiences, and sharing tips for better life. Check out his website ripped.me and follow him on Twitter.