Cramps: The Athlete’s Nightmare

Sport, Sports Injuries, Training

Cramps cartoonDespite modern science, the true cause of exercise-induced cramps is not known.

It is the racer’s worst nightmare: you are running along and suddenly your calf seizes up or you are crippled with a muscle cramp. It is the most mystifying of running problems. The truth is that we still don’t know much about these debilitating muscle issues. “Nobody knows what causes cramps,” say researchers.

There are, however, a number of theories.

For years, people believed that cramps were caused by salt and mineral deficiencies, dehydration, or heat.

An increasingly large number of studies, though, have found there to be almost no connection between hydration or mineral intake and exercise-induced cramps. Studies have shown no difference in hydration or sodium make-up in muscle samples between runners who had cramps and those who didn’t.

“Although the idea that mineral deficiencies and dehydration can cause cramps has been very popular, there are many, many studies that do not prove these as causes for cramps during exercise,” say researchers from the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town, who conducted a number of these studies.

While salt loss and dehydration can certainly cause problems and generalised cramping throughout the body, it has not been shown to cause specialised exercise-induced cramping, such as one would experience in a calf.

Often problems with hydration or salt loss correlated to higher rates of cramping for other reasons. However, correlation does not mean causation.

With the growing research on cramps, the current theory on what causes them is muscle fatigue and failures in the neural communication pathways. Basically, you train a muscle to contract and the muscle fatigues. It, then, miscommunicates and stays contracted when it shouldn’t, therefore causing a cramp.

The mechanism for muscle fatigue and muscle damage causing cramping is best explained through an imbalance that develops in the nervous system control of muscle. Muscles tend to become very twitchy when they become fatigued or are injured. You’re more likely to get cramps, then, when your muscles are working harder and are fatiguing, such when you’re out of shape or racing hard.

This means that to stop cramps you just need to get fitter. That, however, is not particularly helpful when a cramp strikes in the middle of a race.

Once a cramp strikes, you really only can do one thing: “Take a deep breath, stop, and stretch”. Static stretching has been shown to stop cramps, because it inhibits muscle contraction. Then, start slow and build your speed up.

If you back off early enough during your effort, you can usually prevent it. Once a cramp comes on, it can be debilitating and impossible to continue, then “the only choice is to back off.”

Cramp preventionAfter the race, it’s time to get to work.

The more training you do at the speeds you plan to race at, then the better prepared you’ll be — though that’s true for more than just preventing cramps, the better your fitness, the less likely you are to get cramps.

It is important train at the pace you plan to race, including progression runs and fast finish runs. You may get some cramps, but you will also get fitter and more resistant, therefore, more prepared to deal with those issues in a race. It is much better to experience cramps in training.

The other thing you can do is to make sure you know what you are really suffering from. A lot of people who say they are struggling with cramps actually have side stitches or stomach problems. Stomach cramps can simply be gastrointestinal issues.

Side stitches are not cramps.

They may have similar roots. You are more likely to get side stitches when you are out of shape and overstretch your breathing and diaphragm muscles. They can be solved relatively simply by pushing on the stitch with your fingers and blowing out through pursed lips in a long controlled exhale.

Actual exercise-induced muscle cramps, though, remain harder to understand. The only thing that will help is stretching (immediate and long term), slowing down (immediate) and training (long term).

When you are out of shape or have not done any sport or physical exercise for a while, and then engage in high intensity, prolonged exercise, or sign up to do a race to ‘get you back into sport’ you put yourself at risk for developing cramps.

So be wise, don’t enroll for races thinking that it’s easy to wing it and, keep TRAINING… PROGRESSIVELY!