Ever had a muscle cramp double you over during a workout? Muscle cramps are the sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle. They most commonly occur in muscles directly involved in exercise such as a calf during running or a foot during swimming.
You’ve probably been provided with some advice to prevent muscle cramps, such as eat bananas, add salt tablets to your water or even chug back some pickle juice. Any athlete who has experienced muscle cramps knows how painful they are and would be willing to try anything to avoid them. But do any of these suggestions actually prove true? The answer might surprise you.
There are a lot of suggested theories for why muscle cramps occur. However, there is still ongoing debate and no one really knows for sure what causes muscle cramps. Traditionally, scientists blamed dehydration and electrolyte disturbances. Hence, the suggestion of consuming foods like bananas, salt tablets and pickle juice to combat muscle cramps. However, more recent research suggests that muscle cramps are not caused by electrolyte disturbances such as abnormal levels of potassium, magnesium or calcium. Rather the evidence points towards fatigued muscles as being the cause of muscle cramps.
So what can you do to reduce the risk of muscle cramps? Some strategies that experts do agree on to prevent muscle cramping include:
- Prepare for your event: Muscle cramps are less common in well-trained and conditioned athletes. No amount of pickle juice or bananas can make up for proper training.
- Properly fuel: Adequate carbohydrate intake before and during exercise prevents premature muscle fatigue that increases the risk of cramping. Be sure to fuel yourself properly before exercise. Try a bagel with some jam or a packet of oatmeal before an early morning run. If you’re exercising for an extended period of time, fuel properly throughout your workout. Check out my past blog on properly fueling during exercise.
- Maintain hydration: While dehydration alone does not directly cause muscle cramping, dehydration does contribute to premature muscle fatigue, which increases the risk of cramping. Ensure that you are not losing more than 2% of your body weight during exercise. The best way to ensure this is by weighing yourself pre- and post-run to calculate your sweat rate and corresponding fluid plan. Read my past blog on creating fluid plans.
While there is no specific remedy that has proven to magically cure muscle cramps, by properly training and following basic sports nutrition guidelines, the risk of muscle cramps can be prevented.
Each month, I’ll be offering a free education session on various nutrition topics. To stay up to date with this and other information, like my Facebook page: Megan Kuikman Registered Dietitian and follow me on Instagram: @the.running.dietitian.