What Causes Muscle Cramps? How Can I Prevent Them?

Muscle cramp
There are two main types of muscle cramps. If you can identify which one you are experiencing you may be able to stop cramping sooner and prevent future cramps.

Localized Muscle Cramping

Localized muscle cramps happen suddenly when a muscle is overworked and tired.

They feel like: constant pain.

Risk factors include: several factors may contribute to localized muscle cramping including: older age, history of cramping, metabolic disturbances, poor conditioning (or increasing the intensity of your training before you are ready) and not stretching. 

Treatment: for this type of cramping should include passive stretching, massage, active contraction of the antagonist or opposing muscle group (for instance, if your hamstrings are cramping, contract your quads), and icing.

Prevention:  Stretching (hold your stretch for at least 30 seconds), using proper movement patterns (biomechanics) and making sure you are conditioned before increasing the intensity of your training.

Exertional Heat Cramps

Exertional heat cramps are due to extensive sweating and low sodium levels from not consuming enough sodium and/or losing too much sodium through sweat.

They feel like: initially you may feel brief, spontaneous contractions that take time to develop followed by debilitating, widespread muscle spasms.

Risk factors include: high sweat rate, little sodium intake (especially if you lose a lot of sodium through sweat or over consume water or other no or low sodium drinks).

Treatment: replacing both fluid and sodium losses as soon as you start cramping. You can use an electrolyte replacement product or table salt! IVs are sometimes used to expedite this process. Massage and ice can also help relax the muscles and relieve discomfort.

Prevention: if you are a “salty sweater” – you see white salt crystals on your clothes, face or other parts of your body, be sure to salt your food prior to training and competing and consume enough sodium in your sports drink to prevent excessive sodium losses.

If you know what type of cramps you are prone to, you can better incorporate prevention methods and have treatment options readily available to stop cramping as soon as possible [ice, sports drinks, electrolyte products, table salt (restaurant salt packets in a ziplock bag always come in handy), a good athletic trainer nearby etc.].

As a review, here are your prevention strategies for cramping:

  • If you have a history of heat cramping, know that your cramps will likely reoccur at some point during training or competition.
  • Make sure you are conditioned before increasing the load or intensity of your training.
  • Incorporate stretching or hot yoga into your training regimen.
  • Give your body time to adjust to changes in elevation, heat and humidity.
  • Salt your food!
  • Do not over-consume water or any other low or no sodium beverage or you’ll dilute your blood sodium level and set yourself up for cramps.
  • Weigh yourself pre- and post- training. For each lb lost, consume 20 – 24 oz of an electrolyte-replacement drink.
  • Work with a sports dietitian or athletic trainer (ATC) to develop a hydration-electrolyte plan that specifically meets your needs. Sports drinks do not contain enough sodium for salty sweaters and those prone to exertional heat cramps.

 

 

Are Your Muscles Sore and Joints Hurting? Here’s What You Should be Eating

When I first started cross country in high school I would go to sleep in a homemade pajama of Ben Gay slathered all over my sore legs. And then each morning at 5 am my sister would have to pry me out of bed for our newspaper route. As I threw one sore leg after the other off the bed I absolutely dreaded the thought of running, a necessary task since she made me go to the houses with the dogs that chased us and the sketchy places by the woods (I’m the youngest). If you too have tried Ben Gay, massage, ice packs or any other modality for trying to decrease muscle soreness and keep your joints moving, it’s time to fight exercise-induced inflammation through your diet.

Here’s what I’ll cover in this post (and as shared on Talk of Alabama this morning – see their website for more information):

  • The top two foods you need to decrease muscle soreness
  • Foods that keep your joints healthy

Talk of Alabama

Decreasing Muscle Soreness

When it comes to exercise, some inflammation is good and actually essential for muscle growth and repair. But, excess inflammation can lead to muscle cell damage and that feeling like you couldn’t possibly get off the couch for days. So, I recommend athletes include tart cherry juice into their regular nutrition regimen as a preventative measure. Research shows **tart cherry juice can help decrease exercise-induced muscle soreness and inflammation. Try it in a shake or check out my gelatin chews below.

Research from the University of Georgia found 2 grams of ginger, either fresh ginger or in spice form (they tested McCormick ginger), helps reduce muscle pain when consumed daily for 11 days prior to exercise testing. I have a few recipes below you might want to try. Also, check out Reed’s Ginger Brew (it is like ginger ale but made from real ginger with 17 grams per bottle!).

Keeping Your Joints Moving

Fatty fish including salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies etc. contain long chain omega-3 fatty acids that have modest anti-inflammatory effects and have been shown to decrease cartilage breakdown (cartilage is like a sponge that cushions your joints so they can easily glide on top of one another) and inflammation in cell culture studies. In addition, research studies show these fatty acids can improve several symptoms associated with *rheumatoid arthritis and possibly even decrease the need for anti-inflammatory drugs. *Always talk to your physician if you have a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Plus, there are two types of plant-based foods you should focus on. Foods rich in vitamin C including citrus, bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, cauliflower, pineapple, kiwi. Vitamin C is necessary for repairing and maintaining cartilage and higher intakes are associated with less severe cartilage breakdown. In addition to vitamin C, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables contain an antioxidant that may improve bone formation and decrease bone breakdown. And finally, ginger is also effective for reducing joint pain though you have to consume it regularly over several weeks (500 mg ginger extract was used). 

Cherry Ginger Smoothie

Ingredients
8 oz. vanilla soymilk
1 scoop unflavored or vanilla whey protein (if using unflavored you may need to add a sweetener)
½ cup frozen tart cherries
2 tsp. (or more if desired) fresh cut ginger
Ice as desired

Directions
Add vanilla soymilk to blender followed by the rest of the ingredients in order. Blend until smooth.

Honey Ginger Salmon

Ingredients
4 salmon fillets (4-6 oz. each)
2 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger or 1 tsp. ginger spice
3 Tbsp. honey
2 tsp. olive oil
¼ cup soy sauce

Directions
Mix all ingredients except salmon in a bowl. Place marinade and salmon in large resealable plastic bag so that marinade coats salmon fillets. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer. Remove salmon fillets and grill 6 to 8 minutes per side or bake at 350°F for 15-20 minutes.

Fig Cherry Ginger Chews

Ingredients
13 dried figs
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
3 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

Directions:
Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix throughly. Take small portions out and make small balls. If you want them even sweeter, roll finished balls in cane sugar or powdered coconut sugar.

Tart Cherry Gelatin

Ingredients
2 packets gelatin mix
2 cups tart cherry juice
3 tsp fresh ginger

Directions
Boil 1.5 cups tart cherry juice. While juice is boiling place remaining 1/2 tart cherry juice in a bowl and mix in gelatin packets. Let sit for at least one minute. When juice is finished boiling mix it into juice & gelatin mixture until throughly blended. Add 3 tsp. fresh grated ginger and 1 – 2 Tbsp. sugar if desired. Place mixture in an 8×8 pan and refrigerate for at least one hour. Remove from refrigerator and enjoy!

** TV segment, but not post, sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute