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.

 

 

Post Workout Nutrition – what do you really need?

Are you confused about what to consume post workout? RD-to-be Sara Shipley breaks down the basics and provides excellent suggestions for post workout nutrition:

We’ve heard it all before: “You need protein after a workout!”

But why? And how much? Will two scoops of any protein powder in your morning smoothie cover all of your bases? Maybe, but here’s what else you need to know about properly refueling and repairing your muscles so you can get back to your life and get ready for tomorrow’s workout.

After strenuous activity our muscle tissue is damaged (this is normal) and our glycogen (carbohydrate stored in our muscle) is depleted. And, depending on how much fluid you consumed while exercising, you may also need to replace a good amount of fluid lost through sweat (and possibly electrolytes too). The right combination of protein, carbohydrate and fluids consumed post-workout will help your muscles recover faster with less soreness and fatigue. Here’s a breakdown on how much you should take:

Protein will help your muscles repair and build new muscle tissue (especially after a bout of resistance training). You can consume protein rich foods or sports supplements for convenience. However, you should aim for a minimum of 25 grams after resistance training (lifting weights for instance) and at least 10 grams after endurance training. If you are choosing food-based sources of protein opt for lean, high quality protein such as egg whites, skinless chicken, turkey breast, 1% cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt.

Carbohydrate is the fuel that powers your workouts. Your body’s stores of carbohydrate, in the form of glycogen, last about 2 hours (less if you are exercising very intensely). And, we now that athletic performance suffers when our carbohydrate stores become depleted. Therefore, carbs post-workout are vital to replacing glycogen stores. Aim for at least 60-75 grams or more. Bagels, pretzels and pasta are all good bets. If you aren’t hungry, try liquid carbs in the form of a sports drink or flavored milk.

Hydration and electrolytes are lost through sweat. And, drinking during your workout may seem like a no brainer, but sometimes you can’t quite makeup for your fluid losses through sweat. If your workout was intense, you need to replace electrolytes (primarily sodium) lost through sweat as well (especially if you are a salty sweater as evidenced by white salt crystals on your face, ears or neck). Sports drinks are a great way to re-hydrate or you can opt for other hydrating beverages (water, juice, milk) consumed in combination with salty foods.

Another thought to consider: post-workout inflammation. Some inflammation is good but too much inflammation may slow the recovery process. So, choose foods that may help combat inflammation including tart cherry juice (or eat cherries), mango, fresh pineapple whey protein and deeply colored fruits and vegetables.

Some of my favorite post-workout foods:

  • chocolate milk
  • eggs on a toasted whole wheat English muffin, with a sprinkle of cheese
  • cottage cheese with sliced cherry tomatoes and whole grain pretzels
  • Greek yogurt with blueberries and whole grain granola
  • soup with grilled cheese (bonus – great for replacing sodium!)
  • skinless grilled chicken and wholegrain brown rice
  • whole grain pita filled with hummus, grilled veggies and a dollop of plain yogurt, paired with a large glass of milk
  • Clif or Luna bar
  • Sports drink
  • Smoothie made with whey protein, any mix of berries, skim milk and ice (you can also add mango or pineapple)