Most athletes will know the agony. Some more than others. One minute you’re playing your best game or sprinting to the finish line, the next your calf/foot/hammy/quad, has contracted involuntarily and you’re on the ground in agony. Damn cramps – how do I stop them?
Many anecdotes exist regarding what you can do to treat and prevent exercise associated muscle cramps, but what does the science say?
It’s interesting, that despite being one of the most well researched phenomenon’s in sport; we still don’t have all the answers as to what actually causes exercise associated muscle cramps, and how to treat or prevent them.
Currently, the two best supported hypotheses for cramps in our muscles are:
- neuromuscular fatigue;
- and tiny changes or imbalances in electrolytes.
The overwhelming evidence in exercise related cramp prevention is to ensure you are appropriately conditioned. Following your training and recovery programs and maintaining adequate fitness is the major key to avoiding cramps.
But is it that simple? What else can you try? The following suggestions are general in nature and not intended to take the place of individual advice obtained from a medical or health professional.
If you’re a salty sweater, exercising in warm conditions or your diet is restricted or lacking in variety, ensuring you are getting enough electrolytes can be a good place to start. If you suffer from regular cramps, a simple blood test ordered by your GP may help identify any deficiencies. If you are deficient in something, speak to your doctor or sports dietitian for individual advice. It’s wise to prioritise food over supplements; make sure you include foods rich in potassium (fruits and vegetables), magnesium (nuts and seeds, wholegrains, dairy, leafy greens) and calcium (dairy, fortified dairy alternatives, bony fish) as part of your everyday diet. Whilst most people eat plenty of sodium, if you’re a salty sweater you may benefit form adding some salty foods like vegemite, bread, cheese, pretzels or crackers to you pre event meals. An electrolyte drink as your main source of hydration during sport might also be helpful.
Make sure you’re adequately fuelled and have had plenty of foods rich in carbohydrate the day before and before you play or train. If fuelled well, time to fatigue is greater and potentially this may help prevent onset of fatigue related cramps. Food will also add some bonus electrolytes. If you are exercising for more than 60 minutes at high intensity, some additional fuel during your event may help. Try a piece of fruit, handful of jelly lollies, a sports gel or a sports drink at half time.
While dehydration doesn’t necessarily cause cramps in all athletes, you are more likely to experience them if you are dehydrated. Make sure you are drinking enough, but don’t over drink as this might disrupt the balance of electrolytes. Drink to thirst and aim for pale urine, if it’s dark yellowy brown – you need to drink more! While plain water is best for every day hydration, an electrolyte drink might be worth a try during exercise if you’re prone to cramps.
Yes pickle juice; the stuff that soaks the green things that kids pick out of their cheeseburger. This is a relatively new suggestion in the world of cramps and while it may seem farfetched, there is some evidence to suggest giving this a go if you can stomach it and it’s practical for you to do. Current evidence suggests pickle juice won’t prevent a cramp, but can decrease the time of a cramp and discomfort following if you catch it in time. This is not a nutritional recommendation as it’s unlikely the pickle juice is even absorbed by the time it works. It’s thought that the juice triggers a response by activating receptors in your mouth/throat, disrupting the signals between your brain and cramping muscle – stopping the cramp. Drink/gargle a shot of pickle juice as soon as you start to notice a cramp, in addition to the other standard advice of your medical team (stretch, massage etc). You can get specially formulated pickle juice “shots” online, from sports supplement or health food stores.
If you’ve tried some of these things, still experience cramps and can’t work out why, check in with your dietitian.