The pain often comes on out of the blue, building up in intensity until you can’t bear it any longer. Cramping is an annoying reality for a lot of athletes. At first, you fight through the cramp hoping it will go away. Unfortunately, the intensity often builds up to an unbearable crescendo of tension and discomfort; your workout is over.
Regular cramping can quickly derail your training session and progress toward your goal. The pain, tension, and lump you feel in your legs – most commonly the calf muscles – is intense and impairs your ability to maintain work capacity during your training session or practice.
(Worse yet, cramping in competition often means the end of your race!)
Cramps are one of the most common conditions that happen during or immediately after exercise, yet experts still aren’t clear on the exact mechanism of why you get cramps.(1,2)
Let’s look at the most common hypotheses in the research; neuromuscular fatigue, dehydration and loss of electrolytes.
- Neuromuscular Fatigue
Research on muscular fatigue and cramping goes all the way back to the late 1950s.(3) Experts believed then, and many still do today, that muscular fatigue and the heightened voluntary contractions controlled by your central nervous system are to blame for cramping.(4,5) Today, this still thought to be the most common cause of cramping. Passive stretching is a nice fix once cramps set in but doesn’t provide a prophylactic strategy to prevent them in the first place.
The evidence to support the dehydration theory actually goes back well over a century, to the early 1900s when a series of case studies led to the ‘dehydration theory’ of cramping. (6) This original work was done in miner’s in hot and humid conditions, suggesting the water loss – and the loss of sodium via sweat – lead to increased risk of heat cramps. Of course, while cramps tend to occur more frequently in hotter and more humid climates, they also occur in moderate and cold climates as well (without sodium loss).
- Loss of Electrolytes
There is subset of the population who are ‘salty sweaters’, losing significant amounts of sodium through perspiration.(7,8) These individuals are known as ‘salty sweaters’. In this group, replenishing sodium levels can halt acute cramping and can be an effective strategy during competition to maintain intensity. However, the loss of electrolytes – like dehydration – is a systemic abnormality and thus it’s not clear how this results in local symptoms like cramping.
Is There a Quick Fix for Cramping?
The root cause of why you get a cramp may be different than your teammate or colleague. Muscle overload and fatigue appears to be the primary reason for cramping, but dehydration and electrolyte losses are all implicated and different practitioners will favour different approaches.
Pickle juice is a quirky solution that has gained some momentum in the last decade to stop cramping. You would think it’s due to the sodium content, but because the effects are almost instantaneous, leading researchers to believe taste sensors in the back of mouth are possibly the trigger.(9)
The salty flavor in pickle juice triggers muscular reflexes in the back of the throat, that may incredibly ‘turn off’ missing firing neurons all over your body, eliminating muscle cramps.(9)
It’s an interesting finding, because one of the best tennis players of all-time, Rafael Nadal, has apparently used a similar strategy to overcome persistent cramping throughout his career. The addition of Totum Sport – a salty tasting complete mineral and electrolyte drink – to Rafa’s nutritional arsenal has helped to support his recovery and fight off cramping for years and is now a staple of his in-game routine.
Other common strategies used by practitioners to fight off cramping include tapping, massage, corrective exercise and dietary supplements.
To Sum Up
Cramping is no fun. It’s best to have a preventative strategy to reduce the likelihood of occurrence, but also an acute in-training and in-competition strategy to fight them off when they set in.
A personalised strategy to fit you, your training, and your goals is where you’ll find the most success.
- Schwellnus MP. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)-altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med. 2009;43:401–8.
- Nelson NL, Churilla JR. A narrative review of exercise-associated muscle cramps: factors that contribute to neuromuscular fatigue and management implications. Muscle Nerve. 2016;54(2):177–85.
- Norris FH, Gasteiger EL, Chatfield PO. An electromyographic study of induced and spontaneous muscle cramps. EEG Clin Neurophysiol. 1957;9:139–47.
- Edouard P. Exercise associated muscle cramps: discussion on causes, prevention and treatment. Sci Sports. 2014;29:299–305
- Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health. 2010;2:279–83
- Edsall DL. New disorder from heat. A disorder due to exposure to intense heat. JAMA. 1908; LI(23): 1969-71.
- Eichner ER. The role of sodium in heat cramping. Sports Med. 2007; 37: 368-70.
- Bergeron MF. Heat cramps: fluid and electrolyte challenges during tennis in the heat. J Sci Med Sport. 2003; 6: 19-27.
- Miller, KC, Mack, GW, Knight, KL, et al. Reflex Inhibition of Electrically Induced Muscle Cramps in Hypohydrated Humans