Preventing Cramps During Exercise
October 13, 2015 MVP Blog comments
Q: Is there any way to prevent or treat muscle cramps, particularly in the hamstring, during exercise?
A: Many of us who exercise have heard that sweating and dehydration cause cramps. But the latest science suggests otherwise. In one 2013 study, researchers stimulated cramps in the big toes of well-hydrated volunteers using repeated, small electrical shocks and then had the volunteers alternately exercise and sit in a hot room for hours, until they became sweaty and dehydrated.
(NYTimes.com, by Gretchen Reynolds)
If dehydration made people prone to cramping, the researchers theorized, fewer small shocks should be required now to induce muscle spasms. But in fact, it took just as many zaps to create a cramp as before. Dehydration had not increased the volunteers’ susceptibility to cramping.
There is, however, growing evidence that cramps during exercise could be a result of overexcited nerve endings, probably as a result of fatigue. Several studies of triathletes and ultramarathon runners have found that those who cramp during a race tend to be racers who bolt from the start, setting an early pace that is much faster than their normal training speed, inviting fatigue. They also often have a history of the condition, suggesting that once a muscle cramps, it is primed to repeat the spasms.
Luckily, treatment is simple. “Stretch the affected muscle,” said Kevin Miller, an exercise scientist at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, who co-authored the 2013 study. Stretching seems to quickly calm the manic, misfiring nervous system connections in the muscle.
Some athletes also swear by a swallow or two of pickle juice, which is known to alleviate cramps, although stretching generally works more quickly, Dr. Miller said.
As for prevention, “start a cramp diary,” he suggested. Note down everything that preceded the problem, including how long and hard you were working out, how well you had slept the night before, what you were wearing and so on. Watch for patterns and, if possible, change them.
Consider, too, consulting a physical therapist or athletic trainer about weakness in the affected muscle. Strengthening exercises might reduce fatigue and increase your resistance to future cramps.