Why?- Muscle cramps have been studied pretty heavily, and luckily there are several studies with endurance athletes as subjects. The etiology and risk factors behind a high prevalence of EAMC's in certain athletes isn't fully understood, mainly because there are several contributing factors, not just one cause (Schwellnus, 2009; Schwellnus et al, 2011). Some of the factors to consider and are linked to an increased likelihood of muscle cramping is heat, dehydration, electrolyte (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium) depletion, and altered neuromuscular control (increased muscle excitability). All of these factors are associated with exercising, especially in endurance-related sports.
Prevention- Some things you can do to prevent those dreaded cramps:
- Keep electrolyte levels high before and during exercise (Gatorade....)
- Hydrate! More blood volume...
- Passively stretching after exercise! Stretching after a warm up is a good idea, but not if you are going to be working out. Passively stretching after warming up actually cools your muscles!
- Drink Vinegar! Yeah, I know... gross... research has yet to find out why it works, but it is probably linked to condensed electrolytes (Williams, 2000).
Treatment- Okay, so you have a cramp. OOOOUCH! If yours are like mine, they are tough to alleviate. Here's what has worked for me!
- Take a shot of vinegar, pickle juice- It will alleviate the cramp in about 1 minute, usually less!
- Ice- also combine with stretching
- Stretching- see Ice
- Massage- Constant grip and massage of the muscle will allow the skeletal muscle to relax sooner than normal.
- Replenish your fluids!
Mark's Big Tip: Bring a mustard packet with you when you train!
A cheap, portable, and effective option is to take a mustard packet with you when you leave on a run or bike ride (and also a reason to stop by any Micky D's). If you get a cramp, just try to suck down the mustard. It will help in under a minute! Every time I have used this, I have had a cramp in one of my calfs, and was able to keep walking while I waited for the mustard to do it's thing. I was able to keep running after the cramp subsided. It works because of the high vinegar content in mustard. It's basically like portable vinegar! Word of advice: bring water to chase it down because the aftertaste is pretty bad. But better then a cramp!
Schwellnus, M.P. (2009). Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)- altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(6): 401-408.
Schwellnus, M.P., Drew, N., & Collins, M. (2008). Muscle cramping in athletes- risk factors, clinical assessment, and management. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 1: 183-194.
Schwellnus, M., Drew, N., & Collins, M. (2011). Risk factors associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC)- a prospective cohort study in ironman triathletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(4): 316.
Williams, R. (2000). Those Devilish Cramps. Training and Conditioning, 10(9), retrieved from http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1009/cramps.htm.