Exercise induced muscle cramps (EAMC’s) is an extremely common condition affecting between 30% – 90% of the general population. I am one of many people to be affected by EAMC’s and after constant trail and error on myself I have found the cause of my own dilemma. One of the causes is long distance events which has inspired me to research the cause of cramping and how to manage and prevent during exercise.
Why do we cramping during exercise?
The “Sodium” theory
This theory suggests that there is a compelling disruption in the fluid or electrolyte balance, usually due to the reduction in the body’s sodium storage thus creates contractions around the muscle causing a misfire of nerve impulses which leads to EAMC’s.
There was a study in 2005 with the sole purpose to understand (suggested rephrasing – A study in 2005 aimed to investigate…) the influence of hydration and electrolyte supplementation on the incidence (not sure what this means?) and time to onset of exercise associated muscle cramp. It was found that when
there is an electrolyte deficit in the plasma then the body is more likely to cramp.
A further look into the study showed that the experiment took part on 13 healthy men who were put through vigorous activity and found no beneficial difference between the two trials. The only difference showed with 2 of the men, which means the trial was mostly inconclusive to the correlation of hydration to dehydration.
I wouldn’t conclude that this theory has no bearing because the study itself was small and the fitness levels or general lifestyle of the participants previous to the experiment wasn’t taken into account. In addition everyone has their optimum level of hydration and supplementation so this can easily affect how susceptible you are to EAMC’s within this theory. So what I would take from this study is that it would be beneficial to trial certain drinks and see what or how it affects you when you exercise. Taking my own
experience into account I found that when I drank certain energy drinks before and during a spin session, I would not cramp up as much or at all unlike when I trialled other drinks just so I could see the difference in myself.
The Neuromuscular theory
This Theory explains that the muscle overload and neuromuscular fatigue are the root causes of EAMC’s. The rationale is that fatigue supplies an imbalance between the excitatory impulses from the muscle spindle and inhibitory impulses from the Golgi tendon organ. This then results in localized muscle cramp.
To put it simplier, the localized muscle cramps occur when they are overworked and fatigued due to electrical misfiring from the nervous system to the muscular system.
One factor in considering the neuromuscular theory is that stretching and moving the muscle inside and outside of the competitive environment is the universal way to fix cramps. What stretching does is put the muscle on stretch. By achieving this it activates the muscle spindle within each individual muscle fibre and doing so will interfere with the misfiring of the EAMC’s impulses.
How to avoid cramping during exercise
Well at this point in time science cannot provide single answer to the solution of cramps, the best way for you to find your solution is through trial and error.
Suggestions to reduce the chances of getting EAMC’s
Here are some examples I have found helpful when training for my events:
• Train especially for the the event that induces muscle cramps. Make sure you combine the correct amount of volume and intensity to prepare your body for the event
• Pace yourself appropriately if you overload your muscles too much too soon then you will
struggle to improve your muscle condition to prevent cramping.
• Taper to the event – make sure that when its time for you to compete you are fresh, ready and good to go.
• Make sure you are adequately fuelled with a wealth of carbohydrates and during the activity avoid becoming glycogen depleted External strategies
Other strategies that have been used by professional athletes to help them find the solution to their cramps include:
• Sports massage
• Warm up (properly)
• Mental relaxation techniques
Albeit the solution to exercise induced cramps are far from complete. I cannot say there is one definite answer but if you try a combination of all of these you will see a difference in your EAMC’s. But I hope the suggestions raised in this blog will help you narrow down the cause of your cramps.