Here’s How to Avoid Muscle Cramps When Working Out
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your muscles from putting the brakes on your good physical fitness intentions – steps based on new research that challenges long-held assumptions on causes and cures.
The Charley Horse – a Common Malady
“I too had my season finale ‘A’ race, a Half-Ironman, absolutely demolished by severe cramps for two consecutive years,” says orthopedic surgeon Ronald E. Michalak, M.D., FAAOS, MS, also known as Dr. Ron, medical consultant and blogger for IceSpike.com. After two years of dedicated training, only to perform worse than he had at his first Ironman attempt three years ago “was quite depressing. I had achieved the appropriate swim-bike-run volumes. I had several blood tests to investigate, all with normal results.”
What could have gone wrong for Dr. Ron, and for others whose efforts to push themselves are thwarted by muscle cramping? “Walking the last 11 miles of what was supposed to be my crowning achievement gave me ample time to strategize about how to prevent this from happening ever again,” he says.
The next day he began his research.
Causes of Exertion-Related Muscle spasms
- Some experts contend that insufficient pre-workout stretching of muscles is to blame, even as others say that over-stretching is the cause.
- Another theory is that the emotional exuberance or anxiety that accompanies a competitive event causes muscles to “over-fire” and thus cramp up.
- “Electrolyte imbalances and dehydration have often been blamed but the anecdotal evidence is quite weak,” Dr. Ron says. “In more recent (and more scientifically rigorous) studies, these have not been supported.”
Muscle Spasm Solutions
Because the causes are not clear cut, solutions to exertion-related muscle spasms have proven elusive and often contradictory. But new studies and new data are offering solutions worth trying, as are some anecdotal remedies worth discussing. If one does not work for you, another might.
Given the recent research that sheds new light on the subject, we’ll start there. Dr. Ron advises that, “Prevention of cramps requires dedicated strength training and plyometrics.” Plyometrics – exercises based on maximum-force exertion in spurts to increase both speed and power – will “help to prevent the neuromuscular fatigue that leads to cramps.”
According to Dr. Ron, “Aerobic exercise (running, cycling, swimming, etc.) is not an efficient way to build strength. Adding more miles to your training schedule (i.e. over distance training) may help to prevent cramps on race day, but may also put you at risk for other overuse injuries and suboptimal race performance.”
Instead, Dr. Ron advises appropriate strength training and judicious use of plyometrics to reduce your risk of injury and prevent cramps. “My cramps were focused in my hamstrings. I added suspension training and plyometric exercises specifically targeting hamstring strength three times per week that winter during the off-season. I was shocked at how weak my hamstrings actually were at the start of this program despite training over 500 hours the previous year (mostly swim-bike-run),” he admits.
“I kept up this strength program once weekly during the high-volume summer peak season. The next year, despite being two years older and lower training volume, I went back to the same Half Ironman, got my PR (personal record), and had no cramps – Redemption was mine!”
Dr. Ron has continued this strengthening routine and has since made the jump to the full Ironman 140.6 distance successfully, and “as part of the 79 percent of finishers who did NOT cramp.”
More Solutions and Links to Help You Resolve Muscle Spasm Issues
His other recommendation: “Work with a local coach or trainer who may be able to help with this type of program if you are not well acquainted with this plyometric type of exercise as improper technique or progression can lead to injury.”
For more info and solutions or recommendations related to muscle cramping:
- A 2002 study Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes
- A 2004 study Serum electrolyte concentrations and hydration status are not associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in distance runners
- A 2007 PubMed article Muscle cramping in the marathon
- A 2008 paper Muscle cramping in athletes--risk factors, clinical assessment, and management
- A 2009 review Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)--altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion?
- A 2010 report Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention
- An article on How to avoid cramps with solutions including training, tapering, and pickle juice
- Cramping My Style - An article for long distance runners on minimizing cramps