Muscle Cramps : What Are They All About & Why Do We Get Them?

There are a select few people out there who will have read this title and immediately oppose it because they have never fallen victim to cramp. This may seem hard to believe for some of you out there, but the truth is ‘cramp’ doesn’t effect everybody, at least not to the point where they notice it and are rolling around in agony! Cramp is a funny thing (although when you’ve got it ‘funny’ is not the word you’d think of to describe it), it’s funny because it can come on from absolutely nowhere, and it’s one of those pains that brings grown men and women to crying out…nasty nasty nasty cramp!

What is cramp?

The exact cause of cramps is still relatively unclear, but what is known is that the calf muscles are most susceptible, although the body isn’t discriminate as it will attack any muscle it see’s fit…right down to your little toe! Overexertion and working a muscle to its absolute limit is usually the main cause of cramp, so it’s thought that the associated effects of overexertion such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and mineral deficiencies are probably major factors in its onset. What is widely accepted is that athletes suffer cramps when exhausted and dehydrated, so ensuring fluid and electrolyte levels are optimal is vital. A good rule of thumb is to get 6-8 gulps of fluid every 15-20mins of exercise, and ensuring to replace losses immediately after exercise (take your weight before and after exercise to get a good estimation of losses). Look to use a sports/ isotonic drink that contains at least 110mg of sodium per serving, particularly if it’s hot or you’re training for longer than 60mins.

Picking up the pace

One of the most common times for cramp to attack is during exercise, most people can feel the uncontrollable surge of a cramp nearing the end of a match, competition or event i.e. when they are heavily fatigued or poorly nourished. So why then do cramps occur when we are comparatively rested and laying in bed at home? Well, one would assume that this is because of electrolyte and hydration imbalances again, but this is also not fully understood. Many a cramp occurs in bed the evening or day after heavy exercise almost certainly because of inadequate recovery and rehydration.

Poor sodium & potassium balance

Potassium and sodium are key players in maintaining the bodies water balance, and similarly the electrical charges they help to conduct around the body are integral to muscle contraction and relaxation…see the link here? We lose both sodium and potassium when we sweat, so it’s important to get adequate amounts of both via our diet. However the average UK diet is disproportionately high in sodium, meaning potassium often struggles to keep up, consequently imbalances might well occur. Many of the foods we eat on a daily basis either naturally contain sodium or have it added to them, so be sure you get ample amounts of potassium rich foods such as pinto, kidney beans, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, dried fruit and milk to keep levels optimal for exercise. It’s important to space the consumption of these foods out because a very large intake in one sitting can be harmful to the body.

Don’t be over restrictive

One of the most common misconceptions is that everybody should indiscriminately cut down on their salt intake. Yes salt can be problematic if consumed in excess, but the athletic community out there are different to the lay public, and it is the lay public that these guidelines are targeted at. Athletes should be aware of the amount of sodium and potassium they are consuming, particularly in the warmer climates and time of months. The general public who have a family history of hypertension and heart disease (for example), and who are overweight and trying to lose weight should be less liberal with sodium, so not actively adding salt to meals etc.

Cramps are a very real and painful fact of sporting and fitness life, so do all you can to minimise their prevalence and the pain you endure when pushing your body to the limit!

About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!
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