When athletes cramp while racing or training, it’s often the large muscles in the legs that are first; your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Muscle cramps can be a painful experience that can slow you down or even prevent you from training or competing.
In the arena of sports performance, few topics are as common or carry such a wide range of theories as muscle cramping. So what causes muscle cramps, and what can we do about them? Unfortunately, the scientific community doesn’t have a definitive answer. It’s hard to believe that it’s 2014, and no one to date has figured out why we get muscle cramps. There are several theories on what causes cramping, but no one knows for sure. The best we can do as athletes is to review each cramping theory, compare them to our own personal experiences, and do our best to follow the prevention plan that works best for you.
- Theory: The leading theory today for muscle cramping is muscular fatigue. It is hypothesized that fatigue itself can cause an abnormal neuromuscular response and disrupt the balance between neural input and feedback to the system causing too much excitation of the muscle and not enough inhibition. Without that balance, a simple contraction overshoots what is needed leading to a cramp.
- Prevention: There are basically two ways to prevent cramping from fatigue: pacing and training. Pace yourself during the race to reflect the level at which you’ve trained. Riding harder in a race than you’ve ridden in training is a recipe for muscle cramps. A good tip is to hold back in the first half of your race to keep your muscles from becoming fatigued early. In training, don’t progress too fast, and always make sure you add in some training to emulate racing so that your body is ready on race day.
2. LOW ELECTROLYTES
- Theory: Muscle cramps are brought on by loss of sodium, chloride, calcium, potassium or magnesium in sweat during exercise. This is the oldest cramping theory, and recent evidence suggests it’s also the most unlikely cause of muscle cramping. However, as athletes it’s an easy one to fix.
- Prevention: Before a race or training, especially on hot days, add extra salt to your meals to top-up sodium levels. During the race or training, supplement with a solution like NuuN or Endurolyte capsules to replace electrolytes lost in sweat.
- Theory: Hyper-hydration is linked to the low electrolyte theory. Taking in too much fluid will dilute the sodium concentration in the blood.
- Prevention: Drink just the right amount of fluid and not too much. A good rule of thumb is to drink when you are thirsty.
- Theory: Dehydration may or may not cause muscle cramps. Avoiding dehydration is a no-brainer for athletes, as dehydration negatively affects race performance in multiple ways.
- Prevention: Maintain good hydration levels by drinking when you are thirsty. Use the color of your urine as an indicator as to whether or not you are properly hydrated. When properly hydrated, your urine should be clear, or very close to it. In general, the darker your urine, the more dehydrated you are.
5. PERSONAL SUSCEPTIBILITY
- Theory: Some people are simply more susceptible to muscle cramps than others. There’s evidence as well that susceptibility increases with age.
- Prevention: Regular stretching may help reduce the incidence of cramping. If you have frequent muscle cramps, you should stretch the affected muscles regularly.