I knew better. As I’m walking up the steps to the cardio deck at my gym while fuddling with my mp3 player, I was thinking, “I don’t have time to warm up or stretch. I just want to get this run in.” I also had not been drinking water that morning and the last thing I had eaten was breakfast about 7 hours earlier. I am training for a 5K and a mini marathon, and needed to squeeze in a 5-mile treadmill run.
At the five-minute mark on the treadmill, I questioned myself, “Should I stop and stretch?” Na! Just git ‘er done. At 2 miles, I felt a slight twinge in my right calf. But, I bumped up the speed to 6.5. I then felt a cramp coming on, so I slowed down to a jog. Once the pain dissipated, I decided to go to 7.5. About 20 seconds later… KABLAM!!! It felt like someone cracked me in the back of my right calf with a baseball bat. The pain was excruciating. CRAMP! I hit the emergency stop button and the treadmill came to a rapid halt. Holy freakin’ crap! Ouch! I immediately started doing calf raises and stretches to try to get the cramping to stop. For the next ten minutes, I stretched and massaged my calf until the pain returned to a manageable level. I finished my cardio workout with 30 more minutes on the elliptical; my calf was still throbbing.
If you’ve never experienced a severe muscle cramp during a workout, in a game, or while running or biking, you’re lucky. Occasionally, I’ll have a client that gets a cramp while lifting weights. I guess I never really gave cramps much thought until my calf knotted up earlier this week. So, I decided to dig in a little further and find out what I could about cramps so they wouldn’t happen again and so I could maybe help you avoid this common problem.
What is a cramp?
A muscle cramp or spasm is when the muscle contracts (shortens) involuntary. This can be due to the muscle being over-worked and other conditions. Some cramps are so severe they can cause bruising and may not fully relax for up to seven days. Cramps are most common in the legs and feet and muscles that cross two joints (the calf muscle, for example). Cramps can involve part of a muscle or all the muscles in a group. The most commonly affected muscle groups are:
- Back of lower leg (calf/gastrocnemius).
- Back of thigh (hamstrings).
- Front of thigh (quadriceps).
- Feet, hands, arms, abdomen
What Causes Cramps?
While the exact cause of muscle cramps is still unknown, they seem to occur when there is:
- Altered neuromuscular control
- Electrolyte depletion
- Poor conditioning
- Muscle fatigue
- A new activity introduced
Extreme heat also seems to be a big catalyst for muscle cramps due to fluids and nutrients being lost through sweating. Sweat contains fluids as well as electrolyte (salt, potassium, magnesium and calcium). When these nutrients fall below certain levels, cramps and muscle spasms occur more frequently.
So, what do you do if a cramp either eases in or suddenly surprises you like mine did? First, immediately stop what you are doing so you don’t injure the muscle further. Just know that most cramps usually go away on their own within a couple of minutes. Here are a few general tips for typical cramps:
- Stop the activity that caused the cramp.
- Gently stretch and massage the cramping muscle.
- Hold the joint in a stretched position until the cramp stops.
If the cramp is severe, such as in the calf muscle, you may have to assist the cramp or contraction to finish. In my case, instead of stretching in the midst of the cramp, I should have forced the muscle to contract by grabbing the bottom of the calf muscle near the Achilles tendon with one hand and just below the knee with the other and pushed both hands toward each other, helping to shorten the muscle. Once the contraction completes, then stretch. Of course, I learned that little tip after the fact. I now know.
Besides stretching, a foam roller is another good way to roll out the muscle. I have been using another trainer’s foam roller but will be buying my own. This is known as self-myofacial release. Foam rolling breaks up muscle knots in our tissue and relaxes muscles that are overactive and tight so that they can be stretched more easily.
Precautions to Avoid Cramps
First, do what I say… not what I did! Here are a few tips from the medical and athletic communities:
- Improve your fitness to avoid muscle fatigue
- Warm up prior to exercise
- Hydrate before and during exercise
- Use a sports drink or electrolyte supplement before and during exercise in warm/hot environments
- Make sure you get enough Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium and Vitamin D through your nutrition or supplements
- Stretch regularly after exercise
Most muscle cramps are not serious. If your muscle cramps are severe, frequent, constant or of concern, see your doctor. And always check with your doctor before making drastic changes to your diet or before taking supplements of any kind.
To Your Health!
Just one day after I published this post, I decided I felt good enough to try a 4-mile treadmill run. This time, I ate a decent amount of carbohydrates the night before (last night). I got a decent amount of sleep. I ate a breakfast of oatmeal, banana and yogurt. I hydrated with about 16 oz. of water 30 minutes prior to my run and also took one Endurolyte tablet (an electrolyte supplement) before the run to help with cramping. I warmed up with a brisk walk and jog for about 6 minutes then stretched for 5 minutes. During the run, I drank about 8 0z of water at the 2-mile mark. I finished my 4-mile treadmill run in 42 minutes for a 10:30 mile. The run was very relaxed and I felt really good. No problems with calf cramping or with my previous right hip problem. Looking forward to another 4-mile training run on Monday.