Muscle cramps

You’ve probably experienced muscle cramping during a race or one of your longer workouts especially if run in high temperatures. A cramp is a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction that causes more or less intense pain depending on the type of muscle involved. Cramps appear very often in the latter stages of a race, either because you have expended all your energy or because you have to deal with other climatic and metabolic situations from which it is difficult to defend yourself. The only thing you can do is to prevent them by anticipating the problem. This is because once you get the first cramp it then becomes almost impossible to continue the race with the same intensity. In some cases you may be forced to walk or even to withdraw. There are still some aspects to be investigated and well understood on cramps, but the information already available allows you to manage each run well to avoid or at least to limit the occurrence of such a negative event.

What are they?

Cramps occasionally affect most athletes (on average 2 out of 3) but only a small proportion suffer them intensely and disablingly in terms of performance. This is a common phenomenon in most sports but particularly in the running activity and all endurance sports in general. The reason is easy to understand: running is an activity that has a medium to long duration and also involves the continuous and systematic repetition of certain movements that always use the same muscles.

Although there are still aspects to be investigated about their causes, several scientific studies have provided some answers. The first cause of cramping, the one most common in all endurance athletes, is dehydration. In an endurance activity-whether race or training-you can get to lose through sweating even more than a liter of fluid every hour. In certain situations you don’t have the ability to replenish all the fluids lost. Through sweating we not only lose fluids but also electrolytes. The salt that is lost to a greater extent is sodium. This is why sodium is present in so many sports supplements, and taking it allows you to replenish it at least in part, because it reduces fluid loss and promotes the absorption of carbohydrates ingested during the activity itself. In addition to sodium, all other mineral salts are lost in varying percentages. Electrolytes are essential for muscle function because they promote muscle contraction and relaxation, and a deficiency can cause involuntary contractions. Therefore, it is very important to replenish along with fluids the right amount of mineral salts. Use products you can easily find on the market to have water, salts and carbohydrates available in the same water bottle. When you are in a competition like a marathon, where you cannot have your own water bottle, choose gels that contain sodium in addition to sugars. When sweating is intense, water alone is not enough to restore your body’s hydrosaline balance. When the temperature is high and weather conditions are conducive to high sweating you need to pay close attention to the quantity and quality of fluids you drink.

Not only dehydration among the causes

Cramps occur even if you are not dehydrated and do not have electrolyte imbalances. In these cases, it appears that cramping is due toaltered muscle control. It is a problem that affects not only athletes but all situations where a muscle is used in the same way for so many times. In this case it is a “malfunction” of the nerve ending that connects the muscle to the central nervous system. Fatigue of the involved muscle progressively leads to difficulties in controlling the contractions of the muscle.

If you often suffer from cramps during sports activity, the first thing you need to understand is what the origin of the cramps is, to identify the best system to avoid them. Keep in mind that cramps can occur both during and after physical activity.

If your cramps are related to muscle overload and fatigue, you can intervene by limiting potentially triggering situations: for example, you can increase the amount of time you spend stretching and strengthening your muscles. Stronger and at the same time more elastic muscles reduce the likelihood of an overload cramp. If the problem persists, you could reduce the duration or intensity of your workouts–both are risk factors. If the frequency of cramps increases, then a solution must also be found for the resulting muscle discomfort, which may last a few days. When they occur, you can take immediate action by trying to stretch and massage the muscle involved. You can try contracting the antagonistic muscle (e.g., contract the hamstring to stop a quadriceps cramp). If the contraction does not stop, also try ice.

Adjust your workouts

These types of cramps related to muscle fatigue can be reduced by improving the quality of your workouts. You need to increase your endurance and strength to make sure that you prolong your ability to maintain a constant level of muscle contraction. If, on the other hand, the cramps originate from electrolyte imbalance, it is easier to intervene to solve the problem: drinking regularly and consuming fruits and vegetables, which in addition to hydrating you are rich in minerals, help in this regard. You must consume supplements that contain sugar and sodium and replenish fluids as soon as the first cramps begin to set during activity. Always maintain hydrosaline balance before, during, and after exercise. Never drink too much water because it may further dilute the residual amount of sodium you have left. Likewise, you should not drink solutions with too high a concentration of sugar because it slows down the absorption of fluids.

If you periodically suffer from cramping, try to understand what the root cause might be and then take action to get it under control, thereby also improving your performance in longer, more demanding races.


(main image credit: Maridav on


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