Fitness Articles

How to Crush a Workout Cramp

Stop Muscle Spasms and Start Moving Again

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You're killing your workout, feeling strong and confident. Maybe you're three miles into a brisk walk, a few meters into your swim routine or in the home stretch of a 5K run. Your heart and lungs are cooperating, your form is on point and you feel like you could do this all day—until a sudden pain cramps your style. No matter how fit you are, a muscle cramp can threaten to bring even the best workout to a screeching halt…unless you show that unwelcome spasm who's boss.  
 
The four main types of muscle cramps are "true" cramps, tetany, contractures and dystonic cramps. The ones that strike during exercise are classified as true cramps. According to MedicineNet, these affect one muscle or a group of muscles that work together to perform a specific motion. When the cramp occurs, the muscle fiber has shortened and then failed to stretch back out, resulting in that painful tightening you feel. Any muscle can be seized by a cramp, but the abs, hamstrings, quadriceps and arms tend to be most vulnerable.
 
Cramps can flare up in the beginning, middle or end of your workout, or even several hours after you've showered and gone about your day. I was once seized by an uber-painful hamstring cramp in the last few miles of a half-marathon, after an hour of pain-free, well-hydrated running. Cramps follow their own secret set of rules—but that doesn't mean you're powerless against them.
 
For a long time, sports trainers and athletes believed that cramps were caused by dehydration and/or electrolyte loss. It seemed logical—after all, when we sweat, we lose water as well as electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride. But a growing number of experts are claiming there's no clear evidence that dehydration causes exercise-induced muscle cramps. In fact, in one study, participants who were significantly dehydrated showed no increase in cramping.
 
So, what does cause cramping? It's an oft-debated question with no clear, single answer, but research has shown that it's likely linked to muscle fatigue. When a muscle is used for a long period of time in a repetitive motion—say, running a marathon or hiking up a mountain—its reflex control can get thrown out of whack, causing it to start twitching uncontrollably instead of contracting and releasing in a normal, healthy rhythm.
 
What to Do When a Cramp Strikes
 
Although there's no single guaranteed way to ward off muscle cramps, these solutions have shown to be effective in speeding up the recovery process.
  1. Stop. Resist the urge to "power through" the cramp and continue with your activity. During my race cramp, I kept running for another half-mile or so, believing I could "will" the cramp away, but this only increased the burning pain (and likely extended my total downtime once I eventually stopped).
  2. Stretch and massage. Gently stretch and manipulate the affected area to help coax the muscle out of its hyperexcited state. If the muscle is still hard or tight after repeated stretching sessions, consider getting a professional massage.
  3. Drink pickle juice. It might not be your drink of choice, but the salty fluid has been shown to stop muscle cramps in their tracks within seconds. In a study published in the American College of Sports Medicine, people who drank pickle juice recovered from cramps 37 percent faster than those who drank just water.
  4. Stay hydrated. Although many believe that lack of fluids isn't to blame for cramping, dehydration can cause muscles to fatigue faster, which can trigger a spasm. Since hydration is beneficial, it's in your best interest to stay watered down during workouts.
  5. Heat it up. According to WebMD, heat therapy can be effective in loosening and soothing cramped muscles (while cold therapy is best for injury and inflammation). Try applying a heating pad or warm, wet cloth to the affected area. For longer-term treatment, soak in a hot tub or shower.
  6. Try acupressure. Based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) therapy, acupressure is a natural way to help release muscle tension, improve circulation and promote relaxation. 


How to Prevent Future Cramps
 
To avoid getting sidelined by spasms in the future, follow these best practices for cramp prevention.
  1. Don't skip the warm-up. If you're already a seasoned athlete, it may be tempting to fast-forward right to the main event, but the warm-up is essential for all fitness levels. In addition to preventing injury, warming up increases circulation, primes your heart for exercise and gets you mentally ready to work out. To warm up, perform a lower-intensity version of your planned activity. Some examples include walking, marching in place, arm circles and light jogging.
  2. Start and end with stretching. The benefits of pre- and post-workout stretching include reduced muscle tension, increased circulation, better range of motion in the joints and improved overall muscle coordination. Plus, it just feels good—and can serve as a brief period of relaxation or meditation. If you struggle with chronic cramping, consider trying a yoga class.
  3. Train properly. In all likelihood, my race was derailed by cramping due to insufficient training: My muscles simply weren't ready for that distance. To prevent spasms, make sure your body is fully prepared for what you're demanding of it, particularly if you're running a long distance.
  4. Get acclimatized to the environment. Running or exercising in a climate that's hotter, colder, drier or more humid than you’re used to can trigger cramping. If you're planning a race, hike or other activity in a new locale, give yourself time to get comfortable with the elements before the main event.
  5. Jump ahead of cramps. Plyometrics—exercises that involve jumping, hopping or skipping—have been shown to increase muscle strength and coordination, which could reduce cramp susceptibility.
  6. Boost your vitamins and minerals. Potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and other vitamins and minerals are essential to healthy muscle activity. In addition to taking a daily multi-vitamin, you should adhere to a healthy diet that provides the recommended amounts of these important nutrients.
Have you ever experienced cramping during exercise? What strategies proved effective in stopping the spasms?

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About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.