Cramps… Why?

You get cramps, I get cramps, professional basketball players named Lebron get cramps. It’s an unpleasant part of life and often comes coupled with a rigorous workout. Whether they happen in the middle of the night or in the middle of your gym day, cramps arrive unexpected and unwelcome.

Ultimately, the cause of common cramping is some kind of imbalance. That sounds borderline “new age-y”, but it’s an accurate way to describe and explain the condition, which is otherwise very difficult to explain. There is something not quite right, something missing, and your body is reacting the best way it knows how - freaking out!

isolated cramping from exercise is not itself cause for alarm.
However, cramps could also be an early symptom of bigger
potential problems such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

One major culprit of cramping is a lacking of nutrients, specifically electrolytes. Your muscles need certain minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium for proper function. If you’re deficient in any of these or if they’re out of proportion to each other, it’s going to cause your muscles to spasm because… well, it’s not entirely clear, or at least it’s not something that can be easily understood without some medical school training. 

Another cause of cramping (and muscle soreness) is a lack of glycogen, which is a large component of muscle’s stored energy - “fuel for the machine”, you might say. Glycogen is what you’re talking about when you talk of “carb loading” - you’re building up stored energy for later use. And if your body doesn’t have an adequate supply of easily accessed energy during exercise and also during recovery, there will be a painful price to pay.

After strenuous activity you should be experiencing some level of soreness and the possibility of cramping is increased due to the build up of lactic acid in the muscle. Lactic acid isn’t actually a bad thing, it’s a byproduct from your body producing energy for your muscles and it’s a perfectly healthy process. The more rigorous the activity, the more lactic acid produced, the more severe the “burn”. Excess lactic acid does work its way out of the muscles in a relatively short amount of time, however there may be inflammation in the muscle that could exacerbate potential cramps.

So how does one avoid cramps? Definitely, most important, stay hydrated. Be sure to take in fluids during workouts. If you’re sweating a lot, drink more water. Obvious, right? Also, avoid holding your breath during exercise; Your body needs oxygen and will suffer if it is depleted. Thirdly, be sure to eat healthy and include foods high in potassium in your diet. Raisins, for example, are loaded, so be sure to have some on hand for convenient pre- and post-workout snacking. Finally, it is not altogether important to stretch BEFORE exercise, although a warm up routine is a good idea, however stretching post workout can help stave off muscle cramps. 

If you’re suffering from cramps during or just after your workout, try to stay cool and take in fluids. If you’re having leg cramps, stay on your feet and keep walking as you rehydrate. A little stretching and some massage can help, but take it lightly if you’re already experiencing cramping. If the cramping is pretty bad you can take some non-prescription ibuprofen or naproxen, which are anti-inflammatory pain relievers.

Take note that isolated cramping from exercise is not itself cause for alarm. A little pre-workout care, as highlighted above, is simply needed to prevent future episodes. However, cramps could also be an early symptom of bigger potential problems such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Pain, light headedness and nausea are causes for concern during exercise and not, as some gym trainers might say, a sign of a good effort. So if you’re working out in a hot environment, be extra careful to stay hydrated and not overdo things so you can avoid cramps as well as more serious problems.