Now if you are an athlete of any sort, you know how terrible the feeling of a muscle cramp is. There are tons of articles out there that might tell you quick fix ways to stop your cramping in the moment. I’ll tell you those plus how you might be able to fix muscle cramping and get rid of it once and for all. Now, it is not a promise that they will forever be gone if you do these things once, but if you continually use these methods and advice, it might lessen the risk of you getting a muscle cramp.
For me, I know I’ve had many cramps throughout all of my years of weightlifting and back in my high school basketball glory days. Had I know any of what I know today, I would probably have saved many days of frustration and coaches/friends yelling at me to push through. I have studied years to become an athletic trainer – those people who run on the field to help your favorite athletes when they get hurt and help rehab them following injury – so these are some things I have implemented with my athletes and in my own exercising.
What Is Cramping?
Cramping is the your body telling you either your muscles are overworked or in need of something. Sometimes, you might even get a muscle spasm when all you are trying to do is sleep, so you might not be overworked, but it is a signal from your body asking for help. If you’ve ever had a muscle cramp/spasm (and since you are reading this, you obviously have has some sort of cramping before) you know how painful these can be. Muscle cramps are sudden involuntary contraction of musculature in your body. We have 650 different muscles in our body, so unfortunately these contractions can happen anywhere, however it is most common to happen in the lower legs – your calf in particular.
Quick Little Anatomy Lesson!
Now I truly do not want to bore you with a whole detailed anatomy lesson, but understanding how your muscles and entire body works might help you out in the future, so here’s a quick synopsis.
So basically like I said there are 650 muscles in the human body. There are these thin layers of tissue that surround some of these muscles called fascia. (If you’ve ever had plantar fasciitis – this is a flare up of this tissue type). This thick tissue helps protect the body in many different aspects, even when you are working out, the body looks at this in the process as an attack. With that being said, this fascia can get “tight” just like how your low back or you feel your body getting tight. Whenever the fascia gets tight, this can cause inflammation and make it super painful but also inhibits the body from healing and sending the correct nutrients your body needs to fix the damage you’ve done on your muscle.
All muscles have these things called sarcomeres. Sarcomeres are the main contracting part of a muscle, this is the reason why your muscles contract. The way these work is by regulating both calcium and sodium to go throughout the muscle and allow for the smaller parts of the muscle to begin the contraction process. So in other words, sodium and calcium are big proponents of why your muscle will contract. Without having these two elements in your body, you wouldn’t be able to breathe even (yes your diaphragm is a muscle and it needs this to continue working). Thankfully, your body can produce these elements and you always have some supply of this, but they are also crucial to have in your diet.
These elements are considered an “electrolyte” which is basically a solution that helps facilitate electrical impulses (ie muscle contractions). These are CRUCIAL to your diet and well-being. Without electrolytes you are much more likely to get a muscle cramp and be very dehydrated. The easiest access to getting a good amount of electrolytes is by drinking Gatorade. Gatorade is filled with sugar and salt which is essentially everything that your body needs to recover with following a tough workout. Especially if you are a heavy sweater! Have you ever tasted your own sweat during a workout? No not in a weird way, but I know I have and it tastes super salty. That’s because you are actually sweating out salt which causes your body to have an electrolyte imbalance (seeing that you are losing – either slowly or quickly – an electrolyte).
Why Does This Happen?
There are many factors that could lead to your muscles cramping or spasming. All of these reasons mean one thing YOUR BODY NEEDS SOMETHING!! It could be that you are going above and beyond in your workout – which is great to a point! I’m not saying don’t push yourself, you aren’t going to get any sort of improvement on your physical health if you don’t push yourself. However, if this is becoming a constant thing – LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!
By trying some of these quick fixes/long run fixes, you will be able to know if this is something you can get under control or if these muscle cramps are calling out for you to get help from your doctor. Sometimes, cramps really can be indicative of a much larger problem so if these cramps have become more frequent or worse in pain or just have been lasting for far too long (like getting multiple cramps a day for a few weeks now) you should probably go see a doctor.
How Can I Prevent This?
Yes, the dreadful idea of stretching. I know you might have wanted to stay away from this, but by keeping your muscles flexible can stop the possibility of muscle cramps. Flexibility is important in every aspect of athletics. Not only can this help you prevent muscle cramps, but it can help you in whatever you might be training for. Even if you currently aren’t training for anything, stretching can help you reduce the risk of tearing anything or hurting yourself during activities.
My favorite way to explain this is by saying your body starts off like silly putty right? Imagine a baby’s little chunky legs and how squishy they are. Kids when they fall down they get right back up, it usually never hurts them! Because their muscles are loose and nothing is super tight because they’re always running around. During that sit and reach test I feel like every elementary school did, everyone got super high numbers for a kid. That’s because they are always playing and for some reason most kids can reach down and touch the ground while standing. Imagine doing that now, almost impossible if you’re not stretching. When you got to high school and weren’t as active as you used to be, that sit and reach just hurt.
But, as you get older your body is more so like a rubber band. They come in many shapes and sizes and the first time you stretch it can be extremely stiff and could even pop. This doesn’t mean you dont start stretching because of that fear, it means you start stretching so that this doesn’t happen and become something major while you are training. By starting to stretch you can get the rubber band used to this feeling and you lessen the risk of it popping on you the next time you do use it.
This is a simple stretch you can do every time you are about to work out, this can help stretch a lot of the musculature in your thighs.
Though it can be a pain in the butt (sometimes literally) it’s important for you to start the stretching if you haven’t yet. I promise I have seen some gnarly crap during my time as an athletic trainer that most likely could have been prevented by an athlete stretching properly, not skipping through it to get to practice or lifting. It will be much more uncomfortable if you don’t stretch and you become injured because of this. I mean come on, it doesn’t take that much time!
Warm Up / Cool Down
Warming up is super important for your muscles to get ready for the work out you are going to do. I am guilty most days of skipping my warm-ups (especially leg day – no thank you stairmaster) but the benefits to your body are tremendous. By warming up your muscles it’s similar to stretching those muscles to make sure they get loose and lessen the risk of them tearing.
When you warm up you are also getting the blood to the area you are about to work out. Whether this is resistance bands or arm bike for the upper extremity or biking, running, stairs for the lower body, this is really important to get the gains you are looking for. The increased blood flow can also cause a release of endorphins which is that good feeling you get from working out. By getting this in the beginning of your workout as opposed to the end, it’s more likely for you to continue and have a really good workout. Sure, there is the possibility of you getting tired before the workout but usually that rush of endorphins comes in and you get your second wind. Getting this second wind is a good way of knowing if you warmed up correctly as well. This means the blood is truly flowing and pumping efficiently through your whole body.
Cooling down is just as important as warming up. By stretching at the end of your workout you can keep that flexibility you’ve been working on. If you wait until the next day your body will be more sore because as opposed to a more controlled cool down, your body is deciding on if the workout is over throughout the day. Cooling down allows your body to get ahead of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) we all know as the thing that makes us sore. Now, it isn’t going to just take away soreness completely! No, lactic acid is not the thing we are trying to get rid of. Any amount of exercise will usually bring on DOMS, but cooling down can prevent some of these symptoms.
Cool downs always are relaxing for me as well. It is a way to reflect on my workout I just completed and keep the muscles loose. Going back to that idea of your body being a rubber band, the rubber band will act as a new one the next day. By restretching these muscles, you keep them active and keep the blood flowing to this area to try and help out the inflammation that is taking place in the muscle. Every workout does a bit of controlled damage to the muscle which then causes a response by the body to repair and recover. Cooling down can also bring the body back to homeostasis, meaning the body doesn’t think it needs to keep contracting these muscles. This can lessen the risk of the body getting these involuntary contractions through the rest of the day.
Now if you’ve been dealing with cramps for a while. There’s a chance you might just not be warming up efficiently! Thankfully there is a literal quick fix to that (I mean it lasts 20 min max). So if you have a heating pad at home, put that on the problematic area for about 15 minutes right before the workout. The main issue with this is there are a lot of warnings when it comes to heat. Mainly if you have any sort of condition in which you cannot feel temperature or it takes you longer to recognize temperature changes like with Raynaud’s Disease. If you have no issues with heat then slap on the heating pad or pack for 15-20 minutes to get that blood flowing to the area.
The main issue with heating is that it is through and through a quick fix. The blood flow to the area will only last about 15-20 minutes as well. So this is ideal to use right before a workout and starting your warm-up. By heating you are attracted the blood to the area from vasodilation – the body’s natural response to heat. This is the blood vessels widening to allow more blood to the area. Blood coming to the area allows for more calcium and sodium to also be retrieved, allowing your muscles to contract more efficiently. This also can reduce the chances that your body will try to keep contracting involuntarily thus stopping the muscle cramps.
Your body needs a break! Yes, physical health is important but so is mental health. By continuously working out and overtraining, your body will not be able to recover if you do not take personal days off. Take a day off, hang out with friends, eat that burger you’ve been craving at the restaurant, your body will not fall apart! I’m not saying eating burgers is the BEST recovery but I mean having your cheat meal on the same day as your rest day feels amazing (at least for me it does).
By relaxing and allowing your body to recover AT LEAST once a week, you will allow for the recovery process to aid in your muscle growth. By recovering, you are able to let your body’s natural healing process lead the way to getting rid of the inflammation of the muscle. By getting rid of that inflammation, it is also likely the body will relax and not have the muscle tight. The body’s main way of fighting off injury is through inflammation. So when you breakdown the muscle, the body starts the inflammatory process and tries to restore the tissue. This then makes the body start recruiting motor units to the site of the previous workout and this is why you are able to continue improving.This entire process is completely cyclical, but working out daily doesn’t allow your body to catch up completely.
By working out every day you can actual develop a syndrome called Overtraining Syndrome. This is a very bad process for your body to start. This is when your body actually starts reacting in the opposite way to exercise. The body begins to attack itself and has continuous inflammation and your mental health starts deteriorating. It is important to note that this syndrome happens only after months of high intensity exercise daily but it can take months or years to actually get under control. The main side effects are mood changes, stiff musculature, and nervous system changes. By having these nervous system changes this can cause the involuntary contractions begin, causing those painful muscle spasms. Just take a day off to get ahead of this.
For me, my recovery day always includes meal prepping and planning my workouts for the week. This allows me to relax a bit and I don’t feel as flustered making food because I don’t have a time limit to get to the gym and the household chores done. I then will usually find myself spending some time with my bed and Netflix to get my mind off of my upcoming week. For me at least, this usually reduces my anxious thoughts and allows me to make plans for the things I have ahead of me. This way I don’t feel as frazzled and have a clear and concise plan to attack my week. I also do an active recovery day too which means I will do yoga in order to make sure my muscles don’t stiffen up overnight, allowing them to stay at their peak flexibility level.
No, I don’t mean go online and find the newest fad diet or join Weight Watchers (is that still a thing?). But, actually watching what you eat. Caloric intake is a major factor in working out or just daily nutrition. Most people (especially Americans) LOVE sugar. Sugar is alright in moderation (don’t you hate that phrase?). But, sugar can be the devil. This is why the first thing you should change in your diet should be what you are drinking. Swap out the sugary drink for a water, but start slow. No one likes someone who’s withdrawing from sugar and caffeine let’s be real here. Sugar can make you feel bloated and also helps you gain weight quickly when not taken in moderation. Sure, sugar can get you that quick release of energy, but it is short lived compared to other natural sugars.
Water will always be one of the most important nutrients you can have as an athlete.
If you start with the kitchen in every single one of your workout plans, you are off to a great start. We’ve all heard of meal prepping right? The first step is getting the best containers for your meals and then going to work for an hour or two in the kitchen and being done for the whole week! By having your meals ready for the week, you are more likely to continue your healthy eating streak. That and it saves you time during the week from actually prepping every single day. This added time can relieve some stress and also allow you to do other household chores or maybe adds a little extra time exercising. But by prepping with proper nutrients, you are able to have your body functioning in the proper way. Without having your muscles contracting for no good reason.
I’m Cramping Now, What Should I Do?
At The Gym
Well first of all stop screaming, I know it’s hurting. When this happens you need to walk it off if it’s in the legs. Do the exact motion you were doing when it spasmed after walking it off. Though this may hurt at first, repeating the movement pattern you just did when it happened will force that muscle to contract and relax at a controlled rate. If this is more of a charlie horse situation, think of what that muscle does and then do it. The cramp can occur in a multitude of situations, but hopefully if you’re at the gym then you usually know what the muscle does. IF this is happening during a lift, stop lifting for a few minutes and regroup. Shake it off as they say.
The next thing you need to do is evaluate what you were doing. Sometimes a cramp can be telling you you are lifting too much/running too far/whatever you may be doing is just too much for your body to handle at this moment. Even if you have done this route or lift many times, you could just be overworking your body. With that being said, drop off some weight or start walking and take a second to breathe. Breathing will calm the heart down which then allows for your body to get back into a natural rhythm. Sometimes when your breathing calms down, your body will follow. Follow it up by drinking your water or (if available) Gatorade or an equivalent sports drink in order to replenish your body from possible dehydration/electrolyte imbalance.
I will say, sometimes breathing isn’t the only thing that will calm the muscle spasm down. I once during my undergrad had an athlete cramping following a football game (I had been up for about 18 hours at this point) so I told him to breathe it out during the cramp. I then immediately fell asleep on the bus (5 hour ride home) and woke up about an hour later to the athlete pissed off at me because the cramp was still there. In my defense I was exhausted but he also refused to stretch it out because it hurt so bad. One of my favorite products I give to my athletes is actually an electrolyte pill. So this skips the Gatorade and extra sugar and just gives you what your body needs.
Now you need to think about your different options. I know it is hard to think in the moment but this is your body asking for something that you have readily available in your house (I hope!). So just like I said above, start trying to recreate the motion you were doing when it cramps. Walk it off a little bit in the legs and start to get nutrients back in you. There is a chance you could be dehydrated, that is often times the reason for muscle cramps.
So go ahead and grab some water which I really hope you have easily accessible at home. Stock up your house with Gatorade and other salty drinks to try to replenish your electrolytes quickly. Like I said above I like those electrolyte pills mainly because if this happens to me when I sleep, the sugar from the Gatorade will keep me awake.
Following the cramp find some calcium rich food like almonds or broccoli and continue eating healthy. By filling your body with the correct nutrients you are setting yourself up for success. Continuously replenishing what your body is using will allow for it to work like a well oiled machine. This can cause the muscles to stop spasming through the day and keep everything functioning to the best of its ability.
Latest “Quick Fix” Trend
Let’s talk about pickle juice (brine) my friends. Yes, I do have my athletes drink this (at least when worst comes to worst). Though it sounds absolutely disgusting to some (myself included), it does have a ton of health benefits with it. You know why? Because of the salt in this liquid! Remember earlier when I explained the idea of electrolyte balance and how important it is to your body? Well brine helps to stop muscle cramps due to this exact reason.
Some experts say it is for another reason however. Cbs News reports that another reason as to why it might be helping athletes is due to the bitterness of the taste. The argument is that the reason a muscle cramp will stop is because it interrupts the central nervous system because of how bad it tastes. With that being said, obviously this does not sound very appealing. But I really have seen many athletes benefit from drinking this pickle juice. Plus it also allows you for a quick healthy snack by eating the pickle afterward!
Tips and Tricks!
Now if you hated stretching, or have that love hate relationship – this is extremely similar but also very helpful – you can’t completely run from it. Any foam roller you can find, they are relatively cheap, will help you out in the long run. Now I’m not going to say it’s going to be easier than stretching and quite honestly it is a bit more painful. Like I explained way earlier in this post, the fascia surrounding your musculature could possibly be tight. The nice thing about myofascial release is you can get this done in many different ways.
Foam rollers come in all sizes and shapes, some are even more dense than others. These are similar to the ones I use in my daily exercise. These are a variety of different densities.
There are foam rollers (pictured above), handheld rollers, and even trigger point balls. Foam rollers are my bread and butter. I use this for every athlete who walks into my athletic training room and for myself whenever I am having any sort of muscle soreness or feel tight. By rolling out all of your muscles (yes even your back can feel amazing afterwards) you are relieving some of those tight muscles and fascia that has been irritated.
I have also heard from a lot of my athletes that they enjoy trigger point balls. Now the idea of these is to place the ball directly on the area cramping. By putting it on the muscle cramp itself, you then add body weight to your own tolerance. By putting direct pressure on the muscle cramp, you are allowing the muscle to reduce in the contraction it’s currently in. There are many different types of myofascial release that you can perform yourself, so this is a good tool to use in your daily life.
Now if you aren’t excited to see that as a tip you must live a very lavish life. Just kidding! However, a massage is important to an athlete. Even if it is just once in a while, the fact of the matter is getting those muscles to relax is extremely important. So if you absolutely hate my last option, this is a nice relaxing option. By getting a professional to work out the knots in your muscles you should be able to start to soothe that rubber band back to its normal state. It’s similar to stretching with way less work from you.
Sure getting massages can be uncomfortable from a professional, but the benefits you have from getting the massage are incredibly. Whenever I get a massage I feel like a newborn baby. Having no knots in the muscle and getting rid of some of the DOMS always feels amazing to me. BUT, it even allows for your body to relax and lessen the tension in your muscles thus allowing the muscle spasming to stop. If you’re on a budget go ahead and buy one of those hand held massagers and get someone you love to get your back or even you can get your own legs. Relieving this tension is super important to your body.
Massaging a muscle cramp in the moment is also a nice way to stop it almost immediately. There are multiple trigger points in a muscle that once you hit the spot it will relax almost instantly. This is the body’s own defense mechanism. By hitting these trigger points you can soothe the muscle back to its non-contractile state and allow for more blood flow to the area as well. By getting the blood flow to the area you are once again getting all the nutrients needed for a normal muscle contraction. With the nutrients flowing nicely through the muscle, you then get the body to relax and start contracting in a normal fashion once again (like only when you need it to).
There are some pretty simple ways to quickly relieve that annoying cramp that keeps coming back. By massaging it you are able to bring the blood to the area and loosen that muscle. The main idea is to stay loose and flexible to try and overcome almost all muscle cramps. However, if that doesn’t work it is time to start looking at your diet. Like I said before, if you start doing all of these tips and tricks to start getting through all muscle cramps and it is not helping, it could be time to see a doctor. Involuntary contractions are painful and I know how frustrating it can be when it continues occurring, but you need to breathe! Breathing through it and replenishing nutrients is super important to stopping muscle cramps.
If somehow you’ve never had a muscle cramp before, congratulations! This means you most likely are doing all of these things on your own. But be wary, they can sometimes happen for no reason at all. It’s all about how you react and try to prevent them that will impact your future workouts. Muscle cramps can’t be completely cured, but they can occur way less often than what you might be dealing with now.
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