What Causes Cramps and How Can You Fix Them

Sep 14, 2010 | fitness

Something I get asked often about is dealing with cramps. Specifically here I am talking about cramps that develop while exercising. These are known as Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC).  They are quite a common condition and can be defined as “painful, spasmodic and involuntary contractions of muscles that occur during or immediately after exercise”. Common areas for cramps are generally the foot and legs.

It is not well understood as to why they develop and what to do to minimise the risk of getting a cramp?

What Causes Cramps?

Traditional thought was they they are caused by dehydration, hot conditions or low electrolyte elves (sodium and magnesium). The old school theory dates back around 100 years to excessive sweating caused by hot or humid conditions led to depleted electrolytes and this caused muscle cramps.

The problem with this sweeping theory is that no research since has been able to prove this to be true and this type of process would lead to an effect in all muscles , where most cramps are very localised in nature.

Some new research points to a new hypothesis that they could be caused by altered neuro-muscular control caused by local muscle fatigue developing.

This new school of thought has been developed by some research over the last decade at the University of Cape Town, one of the leading centres of research into endurance exercise in the world. The research was recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

They have been able to pin point that cramping can be caused by changes to the nervous system and how it “talks” with the muscular system, especially when the muscular system is fatigued due to intense exercise. The communication into the muscular system is impeded and if exercise continues then a cramp can develop.

The exact cause of cramps is still not proven but this research does give us a clearer picture of the potential causes. Interestingly I rarely get any mention of cramps from my Olympic athletes, who train  for long periods very regularly (so their bodies are used to this in training and competition). I get asked about it more from recreational exercisers or youth and masters athletes who train irregularly  often but still race at high intensity.

What to do if you get a cramp?

They were very clear in their recommendations here- STRETCH!

Gentle passive stretching will help to “reboot” the local nerves and their interactions with the muscles by allowing it to return to normal functioning.

Risk Factors that could increase cramping:

  1. Increased exercise intensity
  2. Increased duration of exercise
  3. Low energy levels (high fatigue)
  4. Inadequate preparation
  5. Challenging environmental conditions
  6. Repeated muscle contractions in short range
  7. Genetic predisposition or past history

How to avoid cramps:

  1. Good hydration
  2. Keep electrolyte levels within a normal range
  3. Ensure  you are well fuelled with good carbohydrates
  4. Exercise at an appropriate intensity
  5. Warm up adequately
  6. Consider training at a similar intensity and for duration of competitions.

Do you get cramps when exercising? What have you noticed helps or hinders them?

Editor’s Note: This post is written by our elite performance specialist Andrew Verdon. Andrew has completed a Diploma in Exercise Science, Certificate IV in Fitness, Level 1 Strength Coaching Qualifications with ASCA. He is currently completing a Post Grad Diploma in Applied Science (Elite Sports Training) and will go on to do a Masters in Recovery.



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