If you suffer from leg cramps during exercise, you are not alone. This is a common occurrence and is known as exercise-associated muscle cramps, which usually occur in the calves. With proper prevention strategies, this is something that can be avoided.
Leg cramps are a common occurrence during sports and exercise activities.
Risks for developing leg cramps depend on the cause.
Causes can be related to electrolyte imbalances or altered neuromuscular control.
It is important to warm up your muscles before and stretch after physical activity.
What is a leg cramp?
Your legs are made up of muscles that have bundles and fibers that will contract and expand which allows movement in your legs. When you experience leg cramps, there is an involuntary tightening of one of your muscles. This usually occurs in your calf muscle.
Many athletes will experience leg cramps during or shortly after exercising. When this happens from exercise, it is known as exercise-associated muscle cramps. These cramps are painful and feel like a sudden tightening muscle or can be felt as a lump or twitching in your muscle.
Risk factors of leg cramps
Risk factors for experiencing muscle cramps while exercising will depend on different lifestyle factors including the following:
- High-intensity exercise
- Long duration of exercise
- Terrain exercise is done on
- Low levels of fitness
- High body mass index (BMI)
- Older age
- Exercising in cool temperatures
Other risk factors can depend on an underlying medical reason such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Kidney problems
- History of injury
Causes of leg cramps
Two main causes of exercise-induced muscle cramps are disturbances of hydration and electrolyte balance or altered neuromuscular control. The prevention or treatment of the muscle cramp is determined by the cause.
Hydration and electrolyte imbalance
Studies have shown that athletes who become dehydrated or have an electrolyte imbalance are at increased risk of experiencing leg cramps while exercising. When you exercise, your body produces sweat to help regulate your body temperature. Water is released through the skin glands when we sweat. This water will evaporate, or dry, and it helps cool our bodies.
When you exercise you sweat more, so more water is released from your body. While sweat is mainly made up of water, it also contains small amounts of electrolytes: sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
If plain water is consumed during or after exercise, it can dilute the electrolytes in your body further. Studies have shown that this can lead to muscle cramps when compared to athletes who consumed an electrolyte-infused drink during and after exercise.
Altered neuromuscular control
Altered neuromuscular control implies that the cause of the cramps is related to neurological reasons. Studies have shown that muscle cramps still occur with exercise with the absence of sweat and electrolyte imbalances. The cause was thought to be a sustained abnormal spinal reflex due to muscle fatigue.
Your spine contains many neurons, the cells responsible for sending and receiving messages to our muscles. When muscles experience fatigue, neurons send electrical signals to the muscles that cause them to contract. This result in a muscle cramp.
Treatment of leg cramps
The treatment of leg cramps will depend on the cause of the muscle cramps. If you are sweating a lot from exercise, it is important to stay hydrated. Because drinking only water during and after exercise can further dilute your electrolytes, drinking an electrolyte-infused drink can help prevent muscle cramping.
To prevent leg cramps, it is important to warm up your muscles and stretch before any physical activity. This can be achieved by walking or jogging before a workout. After your workout, it is important to stretch your legs to prevent your muscles from tightening when they cool down which can lead to leg cramps. Magnesium may also be used to prevent leg cramps.
Magnesium plays an important role in muscle function. When magnesium levels are low, it can cause an increase in muscle contraction, causing leg cramps. Studies have shown that when magnesium is taken in healthy people, it can help reduce the chance of leg cramps from occurring.
It is important to note that each person has unique electrolyte needs. It is not recommended to randomly start taking supplements. You should contact your healthcare provider to determine what is recommended for you.
Nutrition is important in preventing leg cramps and poor nutrition habits are often the cause of leg cramps in athletes. It is best to maintain a balanced diet with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, milk, yogurt, and lean meats or protein. This is especially important if you are going to be doing a high-intensity exercise. It is important to fuel your body with the correct nutrition before exercising and then again 30 minutes after exercising if you are going to be working out for one hour or more at a time.
- National Library of Medicine. Muscle Cramping Druing Exercise: Causes, Solutions, and Questions Remaining.
- National Library of Medicine. Water intake after dehydration makes muscles more susceptible to cramps but electrolytes reverse that effect.
- Michigan State University. Is sweating good for you?
- Harvard Health Publishing. How to get rid of muscle cramps in your legs.
- BMC Nutrition Journal. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multimeter study assessing the efficacy of magnesium oxide monohydrate in the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps.
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- UWHealth. Leg cramps and the nutrition connection.