You've probably been stopped in your tracks by a spasm the size of a golf ball in your calf, a charley horse, or a tremor that constricts your hamstrings. Like side stitches, muscle cramps are a reality for many runners, lifters, cyclists, and swimmers alike.
The main difference between side stitches and cramps is that the latter occurs in smooth involuntary muscle (more specifically, your diaphragm) while more common muscle cramps occur in large skeletal muscle that's under your voluntary control (i.e. your leg muscles). The cramps are sudden, painful, and can really throw off a workout (or your sleep). Of course, you know this if you're prone to muscle cramping. So, why do they happen in the first place?
"Cramps are not well understood, but there is research to show that cramps occur from changes in motor neuron excitability or random discharges of motor nerves that cause sudden—sometimes very painful—involuntary contraction of a muscle," says Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N, endurance athlete and owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition.
"Athletes who experience cramps may experience them during exercise (exercise-induced cramping) due to muscular fatigue or shortened muscle contraction (a.k.a. tight muscles and limited range of motion)," Sumbal says.
For expert-backed tips on preventing muscle cramps, alleviating pain when they strike, and keeping them from happening again, read on.
1. Do a proper warmup
Always warm up with a combination of dynamic and static stretching (Read: Warmup Tips: How to Use Static and Dynamic Stretching to Become a Better Athlete). When you incorporate both types of stretching into a full warmup routine with aerobic components and drills, you optimize your exercise performance and reduce your chances of straining muscles. Plus, by priming your major muscle groups—flooding the areas with blood—you prepare them for higher intensity movements. In short, you're not shocking your system and causing muscles to lock or tighten due to stress.
2. Keep carbs handy—and hydrate!
Sumbal says to stay well hydrated during the day before you work out, during the workout (if you're logging a good distance—and even more so if it's hot), and after. Dehydration can play a role in muscle cramps because when you lose fluids and electrolytes like like sodium and potassium, you disrupt the balance of fluids in your body. In turn, this increases the excitability of your nerves and prompts your muscles to spasm. You should also consider drinking an electrolyte-carb beverage for workouts over 75 minutes, she says.
"You need to use sport nutrition (carbohydrate-based products) during long workouts when fatigue is most likely to occur," Sumbal says. This isn't necessary for a 5 or 10K, but if you're logging 10+ miles, consider storing these foods and performance products to boost your energy and power you through the finish line. This is especially important for triathletes or people competing in endurance events like IRONMAN or Ragnar races who want to avoid the muscle cramping, stomach pain, and exhaustion symptomatic of bonking.
"We not only lose fluids when we sweat—which can be replaced with beverages—but the levels of several electrolytes that are essential to fluid balance and neuromuscular functioning also decrease—especially sodium," says Beatriz Lara, a lead researcher from the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Camilo José Cela University. Her research suggests endurance athletes like marathoners can lose liters of fluids during a race, and if those fluids aren't replenished, the excessive electrolyte loss can cause a condition called hyponatraemia. When your sodium concentration is less than 135 mmol/L in the blood it can lead to decreased or loss of consciousness—and worse. (That could make those muscle cramps seem like a walk in the park, huh?
3. Improve your range of motion
"Work on mobility to improve your range of motion—especially if you're commuting a lot or working a desk job," Sumbal says. Mobility drills really help open up tightness so you can settle into movements that might otherwise strain your muscles—causing them to spasm and cramp.
If you're looking for a routine that will build muscle, improve mobility, and bulletproof your joints, try The Perfect Workout. If you want fitness experts' secrets on improving total body mobility.
4. Relax your body
It's difficult during high-intensity movements like sprinting, but try to relax your body when you're training. Mid-run try to think about relaxing your face, unclenching your jaw, and keeping your fingers from forming a fist. It may seem nit-picky, but you're wasting energy and putting unnecessary force on small and large muscles throughout your body. "Many newbie swimmers suffer from hamstring and calf cramps from being too tense in the water," Sumbal adds. "Yoga may help with this," she says, since the practice teaches you to zero in on tasks that challenge your strength and flexibility all while keeping that mind-body connection.
5. Take it slow
"Progress slowly with your training," Sumbal suggests. If you're training for a marathon, you can't jump from logging three miles a day to 12. Your muscles won't have the time to cope, so you can expect straining and cramps. "Don't take any shortcuts and progress your training gradually so you adapt overtime."
6. Foam roll before and after workouts
"Most athletes will benefit from light foam rolling and mobility work before and after workouts," Sumbal says. Loosen up your hip flexors, which are notoriously tight, and break up any knots in your hamstrings, quads, and calves. You'll be markedly more comfortable and relaxed by taking the time to roll out tightness and soreness beforehand, and even more benefits if you do it after as well.
7. Massage the muscle
"If a cramp occurs during a workout, stop immediately and try to relax," Sumbal recommends. Never try to push through the cramp because you'll only aggravate it more. "You can lightly massage the muscles to relax the contraction," she adds. Light stretching will help, too. Just don't over-do it since that can cause the onset of new cramps.
8. Strengthen your small and large muscles
"Strength training is important; you can strengthen the muscles so they do not fatigue as quickly," Sumbal says. "Don't just target the major muscle groups, though," she adds. Foot strength is super important and causes a whole slew of problems—from the ground up. Work on picking up marbles with your toes or grabbing a towel and picking it up and dropping it down from side to side.
9. Check out breaking science
Sumbal says to check out the latest on a sports beverage that targets the nervous system called Hotshot. It's not yet released but is in development by Rod MacKinnon M.D., Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist and endurance athlete. MacKinnon set out to create a solution to muscle cramps after suffering a bout while kayaking. According to his site, "When under stressful conditions—such as fatigue, heat, severe electrolyte loss, reduced blood flow—nerve function can deteriorate and cause an excessive firing of motor neurons, which ultimately causes muscles to cramp. Our product’s blend helps stabilize the activity of the motor neurons and thereby prevents muscle cramps." (Though we’re not sure yet what the “blend” is, all of the active ingredients are included on the FDA’s list of ingredients that are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).)