For all you physically active individuals, I am sure you've experienced this at one point in time. You are out there on a hot day, putting in a good workout, and then all of a sudden the calf tightens up, maybe the hamstring, or how about the foot. After some light stretching and some fluids, you breathe a sigh of relief. The cramp disappears and you tell yourself that you are never going to let that happen again. And then, what do you know, you fast forward a few days, weeks, or months and it happens once again!
Prevailing wisdom suggests that dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are the main cause of the exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC). Just ask Gatorade. They have made a career off of this concept. BUT, after further review (I sound like an NFL official coming out of the replay booth), it looks like this may not be the case. EAMCs are a painful condition that will hinder performance. The effected muscle will experience painful, spasmodic, involuntary contractions during or immediately post-exercise. In some populations, EAMC has been shown to be as high as 37%. That is a staggering number, and you would think, after all of these years, that there would be more definitive information on the topic of prevention. Unfortunately, this area is lacking!
Almost all theories identify muscular fatigue as a direct cause of EAMC. Muscle fatigue is currently understood to be a major factor involving EAMC. But first, we need an understanding of muscle spindles and the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO). As a muscle is stretched, the spindle reflexively contracts a muscle. The GTO reacts as an "emergency stop" button. At a certain intensity, the GTO will shut down an activity to prevent injury. As a muscle fatigues, there is an increase in muscle spindle activity and decreased Golgi Tendon Organ activity. That increase in muscle spindle activity could be that twitching you feel in your muscle as it tightens up!
One of the most likely causes of fatigue during competition is improper training. This includes working at, or close to race pace during periods of your training and tapering accordingly. If you enter a race or competition with pre-existing muscular fatigue, you are making a terrible mistake. Tapering is crucial. You want to be fully recovered for the race. With recovery comes nutrition. You want to be fueled up for the race. There has been a connection between dehydration, electrolyte depletion, and cramping for over 100 years. Studies have been conducted and they prove one thing: electrolyte and carbohydrate supplementation have been shown to extend time until onset of EAMC. If you can push that onset of cramping back far enough, it may not occur during your race. So with that being said, you have nothing to lose if you fuel up accordingly, and possibly something to lose if you don't. Hydrate and be mindful of your electrolyte levels.
The human body is a complex machine. It is extremely rare to have a simple cause-and-effect relationships for things like EAMC. For example, if muscle cramps were caused strictly by fluid and electrolyte depletion, then stretching should have no effect on alleviating muscle cramps. Simply consuming some Gatorade should do the job. But yet, passive stretching does! So what do you do:
Need help with the dynamic warm-up? Leave a message in the comment box including your e-mail address and I will send SEVEN exercises to do prior to the race. This will take under 5 minutes to complete and will get your body ready for anything!
Chris is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He has recently served as a high school football and wrestling coach. Chris loves swinging kettlebells around, watching football and reading books!