A very common problem with people who exercise are leg cramps. Although most often believed not to be a serious illness, sometimes those cramps can be very painful and last for several minutes. The exact causes of leg cramps are unknown but most often dehydration or possible calcium, potassium and magnesium imbalances are mentioned. That’s why nutrition is considered to have an important role in preventing leg cramps. But recent studies show that drinking water, sports drinks and eating bananas probably won’t stop the cramps.

The conventional wisdom proven false

We need electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride to conduct nerve impulses to make our muscles contract regularly. When we exercise we loose a lot of water and electrolytes through sweat. That makes it harder to conduct nerve impulses from our brain throughout our body to our muscles. When this problem of communication occurs our muscles cramp. That’s the conventional theory about cramps. This explanation of muscle cramps is prevailing between medical and sports professionals although it has never really been proven. That’s why the usual recommendations for avoiding leg cramps are adequate intake of liquids and salty drinks, eating a banana because of high potassium concentration and taking calcium supplements.

But recently several studies have concluded that not nutrition but altered neuromuscular control could be the reason for muscle cramps.

The scientific reason for cramping

What is and what can cause altered neuromuscular control?

When we use our muscles they constantly contract and relax  during movement. Due to a number of reasons our muscle reflex control can become malfunctional and our muscles keep getting the signal for muscle contraction which makes them cramp.

There are several reasons that can cause altered neuromuscular control:

  • Fatigued muscles
    The muscles you use the most during an exercise are most likely to cramp. The more exhausted your muscles get the more likely it is that they will cramp. Most cramps happen at the end of physical extortion.
  • Damaged muscles
    During a study it was noticed that runners who have muscle damage before a race are more likely to get cramps than those who don’t.
  • Pushing too hard at the beginning of exercise
    If you push too hard at the beginning of a race or exercise it is likely that you will overexert your muscles making them fatigued at the very beginning and making it more likely to get cramps later during the exercise. This is supported by the fact that many athletes don’t cramp during training but during races when they tend to push themselves harder.
  • In proper pacing
    If you don’t pace yourself properly in accordance to your physical fitness level you will over exhaust your muscles making them more likely to cramp.
  • Genetic predisposition and disease
    There are conditions like blood flow problems (peripheral arterial disease), kidney disease, thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis that make it more likely to have cramps.

Cramp-prevention strategy

In light of these new research findings there are some things you can do to minimize your risk of getting muscle cramps.

  • Train smart
    Since cramping happens most often when we do over exercise, try to push yourself hard while training in terms of exercise duration and intensity. Make it as similar as possible to conditions when you want to achieve your best results like in races or competitions. This way you will raise your fitness level and make your muscles accustomed to maximum exertion which will make them less likely to cramp when you need it the least. If you are just starting out after some time of no exercising try to incorporate a simple walking fitness plan in your life at first.
  • Pace in accordance with your fitness level
    Don’t overestimate your fitness level and start out too strong at the beginning of an exercise. This will make your muscles over fatigued quickly and may result in cramping. Plan your training in accordance with your fitness level and don’t overdo it.
  • Stay hydrated
    Although it is almost certain that electrolyte depletion doesn’t cause cramps it is still advised to stay hydrated.

Best way how to get rid of leg cramps

Nobody can guarantee that you won’t get a cramp even if you take all the precautions mentioned above. So if it happens, here is how to get rid of leg cramps:

  • Stretch the muscle
    Just stretch the muscle that cramps lightly in the opposite direction of the cramp. This will help you to relax your muscles and make the pain go away. Sometimes it is too painful to stretch the muscle by yourself so it’s best to ask somebody to help you with a slight stretch.
  • Rest your muscle
    After the cramp goes away or even during a cramp – don’t use the affected muscle! Let it rest and give it time to recuperate. The cramp happened because you over exhausted your muscle in the first place. So let it rest now for a few minutes.
  • Drink pickle juice
    During a study researchers found out that a cramp goes away much faster (in about 85 seconds) if you drink pickle juice. They compared the time a cramp needs to lighten if you drink water, nothing or pickle juice and the time needed to resolve a cramp was much shorter if you had some pickle juice. That was not because of the electrolytes in the pickle juice since in the¬† seconds it took from drinking the juice to resolving the cramp the electrolytes couldn’t have come to the bloodstream. They believe that this effect is neurological and due to “tricking” the brain with the salty taste of pickle juice.
  • Keep drinking water
    To stay hydrated is a good idea not only because of cramps. Although probably not a main factor but hydration can help you stay cramp free.

What helps you when you get a cramp? Tell us. Leave a comment below.

Photo credit: ING NYC Marathon 2010 by Randy Lemoine