By Vishal Patel,
Recently, there’s been a lot of new theories and studies that may help us get to the root cause of muscle cramping. One thing I know for sure is that every athlete (regardless of the level you train and compete at) has, in one way or another, experienced muscle cramping. It is one of those side effects of exercise, of pushing your body to the limit, that I still believe we haven’t solved or found a way to eliminate the onset of muscle cramps during exercise.
There are certain nutritional strategies you can implement to help your body prepare for battle. But before we get into those, we should start with the basics: what are muscle cramps, how do they occur, and why?
[Please note: There is not significant scientific evidence to point towards the exact root cause of muscle cramping, therefore, statements on why and how to prevent them are theory-based. Those theories are based of athlete testimonial, human physiology, and my own personal experience with muscle cramping.]
What is muscle cramping?
Muscle cramps essentially are involuntary muscle contractions that lead to your muscle seizing up and/or a spasm to occur. Most athletes will feel symptoms of cramping before they occur, and if you do not stop and stretch it out, it can stop you dead in your tracks.
How do they occur?
Muscle cramps (I believe) occur when the signals from your brain that help your muscles perform normally are interrupted and/or altered. That's why this subject is so tricky and complicated. There’s more and more research indicating that nerves endings that generate various signals from the brain cause a disrupt in the signaling, which leads to your muscles cramping.
Why do they occur?
That is the million (maybe billion) dollar question…I do not believe there is definitive data or scientific evidence that points to one specific cause over the other. However, in my personal experience, the times I have cramped during a run is when I neglected hydration post-run and experienced cramping a couple hours after. Or when my level of exertion changes, or the terrain I’m running on changes (flats to hills, up-hill to downhill). I, amongst other scientists, believe that some magnesium-to-calcium ratio (either too high or too low) may have something to do with the occurrence of muscle cramping. I'll touch on this more below.
How do we prevent muscle cramps?
Sorry, but you cannot prevent muscle cramps. It truly is a phenomenon that can occur or go away at any time. You can, however, use certain nutritional strategies to help decrease the on-set of muscle cramping.
How to delay the onset of muscle cramping:
- The days leading up to a long run or harder workout (or during taper week), add one tablet of Nuun Rest to your evening routine. The extra magnesium, as well as the low level of carbohydrates in Rest tablets, are key. Both magnesium is closely related to muscle contraction, relaxation, and overall function.
- Eat a Tums before your long run, race….yes, Tums – the antacid relief chewable tablets. (Stick with the peppermint flavor as those are the ones that do not contain any artificial colors.) These tablets are rich in calcium carbonate which helps with muscle function and helps buffer your muscles. I also recently found out that Team USA swimmers during the Rio Olympics chew on Tums prior to competition to help prevent muscle cramps.
- I also recommended carrying a few with you on long run/rides, or during competition, but do not consume more than 5 tums during competition.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – it never hurts to hydrate. Just make sure you monitor your urine color to make sure you’re not overdoing it. Clear means your body isn't absorbing the water - aim for pale yellow.