Everything You Need to Know About Muscle Cramps
As a runner, you deal with all sorts of aches and pains on a pretty regular basis. In fact, you’ve probably learned to take a sort of mental inventory of what your feeling. If you haven’t gotten to that point yet, though, it’s a valuable skill to develop.
Regardless of your current familiarity with these various sensations, it’s useful to review some of the common pains that runners deal with and deepen your understanding of them. Doing so will not only help you to avoid these discomforts and construct more effective, enjoyable workouts, but it will also give you the tools you need to overcome these pains rather than being benched by them.
By far, one of the most common and frustrating pains that runners can face is the cramp. What causes cramps? How can you avoid or treat them? What should you do if you start experiencing cramps during a run?
Like so many other aspect of health and fitness, the frustrating truth is that science has not yet reached a definite conclusion regarding the exact cause of cramps. But people have been getting cramps while exercising for a very, very long time. So, there really is no end to the theories.
Still, there are two beliefs regarding the causes of EAMC or exercise-associated muscle cramps. They are electrolyte imbalance and altered neuromuscular control.
For the most part, the first theory – that of electrolyte imbalance is probably the most common. And most of the treatments or recommendations for prevention that you’re likely to encounter center around this belief. Practices like ensuring proper hydration and even drinking pickle juice are all based on the idea that electrolytes – or a lack thereof – are causing those cramps.
Which actually makes logical sense. Electrolytes, in the context of human biology, are minerals that aid in conducting signals through your nervous system. Research has found that a deficiency in the substances can create problems when it comes to strength, coordination and general muscle function. The idea that this deficiency could also lead to cramps, then, seems pretty reasonable.
The second idea, though, is a little more challenging to understand, which is probably why it’s not as popular. According to this theory, cramps occur when the various mechanical portions of your muscles are not functioning in a balanced way. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Still, that’s the basic gist. If this is actually what’s going on, then electrolytes don’t actually play a role at all and the solution would have to be something a little more mechanical.
What’s Actually (Probably) Happening
So which one of these theories is right? In order to answer this question, researchers from the Brooks College of Health at the University of North Florida performed a review of the various studies available on the topic. According to their findings, the research favors this second – more complicated – theory.
Taken as a whole, the studies suggest that cramps happen as a result of muscular fatigue. And this actually does make sense. As you’re running, if your muscles begin to experience overload, certain parts of the machine will likely slow down sooner than others. Unfortunately, this resulting imbalance expresses itself as a cramp.
In reality, the full details of the way that muscles work as a whole aren’t completely understood yet. Sorting out irregularities, then, is going to take some time and additional research. Still, the research does seem to lean and this direction rather than toward electrolytes. In fact, the review found no solid connect between muscle cramps and either dehydration or electrolyte imbalances.
The Risk Factors
How, then, can you prevent these muscular imbalances from happening during your run? That, it turns out, is yet another question that science isn’t totally sure about yet. It does seem like a major risk factor, however, is exercise intensity. Again, cramps are most likely to occur when your muscles are overworked. Careful and proper scaling of difficulty, then, is a key strategy toward avoid cramps.
Unfortunately, the review found several more risk factors that are beyond your control – things like age, gender and genetics. Logically, a history of cramps will increase your likelihood of dealing with the condition. Advancing age – with it’s related loss of lean muscle – can also increase your risk.
But, what about gender? It seems like men are more likely to deal with exercise-related cramps then women. Again, the exact reasons for this aren’t totally understood. There are two key differences between the genders, though, that likely have an impact on this discuss.
First, men generally have more fast-twitch muscle fibers which fatigue more quickly then their slow-twitch counterparts. The female body also relies on fat for fuel more than the carb-hungry male body. Since fat provides a slow, sustained source of energy, this variance in fuel source also always women to avoid fatigue more effectively.
Prevention and Treatment
With all of that said, what practical application is there for all of this information? As part of the above-mentioned review, the researchers also examined studies that looked at all of the different anti-cramping techniques out there. The various strategies that were tested included electrical cramp induction, kinesiotaping, compression garments, massage, electrolyte replacement, corrective exercise, stretching, quinine, pickle juice and hyperventilation.
Of all of these remedies, stretching provided the greatest and more reliable benefits. Although it’s worth mentioning that kinesiotape and hyperventilation also showed seemed to help to a lesser degree.
So, when you’re experiencing a cramp, stop what you’re doing and stretch the affected muscle.
How, though, can you prevent cramps in the first place? Since muscular overload seems to be the primary culprit, proper workout design is likely the best strategy. A thorough rest and recovery routine, to improve the overall quality of your muscle fibers, is also suggested.