May 21, 2018

Combat Cramps During Exercise

If you are an athlete that trains outside in the summer heat, you have most likely experienced debilitating cramps.  It does not matter how well conditioned you are, if you don't take the proper precautionary measures to avoid cramps, they will take you to your knees potentially leading to injury.

While most cramps are due to overuse (exercising too excessive either by going farther or faster than in the recent past or not allowing proper recovery time), continuing to put yourself at your limit becomes especially problematic during hot summer days.  Drinking an electrolyte beverage may help prevent cramping as it replaces minerals your body loses through sweating. Drinks like Gatorade or Advocare's Rehydrate are very beneficial for athletes or anyone who exercises beyond 1 hour.  Aim to drink 6 to 8 ounces of an electrolyte beverage every 1 to 2 hours of activity. Additionally, plan in advance for an early morning training session by drinking at least 6 ounces the night before at bedtime and then drink at least another 6 ounces 1 hour in the morning before the activity.  During activity, drink water as needed. If the session goes beyond 1 hour, that is when you need to incorporate the 6 to 8 ounces of electrolyte replacement.

If you feel cramps creeping up on you,  that is when you need to dial back on your effort.  Slow it down. If cramps are hitting you during a run, incorporate walking breaks and avoid getting to the point of huffing and puffing.  If you try to push through, cramps are only going to increase and this puts you at risk for injury. A good training plan will incorporate hard training sessions followed by days of light activity.  Do not expect yourself to go 100% every session.  This will surely set you up for injury.

Current research on cramps shows the problem happens in the neural communication pathway.  During training you reach a point of fatigue.  Sometimes there is miscommunication causing the muscle to stay contracted when it shouldn't and wham, you cramp.  

“The mechanism for muscle fatigue and muscle damage causing cramping is best explained through an imbalance that develops in the nervous system control of muscle. Muscles tend to become very twitchy when they become fatigued or are injured,” said Schwellnus. You’re more likely to get cramps, then, when your muscles are working harder and are fatiguing, such when you’re out of shape or racing hard.

Avoid cramps by taking the following steps:

1. Warm-up: 
If you don't already warm-up utilizing dynamic movements, you need to do so.  Allow 10 to 15 minutes for warming up.  This gets your heart rate elevated and pumping blood to the muscles prior to placing demands on them literally raising the temperature of the muscles so you don't start off "cold".

2. Start slow gradually increase intensity:
Do not start the beginning of your training session at full speed. Following the warm-up, you may increase effort, just don't go full speed.   

3. Excessive temperatures? Shorten training, train inside, or split your session:
If the temperature is very high and/or humidity is a factor, either shorten your planned session, take it inside, or split your training into two parts.

4. Allow more breaks:
Heat puts added stress on the body.  As it takes added effort for your body to cool, incorporate much needed walking breaks so your heart may adequately pump under less stress to cool you down.

5.  Shorten strides:
Because you run the risk of being in a state of dehydration when it is hot outside, shorten your stride during sprints or hill work to better avoid cramping or pulling a muscle.

6. Stop and Stretch:
If a cramp sets in, stop activity immediately.  It is now time to deep breath and stretch it out. Static stretching inhibits the muscle from contracting. After stretching and the cramps resides, start slow and gradually increase effort.

Bottom Line:
If you feel a cramp coming on, backing off will usually prevent it.  If you are stubborn and push through, it will debilitate you making it impossible to continue and likely setting you up for injury.