You’re on the treadmill, warming up for your workout. You’re wearing your favourite gym gear and you’re confident with the results you’ve been getting from your exercise routine. You feel good… and you’re ready to ramp up the intensity to boost your results.
You increase the speed to end the warm up with a moderate- to quick-paced jog to ensure your body is prepared for the intensity that is to come. Just a little longer on the treadmill before you start.
Then, without warning, you feel an intense pain in your side. You clutch your body trying to ease the pain but you just can’t keep up with the same pace of exercise and you’re forced to reduce the intensity until the pain subsides.
Cramping your style
Muscle cramps can happen at any time, without prior warning. They can be minor - or, they can be debilitating, completely blocking the normal function of the muscle they affect.
Muscle cramps wouldn’t be such a problem if they only appeared after you had finished your workout, but sometimes, they come on in the worst moment, when you really need that area of your body to function and support you or the weight you are bearing.
So, why do your muscles cramp? Unfortunately, a study published in the Sports Health journal explains that the cause remains unknown1, however, there are many theories that scientists have put together to explain the prevalent phenomenon2.
One of the most widely discussed theories is that muscle cramps are of a neuromuscular cause or, in other words, dysfunction in the connection between the muscle and the nerve stimulating it at that time3.
This theory was explored further in a study published in the journal Muscle & Nerve, where researchers gave subjects either a drug to block the delivery of certain nerve impulses to their triceps during a workout or a placebo. When they induced a cramp-like action, those taking the drug were able to continue normal muscle function while those taking the placebo had cramping, sore muscles3.
But, what is it that sets this process off? Although science hasn’t come to any hard conclusion, once again, there are several theories, with one of the leading speculations being muscle fatigue.
Beware of cramps
The most commonly believed reason for the misfiring of a nerve, causing a cramping muscle is associated with a severely stressed or fatigued muscle not responding appropriately to the stimulus4. This process means that, if you’ve recently been overexerting yourself and you haven’t left your muscles enough time to rest, repair and recover, you could be more susceptible to cramping both during a workout or after the fact.
Cramping of this cause can occur both while taking part in non-strenuous everyday tasks or, even at night, when you’re supposed to be resting. Additionally, some people may simply be more genetically inclined to develop cramps, while others aren’t5.
If you are one of those unfortunate enough to have suffered from muscle cramps, there are certain things you can do.
The first two are commonly known suggestions that are of high importance in good exercise practice:
- Allow your muscles enough time to recover between strenuous exercises. A full period of recovery may not always be doable, particularly when you’re taking part in a regular routine - however, as much possible, cycle through muscle groups to allow for at least a day or two period of rest for each muscle group.
- The next plan of attack involves stretching. While stretching the muscle has been found to be the most effective in alleviating cramps once they kick in, it may also help to prevent the onset of cramps in the first place.
Then there’s one suggestion to ease cramping that isn’t so obvious...
One of the stranger solutions to cramps!
A handful of studies has suggested to drink pickle juice following the onset of a cramp6. Strange as it is, the sourness of the juice appears to have an effect on the nerves at the back of the throat that goes on to affect the nerves in the spine that then lead to the cramping muscle. Pickle juice has been shown on more than one occasion to reduce the duration of a muscle cramp, but it might not be the best - or most - practical solution for you!
The bottom line is that there is no one way to prevent muscle cramps if you are susceptible to them. Unfortunately the theory that they are caused by an electrolyte imbalance has not been proven with solid enough evidence7, however, the idea is not completely wasted. Sports nutritionists do encourage an adequate intake of fluids and electrolytes (salt and minerals) in addition to a well-balanced diet to encourage the repair and growth of the muscles following strenuous activity.
Whatever the underlying cause, now you’re equipped with a few helpful tactics to both prevent and overcome cramping when it strikes!
- Miller, K., et al. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. Sports Health. 2010. 2(4):279-283.
- Schwellnus, M., et al. Underlying Chronic Disease, Medication Use, History of Running Injuries and Being a More Experienced Runner Are Independent Factors Associated With Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramping: A Cross-Sectional Study in 15778 Distance Runners. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine/ 28(3):289-298.
- Craighead, D., et al. Ingestion of transient receptor potential channel agonists attenuates exercise‐induced muscle cramps. 2016. Muscle & Nerve. 56(3).
- Nelson, N., & Churilla, J. A narrative review of exercise‐associated muscle cramps: Factors that contribute to neuromuscular fatigue and management implications. 2016. Muscle & Nerve. 54(2).
- O’Connell, K., et al. Collagen genes and exercise-associated muscle cramping. Clin J Sport Med. 2013. 23(1):64-9.
- Nilius, B., & Appendino, G. Spices: the savory and beneficial science of pungency. Rev Physiol Biochem Pharmacol. 2013. 164:1-76.
- Rosenbloom, C. Sports Nutrition Myths That Deserve to Die but Live On. Nutrition Today. 2017. 52(2):57–61.