Cramping Your Style

Muscle cramps are often associated with dehydration. If you have ever experienced the excruciating pain of a severe muscle cramp, you may fearfully wonder if it will strike again. Because no one totally understands what causes muscle cramps, these unpredictable spasms are somewhat mysterious. Since cramps occur when muscles are fatigued, the problem may be related to a nerve malfunction that creates an imbalance between muscle excitation and inhibition, which prevents the muscle from relaxing (Schwellnus et al. 2004).

Although cramps are likely related to overexertion, other predisposing factors may include fluid loss, inadequate conditioning, and electrolyte imbalance (Jung et al. 2005). The solution often can be found with massage and stretching. Other times, nutrition may be involved. Although the following nutrition tips are not guaranteed to resolve this malady, I recommend that people who are predisposed to getting cramps rule out these possible contributing causes:

  • Lack of water. Cramps commonly coincide with dehydration. To prevent dehydration-induced cramps, drink enough fluids before, during, and after you exercise. Always drink enough fluids daily so that your urine is clear, pale yellow, and copious. During a long exercise session, a target for a 150-pound (68 kg) athlete might be about 8 ounces (240 ml) of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes. See chapter 8 for more information on fluid recommendations.
  • Lack of calcium. Calcium plays an essential role in muscle contractions. Some active people report that their problem with cramping disappears when they boost their calcium intake. For example, one ballet dancer found that once she reintroduced yogurt and skim milk into her diet, her cramping disappeared. A mountaineer resolved his muscle cramps by taking antacid tablets containing calcium when hiking. But some exercise scientists argue that a calcium imbalance seems an unlikely cause of muscle cramps because if a dietary deficiency should occur, calcium would be released from the bones to provide what is needed for proper muscle contraction. Nevertheless, to rule out any possible link between a calcium-poor diet and muscle cramps, athletes plagued by cramps should consume dairy products or other calcium sources (calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk) at least twice each day.
  • Lack of potassium. Electrolyte imbalance, such as lack of potassium, may play a role in muscle cramps. But a potassium deficiency is unlikely to occur as a result of sweat losses because the body contains much more potassium than even a marathoner might lose during a hot, sweaty race. Nevertheless, you can rule out this issue by eating potassium-rich foods on a daily basis.
  • Lack of sodium. Active people who restrict their sodium intake during exercise may be putting themselves at risk of developing a sodium imbalance that could contribute to cramps. This circumstance is most likely to occur in athletes who exercise hard for more than four hours in the heat, such as tennis players, tri-athletes, or ultrarunners. The risk increases if they consume only water during the event and have eaten no foods or beverages that contain sodium. Endurance sports drinks and salted pretzels would be wise snack choices during exercise.
  • Lack of magnesium. Just as muscles need calcium to contract, they also need magnesium to relax. Magnesium helps reduce leg cramps that occur in the middle of the night (Roffe et al. 2002). Whether or not magnesium can also help with exercise-related cramps is unclear. Many people do not meet the RDA for magnesium: 320 milligrams per day for women and 420 milligrams per day for men. The richest sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes. One cup of spinach has 155 milligrams of magnesium; a half-cup of All-Bran, 110 milligrams; a cup of brown rice, 85; one whole-wheat pita, 45. I hear marathoners talk about Rolaids as being helpful. One tablet contains 45 milligrams of magnesium and 220 milligrams of calcium.

Although these tips for resolving muscle cramps are only suggestions and not proven solutions, you might want to experiment with these dietary improvements if you repeatedly suffer from muscle cramps. Adding extra fluids, low-fat dairy products, potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, and a sprinkling of salt certainly won't harm you, and it may resolve the worrisome problem. I also recommend that you consult with a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or coach regarding proper stretching and training techniques.

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