Muscle cramps are an unfortunate reality that all athletes must face, not by choice but because of the physiological factors which result in these very uncomfortable and even painful occurrences.
Most of the time these cramps occur in the calves and feet of individuals involved in athletic activities. Regardless of severity, cramps can really put a damper on your performance. However, if we know a little more about what causes them, we can better prevent and/or possibly ward them off as best we can.
So, let’s get into a little more detail on the subject and hopefully, we can provide some beneficial information to help you with your cramp troubles. Unless you’re just curious about the subject, then in that case we hope you’ll leave with more knowledge than you previously had...
WHAT ARE MUSCLE CRAMPS?
The simple answer is involuntary muscle contractions.
Muscle cramps produce a sharp pain that can sometimes be debilitating. You’ll know right away when one comes on because you can feel the intense contraction and sometimes see the actual cramp in the muscle. The muscle will look distorted and be hard to the touch.
Cramp intensity is different for everyone but the feeling when you get one is pretty universal… it hurts!
Cramps can occur in several different muscles of the body but we’re going to focus on the more common areas that affect athletes who train BJJ.
Depending on the severity the cramp, they can last for seconds or even several minutes. However, majority of the time they are nothing to worry about especially if they result from physical activity.
WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE CRAMPS?
The actual, physiological cause is not fully understood and evidence is lacking in this area. But… we do know from real-life evidence and current information that we have available to us that in many cases, the following factors are often the main culprits...
- Nutrient Depletion and Deficiency (magnesium, potassium, and calcium)
- Muscle Strain
- Overused Muscles
- Holding a muscle contraction for too long
- Build up of lactic acid
- Not properly warming up
- Cold temperatures/cold water
These occurrences are common in people who are typically more physically active than the general population. Athletes who are consistently training BJJ and rolling at least once a day have a higher probability of manifesting several of the culprits noted above.
Aside from physical activity, cramps can also result from underlying medical conditions such as; inadequate blood supply, nerve compression, age, the use of certain medications, spinal problems, etc.
In this article we’re going to focus on exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMCs). However, if you have excessive cramping too frequently then definitely check in with a doctor in case of something worse.
HOW TO PREVENT MUSCLE CRAMPS?
Stay hydrated, maintain a nutrient-rich diet, stretch adequately, and warm up...
Consuming ample electrolytes will help alleviate cramps due to nutrient-deficiency, especially if you’re training long and hard. One study found that having a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage before and during exercise in a relatively hot environment may delay EAMCs.
However, dehydration and electrolyte loss are not the sole reasons for EAMCs as many of the individuals who consumed the beverage still experienced muscle cramps. The study concluded that electrolyte drinks can delay cramps, but not prevent them all together.
Also, local muscle fatigue was found to be associated with EAMCs in the same study, proving there are several likely causes of muscle cramps.
Now, to reduce cramping from muscle fatigue, gradually increase your physical activity to where your muscles can become progressively accustomed to the workload. You never want to start off using a muscle to its full capacity.
As for stretching to prevent cramps, there are several exercises you can do but here are a few simple, effective ones…
Standing Calf Stretch
Towel Calf Stretch
You can perform 2-3 sets of each exercise, holding each stretch for up to 30 seconds or less, and gradually stretch the calves as you don’t want to be too forceful, especially at first.
Taking all of the necessary steps to prevent cramps is really the best thing you can do to ensure you suffer as little as possible. Don’t be discouraged if you still experience cramps, as they are a normal reaction to the activities you engage in.
WHAT FOODS/SUPPLEMENTS HELP MUSCLE CRAMPS?
Since most cramping results from the deficiency of magnesium, potassium, and calcium, it makes sense to eat foods abundant in these nutrients.
Potassium is a very abundant mineral in the human body and is essential for many bodily functions which include nerve, heart, muscle function, and water balance.
Over 90% of adults do not get an adequate intake of potassium per day through diet. Take a look at these potassium rich foods and begin adding them to your diet.
Potassium Rich Foods:
- Potatoes/sweet potatoes
- Cooked spinach
- Beans (lima, kidney, soy)
Magnesium is also a mineral which is essential for nerve, heart and muscle function as well. But it’s also necessary for many biochemical reactions in the body as well, like blood glucose control, and protein synthesis. It also plays a role in potassium and calcium transport, as well as DNA health and energy production.
The daily recommendation for magnesium is 400mg for men and 310mg for women.
Magnesium Rich foods:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Peanut butter
- Black beans
- Dark chocolate
Now, most people have an idea of what calcium does for bone and teeth health. But this mineral is another essential component for nerve and muscle health, as well as for enzyme and hormone function.
The daily recommendation for calcium is 1,000mg.
Calcium Rich Foods:
- Collard greens
- Low-fat, plain yogurt
- Tofu fortified w/calcium
Eating these nutrient-rich foods will help your body recover and hopefully prevent cramps, although there is no bulletproof diet to eliminate cramps altogether. Adding our POST to your recovery routine will provide 60% of your daily magnesium intake, 20% of your daily calcium intake, and 10% of your daily potassium intake to help you recovery from your toughest training sessions.
When we train, we lose a lot of sweat and nutrients so it’s good to always be on top of your performance-supporting nutrients to ensure you can sustain your workouts even if you’re not experiencing cramps all the time.
HOW TO RELIEVE MUSCLE CRAMPS...
You can do your best to relieve a muscle cramp and most of the time you can reduce the severity and pain. But, sometimes you just have to stretch it and wait for it to subside.
Madhuri Kale, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital explained, "When it suddenly strikes, don't exercise or tighten the muscle. Just gently stretch it to your tolerance. That helps to relax the muscle and relieve the uncontrolled contraction".
Massaging the area and walking around a little can also possibly help the muscle to relax, applying heat to the muscle with a pad or a hot shower and even cold packs can help. And although cramps can be a little intense sometimes, pain relievers/OTC (over-the-counter) or otherwise should be a last resort.
And you can also use the exercises above to give your calves a little stretch since they’re not only good for prevention but relief too.
Cramps are inconvenient and no one can deny it, especially when you have to train hard day after day. And yes, you’ll probably get them no matter what you do to try and deter them.
But you can decrease the severity and implement preventative measures like the ones mentioned above to hopefully not suffer as much. If you have a good stretching routine, don’t overwork your muscles, stay hydrated and get enough essential nutrients; you’re doing all the right stuff!