By: Jason Lewis
One of the most annoying things that can happen to a person during an athletic endeavor is getting a cramp. Right when you’ve found that groove, right when you’re looking like a pro in a pickup basketball game or you’ve found your zone during your morning run, your hamstring or calf locks up and it’s pretty much a wrap. Those are some untimely situations, but the worst may be that 3 a.m. cramp right when you’re fast asleep.
Cramping up is not really an injury because it typically lasts for a short period of time, but it hurts like one, and it can stop you right in your tracks. A bout of cramps can be over quickly or it can be recurring throughout your workout or game.
The tough part about dealing with cramps is that there is no specific cause to them. Cramps can stem from dehydration, lack of blood flow or not having enough minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium or sodium in your blood.
When the temperature is hot and humid, if a person is not well hydrated, they are putting themselves at risk of getting a leg cramp. That happens a lot during the first month of the football season, when players are running and sweating in extreme heat. Players constantly go down on the field with cramps, only to be saved by a trainer who stretches them out to try to unknot the muscle.
When it comes to staying hydrated, it is not only about drinking water just before or during a physical activity. It’s really more about staying hydrated throughout the day, every day. The daily recommendations for the typical person is to drink eight cups of water per day, but for anybody who exercises multiple times a week, that number goes up. Many elite athletes drink up to a gallon of water a day just to stay properly hydrated.
It is tough to drink a gallon of water a day, which works out to being four liters. But two liters (eight cups) may not be enough for many physically active people. Falling some place in the middle of those two numbers is ideal, and by drinking water throughout the day, it’s not too difficult to take in the proper amount.
One strategy is to always have water with you and drink it often. If you’re not paying attention, you could easily go a few hours without drinking any water. Try drinking a cup of water every hour on the hour. If you are awake for 16 hours a day, that’s 16 cups of water, which is a gallon.
It is believed that a deficiency in certain minerals can lead to muscle cramps, which is why a lot of trainers on the sidelines of games give bananas for athletes who are experiencing cramping. A banana is packed with potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium.
The key is to eat foods high in these minerals throughout the day. Foods such as avocados, yams, spinach, plain yogurt and certain types of fish are good sources for these minerals. Plus, they all have more potassium, magnesium and calcium than bananas. Incorporating these foods into your diet on a daily basis can help avoid cramps.
When it comes to sodium, a deficiency can occur from sweating during performance. As important as it is to drink water, also drinking a sports beverage like Gatorade can help replenish sodium and electrolyte levels. Drinking a sports beverage is important during physical activities, but it’s also important post-workout to immediately replenish sodium levels.
Articles of clothing such as compression pants, shorts, and shirts have become popular with many athletes and fitness enthusiasts. They make a person look more athletic while eliminating fabric from flopping all over the place. But athletes who wear tights during warm-weather months can have issues with cramps. Some trainers believe that the tight material can also restrict blood flow. Other trainers believe that long tights on a warm day will cause excessive sweating, which can lead to cramping.
When a cramp hits, it’s important to get the blood flowing in that area. Using a foam roller is a great way to get the blood circulating to the area of the cramp, but that tool isn’t practical for someone on a long run or bike ride. A lacrosse ball may be even better than the foam roller, because it can hit the targeted area to a greater extend and can be easily transported. When a cramp hits, lay the affected area on the lacrosse ball and try to massage the knot out of the muscle.
Actively moving after the cramp hits also helps the blood circulate to the affected area. The cramps won’t go away quickly simply by sitting down and trying to rest the muscle.
Because there is no single reason for cramps, it’s a good idea to combine all of these methods to avoid such problems. Stay hydrated on a daily basis, eat the proper foods and keep the blood circulating throughout the body. That should keep you going through your game or workout.