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How to Prevent and Treat Muscle Cramps

Posted Mar 17 2011 11:13pm


It started out as a fun, 50-mile ride with several lengthy climbs. If you're not a cyclist, riding 50 miles probably doesn't sound like much fun. Climbing hills on a bicycle probably sounds like torture.

In some respects, that's exactly what my training ride turned into. On the third serious climb of the afternoon, I began to cramp, my quadriceps pulsating like a Miami night club. As I lay on the side of the road writhing in pain and watching other cyclists pedal by, I wondered what I had done--or not done--to cause these muscle cramps.

Surprisingly, we don't quite know what causes muscle cramps. We have excellent theories. Chief among them: Hot weather, dehydration and loss of electrolytes like sodium, calcium, potassium, chlorine, phosphate and magnesium .

To some extent, these factors work together: Heat leads to dehydration, dehydration brings about the electrolyte imbalance. Conditioning may also play a role, especially since exercise-induced muscle cramps tend to occur during endurance tests--long runs, rides or swims. My cycling condition certainly wasn't up to par for this ride.

Another theory: Muscles misfire because either nerves aren't functioning properly (called altered neuromuscular control ) or because they don't fully extend during exercise and lose their ability to bounce back .

Whatever the causes, here's how to reduce the risks of getting cramps and how to treat them if they do occur:

Stay hydrated
When I cycle, I carry several liters of water with me. That sounds like a lot of water, but I sweat a lot. That's one of several variables that go into how much fluid we should drink when we exercise. Temperature, length of workout, even altitude can affect how much you should drink. The American College of Sports Medicine [.PDF] recommends drinking enough before, during and after exercise to prevent water loss greater than 2 percent of your body weight.

But don't over-hydrate. Just as dehydration can cause a dangerous fluid imbalance in your body, so can too much water , which can dilute the concentration of sodium in your body..

Sports drinks are okay, but only during rigorous or lengthy exercise programs. Most sports drinks contain the electrolytes you lose when you sweat. They also have carbohydrates, which can help maintain your energy. But they're overkill for shorter, less intense workouts. For those routines stick with water.

Eat a balanced diet
If you have problems with cramps, focus on foods that are rich in key electrolytes like potassium, sodium and calcium. Most of us already get plenty of sodium in our diet, but if you're ramping up exercise, you might want to add food sources for potassium and calcium. For potassium, eat bananas, raisins, potatoes, and spinach. Dairy products are a good source of calcium, but you can also get it through oily fish, soy products and some dark leafy greens.

Avoid extreme heat
On hot days, cut back the length of exercise, move indoors or shift your workout to the morning or evening when the day is cooler. You can also cramp in extreme cold weather.

Finally, if you do cramp up, stop doing the activity that triggered the cramps. Gently stretch and massage the muscle, holding it in stretched position until the cramp stops. Later, you can apply heat to tight muscles--and cold to sore ones.

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