It’s an athlete’s nightmare: you’re running the Ravenel Bridge and have just crossed from Mount Pleasant to Charleston.  You’re at least three miles from your car and it strikes—a giant muscle cramp.  You cringe, double over and stop dead in your tracks.  What gives?  Why do we get these muscle cramps and how can we keep them from sabotaging our workouts?

Read on to get the lowdown on muscle cramps, what causes them and how to prevent them.

Muscle Cramps = Muscle Spasms

The New York Times describes this phenomenon perfectly, “A seized calf muscle or a hamstring can be frightening. Swimmers fear they will drown. Cyclists nearly fall off their bikes. Runners drop to the ground, grimacing, gritting their teeth.  The contraction is so strong that you could not will yourself to ball your muscle that tightly. And your muscle is likely to feel sore the next day.” Ugh!

So what is causing this immense pain?  According to WebMd, “Sometimes called ‘charley horses’ — particularly when they’re in the calf muscles – cramps are caused by muscle spasms: involuntary contractions of one or more muscles.” So in other words, a muscle cramp is when your muscle clenches up and refuses to let go.

Muscle Cramps = A Complicated Culprit

The why of getting cramps is a bit more complicated.  The Mayo Clinic explains that, “Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp.” 

Self Magazine continues, “In the moment, all you’re thinking about is the agony, but there’s a lot more going on. ‘The main culprit is running out of the fuel that helps muscles contract and relax, and they wind up stuck in an ‘on’ position,’ explains exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S. That’s why a cramped muscle feels hard to the touch—it’s in full-on flex mode, to the point of pain.”’

Muscle Cramps = A Sign of Dehydration

However there can be other reasons for getting a cramp as well.  LiveStrong states, “If your muscles lack sufficient water, it can lead to cramping. Dehydration can also lead to an imbalance in the levels of electrolytes, such as potassium, sodium and magnesium, which can also cause [cramps]. If you aren’t getting enough electrolytes in your diet, it can have the same effect.”

Muscle Cramps = Possible Carb Imbalance suggests that a lack of carbs can cause cramps. “Carbohydrate depletion will also lead to muscle cramps. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used during exercise…Once that store of glycogen has been exhausted, we are at high risk for muscle cramps…Be sure to eat a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack prior to endurance or intense exercise. Plus, you will need to consume carbohydrates through food or sports products during longer duration exercise.”

Muscle Cramps = Proactive Prep

Men’s Fitness has an amazingly thorough article about how to prevent muscle cramps from creeping into your workouts.  Click HERE for more info on these following tips and more:

  1. Do a proper warmup
  2. Hydrate
  3. Foam roll before and after workouts
  4. Massage the muscle
  5. Strengthen your small and large muscles

Muscle Cramps = A Reason to Pay Attention

An article in Women’s Health breaks cramps down into five categories: side stitches, stomach cramps, calf/quad/hamstring cramps, isolated muscle cramps, and “other” cramps. While each type of cramp has its own precipitating factors, the overall message is “When [a cramp] hits, pay attention! That’s your body screaming that something’s wrong.”

Click HERE to see what WH has to say about each type of cramp.