Exercise-induced muscle cramps

Muscle cramps are painful, involuntary muscle contractions that occur suddenly and can be very debilitating, especially when you’re busy exercising. Biolineticist Keri Drake, of The Lean Aubergine Dietetic Services explains how to avoid them and how to treat them.

Muscle cramps can be detrimental to your training or your race. The most common place for individuals to get an exercise induced muscle cramp is in the foot, calf, hamstrings or quadriceps muscle.

The exact cause of a leg cramp is not well understood, but there are some risk factors that are thought to contribute to this condition. These are muscle fatigue (at the end of your race or training session), heavy exercising, electrolyte imbalances, failing to stretch adequately before exercise, extreme hot or cold conditions and dehydration. These are all very important to consider when training.

It is important to do the training for a specific event. Training to the level of the anticipated event can reduce the chance of cramping. When you are doing the training, you need to increase your training intensity and duration in small increments; this is so that your body has time to adjust to the progressive training load.

Keep hydrated

Dehydration is believed to be a common cause of muscle cramps. As a general guideline, try to consume 500ml of fluid per hour, or 120ml every 15 minutes in order to prevent dehydration. After exercise, a balanced electrolyte recovery drink or sports drink (such as Energade or Powerade) may help to prevent muscle cramping.

Except in extreme heat or humidity, dietary intake will normally replace these losses. If you are going to be exercising in excessively hot or humid conditions, pay close attention to your salt intake.

The importance of stretching

Stretching out before exercising is an important, and often neglected, step in a workout. A good routine should be established. It is important to know what your sport or workout will involve so that you can stretch out all the major muscle groups that you are going to use in your session.

When you are about to start stretching it is also important to do it slowly, forcing a stretch will only cause you more muscular damage. You will get the best stretch, and prevent injuries if you avoid bouncing. Instead, hold the stretch, and feel a constant pull in the muscles. Try to hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds for a full release.

If you are in the situation where you are suffering from a cramp, here is how to stretch out your major leg muscle groups:

Quadriceps stretch

To stretch the quadriceps muscle while standing, lift your right ankle toward your buttocks. Reach back with the right hand and gently hold the ankle. Press your hip bones forward and slightly squeeze your buttocks. Keep the torso lifted with your head up. Get to the point of a mild stretch and hold until the cramp subsides.

 Hamstring stretch

To stretch the hamstring muscles while standing, straighten the right leg so it is stretched straight out with the heel of the foot on the floor and toes pulled up toward you. The opposite knee should be bent and takes the majority of your body weight. Bend forward from your waist towards the right foot. You should feel the back of the leg stretching. Hold the stretch until the cramp subsides.

 Calf stretch

Face forwards towards a wall or a solid object. Place the leg to be stretched behind you and keep it straight while bending the front leg. Keep your feet facing forwards. Lean against the wall with your hands flat and all your pressure against the wall. The forefoot and the heel should be in straight alignment. Lean forward towards the wall to stretch the calf muscles. Hold the stretch until the cramp subsides.

 If you are prone to muscle fatigue or cramping it is a good idea to seek professional help from your Doctor or Biokineticist. Or if you are going to start an exercise regime speak to your Biokineticist to have someone watch your routine and offer their suggestions.

 Sign up for the monthly newsletter of The Lean Aubergine Dietetic Services by sending an email to kimh.rd@mweb.co.za or  karenrd@mweb.co.za. Contact Keri on 082 798 0947.

(Health24, May 2011)

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