Avoid cramps and stitches

At some time while playing rugby you may experience cramps or stitches. Scientists are still trying to find out the exact cause of these two conditions and how to avoid them.

A cramp is a sudden tight intense pain that most commonly occurs in the leg muscles and is caused when the muscle contracts and does not relax.

Cramps are temporary events and usually do not lead to serious problems. Should they be severe or occur regularly or fail to improve with simple treatment, you need to see a doctor. Factors that may contribute to cramping include: poor fitness (tired muscles), exercising at high workloads, too little stretching, dehydration especially when sodium losses are high, creatine use (reports from athletes).

Cramps do not appear to be related to deficiencies of potassium, magnesium and calcium.

A stitch is a localised pain usually felt on the side just below the ribs and usually eases a few minutes after stopping exercise. As with a cramp, the exact cause uncertain.

During exercise it is possible that a full stomach contributes to a stitch. Eating and drinking inappropriately may also aggravate a stitch.

Drinking or eating too closely to exercise, eating fatty foods, drinking fluids with a too high a sugar concentration (because they empty slowly from the stomach), and dehydration may all be factors.

Practical tips:

1. Allow for adequate recovery and rest for muscles after hard training.

2. Stay well hydrated during exercise (see Fluid) but don’t over do it.

3. Sports drinks (5-7% concentrations) are a good option since they empty from the stomach far quicker than more concentrated solutions or soft drinks (generally 10% concentration) and sports drinks help to replace sodium losses.

4. Adopt a pattern of drinking small amounts of fluid at regular intervals during exercise rather than trying to drink large volumes all at once.

5. Eat salty foods – Marmite sandwiches, pretzels, biltong and salty crackers.

6. Breathe with the diaphragm, strengthen the abdominals and stretch. Progressively increasing the intensity and duration of your training will also help prevent stitches and cramps.

7. Follow the pre-match eating guidelines.

8. Should a stitch occur – ease this by slowing down or dropping your intensity and bend forward while pushing on the affected area and breathe deeply. Lie down while elevating you hips.

Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.

(Health24, August 2011)

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