By Brian Good
Whether it’s a slight tic in your calf following a long run or an agonizing swath of pain in your bicep after some extra intense curls, muscle cramps are a common part of regular training for many guys. But you don’t have to be one of them!
The good news is that with some proper care and prevention, muscle cramps can be avoidable. Here’s how to banish them from your workouts for good.
Understanding Your Cramp
Although you likely know first-hand the intense pain a muscle cramp can bring, you may not know the science behind why muscles cramp in the first place. Here are the basics: Whenever a single muscle, part of a single muscle, or a group of muscles contract or tighten without any conscious effort on your part — and you can’t cause the region to relax — that is considered a muscle cramp.
Cramps can occur in any muscle you are able to voluntarily control, including muscles in the arms, legs, and abdomen. They’re especially common in muscles surrounding a joint, such as the back of the lower leg or back of the thigh. Pain from a muscle cramp can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer and stubborn cramps sometimes recur multiple times before finally easing away.
While everyone is likely to experience a muscle cramp sometime in their life, there are certain groups of people who are pre-disposed to the condition and experience cramps regularly. These groups include endurance athletes such as marathon runners, people over the age of 65 who are performing strenuous physical activities, and weekend warriors or people who don’t regularly work out but then overexert when they do find time to train.
Common Cramping Triggers
Muscle cramps can occur for a variety of reasons. While medications and illnesses can sometimes be the cause, the most common trigger for muscle cramping tends to be something going on within the body that prevents the muscle from being able to relax properly. These precursors to cramping can include:
Expending more fluids than your body is taking in can cause your body to channel the fluid that remains in your system to your most vital organs, including the heart and lungs. This life-saving process has a side-effect, however: it can lead to a reduction in blood flow to major muscle groups such as your arms, back, and legs—greatly increasing the risk for muscle cramping. The Mayo Clinic reports that this “narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you’re exercising.”
Depletion of Salt or Mineral (Electrolyte) Reserves
Whether you’re following a low-sodium diet or you’re just sweating a lot and not replenishing those electrolyte reserves, lack of sodium along with potassium, magnesium, and calcium (the essential electrolyte minerals) can also lead to unwanted muscle cramping.
You may be out of shape and trying to build back muscle mass. Or maybe you just like to go extra hard in the gym, working well-conditioned muscles past their breaking point. Either way, these forms of overexertion can deplete a muscle’s oxygen supply, dramatically increasing risk of muscle cramping.
Eliminate Muscle Cramps for Good
Most muscle cramps never require medical attention and will go away on their own. Still, if you want to avoid them in the first place — and save yourself from that unwanted pain — there are a few easy steps you can follow.
Drink Plenty of Water
Staying hydrated daily, and especially before working out, ensures your body always has the necessary fluid levels to allow muscles to properly contract and relax during use. The Cleveland Clinic recommends that the average guy should drink approximately 125 ounces of water daily. The breaks down to about 15 cups—even more than the 8 glasses we’ve all likely heard about in the past. It may sound like a lot, but the good news is that in addition to fighting off muscle cramps, staying well-hydrated could also help you live longer, according to one recent study.
Consider using a pre-workout supplement like PRE-7 that is packed with extra electrolytes. This can help build up levels of vital nutrients in your system and minimize the conditions that lead to muscle cramping.*
Warming up your muscles before exercise and stretching again post-workout can significantly reduce your risk for muscle cramping, according to some neurology experts. Standard stretches like a hamstring stretch, calf stretch, and upper back stretch can all be helpful, but dynamic stretching (where you make active movements that stretch the muscles to their full range of motion rather than holding a static pose) are even more beneficial, they say. Consider adding walking lunges, squats, arm circles, torso twists, and calf raises to your training regimen. They will all help to reduce the risk for muscle cramps in the workout that follows.
What happens if you do all this and a cramp still comes on out of nowhere? Immediately stop doing whatever it was that caused the cramp. Then stretch and gently rub the cramping region to help it relax. Finally, apply heat to the region as soon as possible to soothe the area and eliminate any remaining pain or stiffness. If needed, follow your hot shower or bath with a cold compress or apply an ice pack to the region where the cramp occurred. With some immediate care and prevention, your muscles should be pain-free and ready to go again the next day.