No one is immune to exercise cramps. (Wait, is that true? I feel like I just set myself up for being told that there are indeed people who have natural immunity…or at least animals. But seriously…when was the last time your house cat had a cramp? Or for that matter, your housecoat? Or a giraffe?) They happen, and well, what’s a runner (or swimmer, cyclist, aerobic dancer, yogalete, etc) to do when that feeling like a wild fox is gnawing on your leg as it plunges into sub-zero temperatures at the same time overcomes you?
Well, Dr. Dad’s alma mater and one of our favorite periodicals, the Berkeley Wellness Newsletter, covered this topic recently. This newsletter is published monthly by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and strives to put wellness news in perspective and evaluate it. In their own words, they ” review the latest research, and clarify the often conflicting and superficial health information presented by the popular media.” I have to appreciate their commitment to critical thought and scientific evidence given my geeked out nature on such things. I digress.
Back to those betwixting exercise cramps that leave us in unseemly positions and make us want to forgo movement for the rest of our lives. First, what matters most in the moment: how to treat those sucker punches.
Got An Exercise Cramp?
Probably the last thing you want to do is any sort of active anything towards the achy-breaky muscle, but stretching it will definitely help. If it’s your calf – a really common place to find these cramps – pull up on your toes. Literally, the ball of your foot with toes and all should be sky high.
Swimmers get foot cramps on occasion – if this happens and you can put your feet on the bottom of the pool, stop swimming and pull up on your foot right where you are. If you’re circle swimming or in the deep end, you’ll have to suck it up and make it to the pool’s edge before stretching. Getting out of the pool and jumping up and down on the foot does the trick (though you look like a limping flamingo, it really helps) or stay in the water and put your foot on the wall so your leg is perpendicular to the wall, leaning into your foot.
If it’s your arm, I personally recommend an active stretch, like clasping your hands together in front of you with your arms outstretched and pulling from your shoulders.
Ugh, worse than stretching a cramp sounds, another useful technique is massage. This might help, but in the words of the BWN, “persevere.” I couldn’t have said that better myself. If someone reasonably attractive is nearby and you’re feeling saucy, you can always
Isn’t ice the panacea for everything sports related? Love that icy stuff. Anyway, if you happen to be near a freezer when your muscle goes berserk, grab an icepack (or a pack of falafel) and ice away. Heat may also work, but if you can wait long enough to make something hot, you probably already had time to stretch your muscle out.
Both the Berkeley Wellness Newsletter and the Mayo Clinic agree on these tried and true methods.
Now onto what causes these muscle tantrums. It kind of feels like your muscle is being an angst-ridden teenager, doesn’t it? Just totally freaking out when nothing particular visible has occurred.
There are hog’s belly work of theories that have zip in terms of merit as to why exercise cramps get up in your business, and actually only a fruit-fly’s belly as to why these cramps find their way into our legs, arms, core and back.
What is not cramping your style:
Imbalance of electrolytes (but this theory is helping sports drinks fly off the shelves and induce a sugar coma within you)
Dehydration – honestly, if you’re dehydrated you have bigger issues than cramps, but that’s not where these are coming from either. According to the BWN, “a well-designed study from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, found that people with cramps are not more likely to be dehydrated or have low concentrations of electrolytes.”
What is cramping your style:
Overuse, fatigue, and pushing your body beyond its current limit. Upping workout intensity like a hare instead of a tortoise contributes to cramps, as does working out until you are too exhausted to notice you’re exhausted (this means your muscles are exhausted, even if your body as a whole is not, or your mind as a whole is not).
So what can you do? Well, you can take care of yourself, for sure. And I’m not going to willy-nilly suggest you attempt to not hydrate, but do so because it’s good for you and not because it’s cramp-prevention. Also, if drinking water helps you relieve a cramp, I’d never tell you not to do what works…though I will note that taking time to slow down and drink something equals combating fatigue and can actually help stretch muscles with the change in action. Now, go fight the good fight and tell cramps where to get off.