By Shammara Al-Darraji, ATC, Portsmouth High School Athletic Trainer
Imagine it is the fourth quarter during a Friday night football game, your team is down by 6, and the next play is going to you. You are hoping to tie the game for your team. Adrenaline is at an all-time high, and you are preparing to give this play everything you got. You explode off the line and fall to the ground grabbing your leg. You experience an excruciating pain surge through your calf. You cramped. Could this have been prevented?
I’m sure everyone has experienced a cramp before, but there are ways to help prevent them from happening.
A cramp is a sudden, painful tightening in a muscle, often seen after prolonged exercise, that limits movement.
Ways to help prevent muscle cramps
The first step to training appropriately is to warm up your muscles beforehand sufficiently. This is important to get your body into its “exercise mode.” Additionally, try to progress your workout intensity gradually, allowing your body to accommodate the change and avoid muscle cramps.
Allowing your body to adjust to changing temperatures is essential to prevent cramping. Acclimating to your environment before heavy exercise allows your metabolism to adapt to its external inputs. For example, warmer temperatures would cause your core body temperature to rise quickly, throwing off your body's metabolic balance.
Muscle cramping is correlated directly with dehydration due to excessive sweating. When you sweat, your body loses water and essential minerals such as potassium and sodium (better known as salt). For this reason, it is wise to consider using a replacement beverage that includes sodium as a cramp prevention strategy. High sodium sports drinks are specifically formulated with various salts to help prevent cramping. It is important to note that when high levels of plain water are consumed alone, blood sodium levels can dip too low, and a dangerous situation known as Hyponatremia can occur. This can cause nausea and vomiting, mental confusion, headaches, fatigue, and at its worst, can lead to seizures and coma.
How much should you drink? Try this formula:
Your Body Weight X 0.67 = the number of ounces of water to drink per day. Then add 12 oz for every 30 minutes of exercise.
Thus: a 150lb athlete who competes for 90 minutes needs:
150 x .67 = 100.5 oz plus (3 x 12 oz) or 136.5 oz of water per day.
FUN FACT: pickle juice (which has a high salt content and a sharp taste imparted by the acetic acid content) was reported to be effective in reducing the duration of cramps. Studies have shown that cramp duration was reduced by about 37% on average when 1 mL of pickle juice was ingested 2 seconds after induction of cramping.
Potassium is a nutrient that helps facilitate muscle contractions. It is a neuromuscular transmitter that provides communication between muscles and nerves. This communication breaks down when potassium levels are low, and muscles can “get stuck” in a contracted position that we feel as spasms or cramps. Historically, potassium has been associated with bananas. However, they are not the best nutrient source, providing just nine percent of your daily recommended intake. Instead, consider one of the following five foods listed below to help with muscle cramps:
Carbohydrate depletion will also lead to muscle cramps. They are the primary fuel used during exercise. The energy used for exercise is stored in complex chains of carbohydrates known as glycogen within the muscles and liver. Low or exhausted levels of carbohydrates can directly cause muscle cramping. Muscles need this energy to both activate and relax. With low levels of fuel, relaxing is impaired, and cramping occurs. It is best to stock the body with carbohydrates (particularly for days when multiple games/events occur) at least 3-4 hours before competition. Many sports drinks also contain carbohydrates and will help replenish an athlete's stores before, during, and after competitions. Check out these foods to add carbohydrates to your diet
Active muscles cramps are best treated with a passive stretching regiment and replenishing essential minerals such as sodium and potassium; however, the best way to prevent muscle cramps is to avoid them through the guidelines listed in this article.
About Shammara Al-Darraji: Shammara Al-Darraji is a Certified Athletic Trainer through the National Athletic Trainers Association Board of Certification. She graduated from Keene State College with a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education and Sports Medicine in 2013.
Shammara has been the Head Athletic Trainer at Portsmouth High School going on four years. Prior to that, she worked for Kimball Union Academy for three years. She is excited to be a part of the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital family and grow her skill set collaborating with The Center for Athletes. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her family and hiking with her fiancée and two dogs.
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