MYTH: Muscle cramps are caused by an imbalance of electrolytes.
If you are experiencing muscle cramps regularly (e.g., calves) while doing exercise, you may consider increasing your potassium and decreasing your sodium intake. Translation: eat more foods like dried apricots, beans, spinach, potatoes, and avocados and eat less foods like bacon, ham, sausage, biscuits, and most commercial cereals. Insufficient potassium may lead to fatigue, cramping and muscle damage. Physical and mental stress, excessive sweating, alcohol, coffee, and a high intake of salt and sugar will deplete your potassium level. But having said this, there really is not enough evidence to support that a lack of potassium is the cause of a muscle cramp.
MYTH: Muscle cramps are caused by dehydration or sodium loss.
Muscle cramps can occur among people who work out--especially in hot, humid conditions. But people who experience cramps are no more likely to be dehydrated than people who do NOT experience cramps. Drinking lots of water or Gatorade, for instance, will not necessarily ward off cramps thought to be caused by sodium loss.
MYTH: Muscle cramps can be prevented by taking vitamin or mineral supplements.
There is no evidence to indicate this to be true. This is based on the belief that cramps are caused by a lack of certain electrolytes within the bloodstream. Even if this were the case, eating a banana for instance to replace potassium stores would not be sufficient to lessen cramping. Why? Because it would take at least 30 minutes after eating the banana for potassium levels within the blood to increase appreciably.
MYTH: Muscle cramps can be prevented by performing static stretches.
Performing a static stretch during a cramp will undoubtedly relieve the cramp but there is a lack of evidence to support that stretching before the onset of a cramp will prevent the cramp from occurring.
Here are the facts:
FACT: Muscle cramps can occur in people who are unfit and/or extremely fatigued.
FACT: Muscle cramps can occur in people who take certain medications and have particular medical conditions (e.g., atherosclerosis).
FACT: Muscle cramps seem to occur more often in people who have a history of experiencing muscle cramps. In other words, a person who has experienced a muscle cramp in the past is more prone to muscle cramps in the future.
FACT: Muscle cramps can be prevented by proper training and by gradual increases in exercise intensity.
What should you do if you experience a muscle cramp in the calf?
Since cramps occur when a muscle is shortened, flexing your ankle to stretch the calf muscle will relieve a cramp. This will be very painful but this will ameliorate the pain more quickly. Massaging the affected area may also help. Also, to reduce the onset of calf cramps consider performing the runner stretch:
- Stand two to three feet from a wall with toes pointed to wall
- Move one foot forward about one foot from the wall
- Lean forward with forearms resting against the wall
- Ensure the rear leg is straight with the back heel resting on the floor
- Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds
- Switch legs and repeat
BOTTOM LINE: The etiology of muscle cramps is complicated because many factors may come into play (e.g., diet, hydration level, exercise duration and intensity, amount and quality of sleep, environmental conditions, etc.).
Brian Danley, CFT
"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going."