Nutritional advice for those predisposed to muscle cramps during or after a workout
Muscle cramps are often associated with dehydration. If you have ever experienced the excruciating pain of a severe muscle cramp, you may fearfully wonder if it will strike again. Because no one totally understands what causes muscle cramps, these unpredictable spasms are somewhat mysterious. They most commonly occur among athletes who work their muscles to the point of exhaustion. They are likely related to overexertion, but fluid loss, inadequate conditioning, and electrolyte imbalance may also be predisposing factors. The solution often can be found with massage and stretching. Other times, nutrition may be involved. Although the following nutritional tips are not guaranteed to resolve this malady, I recommend that people who are predisposed to getting cramps rule out these possible contributing causes:
- Lack of water. Cramps commonly coincide with dehydration. To prevent dehydration-induced cramps, drink more than enough fluids before, during, and after you exercise. Always drink enough fluids daily so that your urine is clear, pale yellow, and copious. During a long exercise session, you should target eight ounces (250 milliliters) of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Lack of calcium. Calcium plays an essential role in muscle contractions. Some active people report that their problem with cramping disappears when they boost their calcium intake. For example, one ballet dancer found that once she reintroduced yogurt and skim milk into her diet, her cramping disappeared. A mountaineer resolved his muscle cramps by taking antacid tablets containing calcium when hiking. But some exercise scientists question the accuracy of these anecdotes. Calcium imbalance seems an unlikely cause of muscle cramps because the bones are a huge calcium reservoir. If a dietary deficiency should occur, calcium would be released from the bones to provide what is needed for proper muscle contraction.
Nevertheless, to rule out any possible link between a calcium-poor diet and muscle cramps, athletes plagued by cramps should consume dairy products at least twice each day, such as low-fat milk on cereal and yogurt for a snack. This good nutritional practice certainly won’t hurt them and possibly may help.
- Lack of potassium. Electrolyte imbalance, such as lack of potassium, may play a role in muscle cramps. You can rule this out by eating potassium-rich foods on a daily basis, focusing on fruits and vegetables. But a potassium deficiency is unlikely to occur as a result of sweat losses, because the body contains much more potassium than even a marathoner might lose during a hot, sweaty race. Nevertheless, a daily potassium-rich diet certainly won’t hurt anyone, and in fact is a health-protective choice.
- Lack of sodium. Active people who restrict their sodium (salt) intake on a daily basis despite losing a significant amount of sodium through sweat may be putting themselves at risk of develop-ing a sodium imbalance that could contribute to cramps. This circumstance is most likely to occur in athletes with habitual low-sodium diets who exercise hard for more than four hours in the heat, such as tennis players, triathletes, or ultrarunners. The risk increases if they consume only water during the event and have eaten no foods or beverages that contain sodium. Sports drinks and salted pretzels would be wise snack choices during exercise.
Although the suggestions for resolving muscle cramps are only suggestions and not proven solutions, you might want to experiment with these dietary improvements if you repeatedly suffer from muscle cramps. Adding extra fluids, low-fat dairy products, potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, and a sprinkling of salt certainly won’t harm you, and it may resolve the worrisome problem. I also recommend that you consult with a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or coach regarding proper stretching and training techniques.
As I mentioned above, nutrition may play no role at all in your cramps. Given that cramps occur when muscles are fatigued, the problem may be related to a nerve malfunction that creates an imbalance between muscle excitation and inhibition, which prevents the muscle from relaxing. When that’s the case, stretching the cramp is the best solution.
Excerpted with permission from Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, by Nancy Clark, Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.