Training Tips: How To Deal With Muscle Cramps

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You cross the point guard, drive into the lane, spin around the center, go up for a reverse layup, and… Ouch! You’re hit with an excruciating cramp.

Muscle cramps are pains occurring inside the muscle that come from contractions or overshortening, says Dr. Jordan Metzl, sports medicine physician and author of The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies. They usually occur because you haven’t taken care of your muscles properly.

Cramps can afflict any athlete, even the professionals. LeBron James battled muscle cramping in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals. During the 2015 U.S. Open, more tennis pros had to retire from play in the first round than any other round in a Grand Slam tournament, with cramps being cited as the main cause.

The first step in learning how to prevent and deal with these aches and pains is to determine what’s causing them. There are two types of muscle cramps: nutritional and functional.

Image: Getty Images / Bogdan Kosanovi
Image: Getty Images / Bogdan Kosanovi

Nutritional

“About 85 percent of cramping cases are generally nutritional cramping,” Dr. Metzl says. “These cramps come from either being dehydrated or the loss of sodium, called hyponatremia, on hot, humid days.” They begin in smaller muscles first, like the fingers and toes, and contrary to popular belief, a banana isn’t the cure.

When it comes to hydration, you should be drinking enough to pass the “see-through-your-pee” test, as Dr. Metzl calls it—and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Prior to a big game, race, or event, hydrate for at least 24 hours beforehand. That means drinking extra water or sports drinks, which are a great option because they provide fluids that contain electrolytes and sodium. Dr. Metzl also suggests eating pretzels or dill pickles to increase sodium levels.

Functional

Functional cramping makes up the other 15 percent of cramping issues. “This happens in the big muscles like the quads, hamstrings, and lower back,” Dr. Metzl says. “It means that the muscle goes into spasms because it’s either not strong enough or not flexible enough.”

Foam rolling is a great way to help improve flexibility. Dr. Metzl suggests rolling each muscle for one minute a day, every day. To increase strength, doing exercises that focus on building up the problem area is key.

You know that terrible cramp you sometimes get in your side when you’re running? That’s a functional cramp too, explains Dr. Metzl. A weak back and lower abs mean that a lot of force is being exerted on the diaphragm, which results in what he refers to as a “side stich.” The best way to prevent this from happening is by strengthening the abdominals with exercises like planks and sit ups, as well as working the back by doing deadlifts and supermans. However, if you experience this type of side pain mid-run, adjust your breathing pattern to exhale as your foot hits the ground. If that doesn’t work, try reaching your arms overhead to open up the diaphragm and stretch to the side opposite the muscle cramp, suggests Dr. Metzl.

It’s important to recognize that there are varying degrees of muscle cramping. In some cases, the pain is mild and a bit of simple stretching will allow you to finish whatever is it you’re doing. However, if the cramps are intense, you may need to stop. “In all cases, back off and try to get a sports drink in you,” Dr. Metzl says. “Remember that the more heat and humidity outside, the more your body will sweat and the higher the risk of cramping. As such, try to recognize the kind of day it is outside and adjust your fluid intake accordingly.”

Despite proper preparation, there are some days that cramps will get the best of you. But as LeBron James showed us, it’s OK to just sit one out sometimes.