Frequent muscle cramping can point to a number of deficits, and impacts a large number of athletes across sports
Exercise-associated muscle cramps are extremely common for athletes and impact players in a variety of sports. According to a study published in Sports Medicine in November 2019, it is difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it appears that frequent muscle cramping affects as many as 67% of triathletes, between 18 and 70% of marathoners and endurance cyclists, and up to 53% of football players.
The rate of occurrence seems to vary as well. For instance, some athletes only get muscle cramps once or twice in their lifetime. Others deal with this uncomfortable and sometimes incredibly painful experience on a regular basis. What causes athletes’ muscles to cramp?
Causes of frequent muscle cramping
A 2010 study reveals that the exact causes of these types of cramps “remains unknown.” That said, some of the most common theories revolve around the athlete being dehydrated, which causes an electrolyte imbalance and subsequent muscle cramping, or the potential for neuromuscular causes.
The 2019 study adds that there are a few factors that are thought to increase an athlete’s risk of frequent muscle cramping. Among them are training in more extreme temperatures (both hot and cold), enduring high training loads, exercise sessions that are longer in duration, and the existence of an underlying health condition.
Certain medications may also make an athlete more susceptible to frequent muscle cramping. MedicineNet advises that diuretics, high blood pressure meds, and some drugs used to prevent osteoporosis in postmenopausal women all fall into this category and may have this as a potential side effect.
The effect of muscle cramping on athletes
At a minimum, frequent muscle cramping can be bothersome. Athletes feel forced to “play through the pain,” both in trainings and games, in an effort to keep their bodies in top physical shape and become more proficient at their sport of choice.
If the cramps are extreme or body-wide, a complete refrain from exercise may be necessary. In cases such as this, the pain becomes too intense to work through, which means sitting it out while the rest of the team is able to practice and progress.
Psychology Today adds that muscle cramps can also have a mental impact. Namely, when the cramps affect the individual’s ability to sleep, mental health conditions like anxiety and depression become harder to treat.
Helping athletic patients develop a cramp-free health regimen
If one of your athletic patients struggles with regular and/or debilitating muscle cramps, there are a few actions you can suggest that could help. These suggestions may be able to stop the cramps completely. If not, they can at least help by reducing their intensity and duration.
The first suggestion is to engage in passive stretching exercises. Research published in Clinics in Sports Medicine calls this type of stretching one of the “most effective immediate management” techniques for exercise associated muscle cramps, secondary to rest.
Passive stretching involves staying in a specific position for a certain period of time in an attempt to elongate the muscle. These stretches should be directed toward the area that normally cramps. For example, if the cramp is typically in the quads, a kneeling lunge and standing quad stretch can both help relax this particular muscle.
Another suggestion to help your athletic patients get and stay cramp-free is to reinforce the importance of hydrating before, during, and after their training sessions. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports that, generally speaking, women should consume an average of 91 ounces of water a day from both food and beverages, whereas men should consume 125 ounces daily. Approximately 80% of this amount should come directly from drinks.
For athletes who work out for long periods of time or engage in intensive workouts, plain water should be supplemented with a drink that also contains electrolytes. This helps replace the sodium and other substances lost during the exercise session which, in turn, helps prevent cramps.
One study even found that drinking pickle juice helps reduce the duration of muscle cramps should they occur. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why or how it works, but believe that pickle juice somehow stops alpha motor neurons from firing within the cramping muscle.
Developing training regimens that don’t place as much stress on the muscles that tend to cramp offers benefits as well. Encourage the athletes to pay attention to their workouts in an effort to learn their muscle’s limits. Staying under this amount can help stop them from cramping in the first place.