You’re crushing a 45 Min Climb Ride, and the next thing you know, your calf muscle seizes up, bringing your sweat session to a sudden halt.
Muscle cramps are involuntary muscle contractions that most athletes have experienced—on the football field, the tennis court, and maybe even during a MYX workout A cramped muscle feels hard to the touch — it's in full-on flex mode — and though it’s generally harmless, it can be through-the-roof painful.
Cramps that occur during or right after physical activity are called exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC). The intensity and duration can vary, from a brief spasm that resolves within seconds to a “lock up” lasting several minutes.
What causes muscle cramps?
Tbh, they remain something of a medical mystery. Though there are a couple of theories as to what’s going on in the body, there is no scientific consensus as to why they occur.
I’ve heard it’s from dehydration and electrolyte depletion.
That’s the most common explanation. During a sweaty workout you’re losing a lot of fluid and salt, and plenty of medical exercise specialists will vouch for the sweat-cramp connection. However, studies linking fluid loss and cramps have yielded mixed results.
Some research shows that consuming fluids with electrolytes — mostly sodium, but also potassium, calcium, and magnesium — can ward off dehydration and electrolyte depletion and prevent cramps. (Running low on electrolytes can cause muscles and nerves to malfunction, which is what triggers those cramps.)
What about muscle fatigue?
That may be another factor. Some specialists in sports dietetics (CSSD) say that tired muscles are more likely to cramp, which is why they often seize up at the end of an intense workout or during endurance events. Overtraining can be a culprit because if the muscle is really beat up, it won’t be able to absorb nutrients and get rid of waste quite as easily. This can happen over a period of time or during one long stretch of activity like a marathon.
If you’re new to exercise you may be more likely to get cramps, since your muscles will fatigue quicker than those of seasoned exercisers.
I get cramps more often during the summer.
If it’s really steamy outside and you’re not used to the heat, it may increase your chance of cramps. One analysis of muscle cramps among American football players showed that 95 percent occurred during periods of hot weather, and most often during the first 3 weeks of practice, when fitness and acclimation levels are likely to be lowest and when the training load is often the highest.
If you’re working out in 90 degree temperatures you’re also likely to get dehydrated.
If I stretched more, would that help?
Good question. Some research suggests that inadequate stretching may be associated with an increased risk of cramping. One (very adamant) researcher goes so far as to say that stretching is the most effective means of relieving cramps because it increases the “inhibitory input into the muscles.” It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t stretch enough.
A lack of blood flow can also cause cramps if your muscles aren’t getting the oxygen they need. In many cases, it's simply that your clothing is too restrictive (lookin’ at you, tight biker shorts.) Many athletes love compression gear, so if that’s you, make sure it's not so tight that it restricts your circulation.
So the jury’s out on what exactly causes cramps. What about ways to prevent them?
Here are a few suggestions, from the science and our own MYX coaches.
Drink up. There are so many health benefits to being well hydrated that even if it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that you’ll never get a cramp, it’s still a really good idea. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. Plus, drinking up during exercise will likely improve performance. “My high school cross country coach would always say, if you wait to drink until you’re thirsty, it’s already too late,” says MYX Coach Shaun Patrick Tubbs. Hydrate at regular intervals during your workout, and also after you're finished.
Fuel up. “Most of the time, cramping is a result of some type of nutrient deficiency, running out of something like electrolytes or carbs,” Shaun adds. “That means, if possible, fuel up—hydrate and have a light snack— around 2 hours prior to exercising so your body will already have on hand the nutrients it needs.”
MYX Coach Jesse Barton agrees. “When I’m training clients and they get a cramp, at that point, it's too late to hydrate/eat a banana/get some electrolytes into their system, so I advise them to take those measures daily and definitely before our next workout.”
Eat a salty snack. Electrolytes, especially sodium, control the shift of fluids in and out of cells. We lose more sodium in sweat than the other electrolytes, so consider snacking on a handful of pretzels or salted nuts, or sipping a sports drink before working out.
Here’s an option for pickle lovers: One study showed that muscle cramps could be resolved by drinking 1.5 oz of pickle juice (which is high in sodium) for every 100 lbs of weight, and that the recovery was 45 percent faster after drinking the pickle juice than after drinking no liquid at all.
Have a banana. They’re rich in potassium and magnesium and many people (raising our hand here) swear that half a banana a day keeps muscle cramps at bay. Others say that Tonic Water (quinine) does the trick.
Train appropriately. Pushing yourself to boost your fitness level is great—if it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you. Just be smart about it. Don’t overreach far beyond your limits, since muscle fatigue has been shown to cause cramps. “When it happens during a workout, I'll have clients rest for a few moments, stretch it out, foam roll it out, and then try again, perhaps with a lighter load,” says Jesse. “If that doesn't fix it, we move on to something else, because that cramp is the body speaking to us. It's saying, ‘back off!’ And so we do.
“If the cramp happens during a MYX ride, I'd advise our users to try stretching it out, pause the screen, walk around for a minute or so, and then get back on the bike, easing back into the workout.”
Stretch more. Incorporating some stretches into your workout routine will help keep muscles loose and limber. If you get a cramp, gently stretching the affected muscle to your tolerance will help it relax and relieve the contraction. Light massage can also help because it creates a neurostimulation that tells the muscle to relax. “Some people have chronically tight areas that cramp easily,” says Jesse. “If that’s you, consistent foam rolling and stretching of the affected areas would be advisable.”
“If you're experiencing muscle cramps, remember to be patient with your body,” says MYX Coach Davanna Law. “It's easy to become frustrated when a muscle cramp interrupts your sweat sesh, but be generous in giving your body the love and attention it needs. When your body is talking to you, listen!"
*No content on this blog should be used as a substitute for personalized medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. If you experience frequent muscle cramps, consult with your doctor or other healthcare provider.