Cramps which occur during exercise, scientifically known as 'Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping' (EAMC) are painful, involuntary muscle contractions which stop any sports person dead in their tracks!
Even though cramps have been affecting sports professionals and 'weekend warriors' alike for years and years, still no one is 100% certain as to exactly WHY they occur. The following points detail the risk factors for cramps and how to manage each one respectively:
- Fatigue - cramps are more likely to occur in over-worked, tired muscles, so be sure to rest between training sessions. Ensure you don't over-do things and of course stretch well before and after exercising. Cramping is less likely to occur in athletes who are well trained and conditioned for their sport. Keep your fitness levels up and take things slowly when returning to exercise after injury or time off training.
- Dehydration - hydration is important for heat regulation and electrolyte balance. Be sure to start exercise well hydrated. Depending on the type and duration of your exercise, you may also need to drink fluids during your exercise. This is the case in a game of AFL; players should sip fluids on-field and also during break times. After exercising, ensure you replace all fluids lost; this is done by weighing yourself before and after exercise. You need to drink 1.5 times as much fluid as you lost in order to fully rehydrate.
- Sodium imbalance - some athletes lose large amounts of sodium (a.k.a salt) in their sweat, leading to sodium imbalances. This can be minimised by taking in some salt before, during and after exercise. This may be in the form of a sports drink such as Powerade or Gatorade, a handful of salted nuts or pretzels, or an Aussie favourite - a vegemite sandwich!!
- Potassium imbalance - like sodium, potassium is an electrolyte which is lost in sweat and is crucial for optimal muscle function. Potassium levels can be kept topped up by drinking potassium rich sports drinks, again such as Powerade or Gatorade, and eating potassium rich foods such as bananas or oranges, before, during or after exercise.
- Calcium imbalance - calcium is another electrolyte involved in muscle function. Keep calcium levels maintained by drinking or eating calcium rich foods such as milk, yoghurt or cheese. These make great pre- and post exercise snacks.
- Magnesium imbalance - magnesium is yet another electrolyte which assists the muscles to contract. Dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are rich in magnesium as well as calcium, so eating these pre- or post exercise is like getting 2 nutrients for the price of 1!!! Ensure you also include other magnesium rich foods in your day-to-day diet, by eating foods such as dark green veggies, wholegrains and nuts. You can read more about the legendairy role of dairy foods in sport nutrition, along with some tasty dairy recipes, here.
- Baseline diet - don't get caught in the trap of over-focusing on your diet on the day of, and before exercise. Your day-to-day, baseline diet is just as important. Eating a wide variety of foods will supply you with a diverse range of nutrients and lots of energy to train and allow your muscles to grow and repair themselves. Avoid foods which are very high in fat, as having too much fat in your arteries will reduce blood flow to your muscles.
As you can see, there are a number of factors which affect your risk of developing cramps. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of cramping is to eat a well balanced diet, drink plenty of fluids, train well and rest well each day.
- Em xx
For more information on cramping, sports nutrition, or to find an Accredited Sports Dietitian, check out the Sports Dietitians Australia website.