In last month’s newsletter, we discussed how to address muscle cramps when they occur. This month, I want to take a step back and potentially alert you to the larger question surrounding cramping. WHY do we get muscle cramps?
The popular belief is that muscle cramps are more common during exercise in the heat because sweat contains fluids as well as electrolytes (salt, potassium, magnesium and calcium). When muscles are depleted of nutrients, the incidence of muscle spasms increases. If you are new to training or are changing the type of training, you are at a greater risk to get cramps near the end of (or the night after) intense or prolonged exercise, due to what some feel is a lack of conditioning. Researchers are constantly testing these hypotheses and none have yet to conclusively confirm why we are cramping. For most of the evidence that is sited is anecdotal and mostly observational.
According to a review of the literature conducted by Martin Schwellnus from the University of Cape Town, the evidence supporting both the “electrolyte depletion” and “dehydration” hypotheses as the cause of muscle cramps is not convincing. He goes on to write,
“Scientific evidence for the “altered neuromuscular control” hypothesis is based on evidence from research studies in human models of muscle cramping, epidemiological studies in cramping athletes, and animal experimental data. Whilst it is clear that further evidence to support the “altered neuromuscular control” hypothesis is also required, research data are accumulating that support this as the principal pathophysiological mechanism for the aetiology of exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC).”
The principal pathophysiological mechanism that leads to exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC) is known as altered neuromuscular control (ANC). ANC is often related to muscle fatigue and results in a disruption of muscle coordination and control. In other words, it’s more than simply dehydration and loss of electrolytes. It’s more plausible to be a pathophysiological mechanism or rather a combination of factors that can lead to cramping. Addressing one factor like dehydration, may not prevent cramps unless you are also addressing several other factors as well. Until you do, your muscles will continue to ‘cease-up’ and muscle function will halt.
Ultimately, despite the claims made by sports drink companies or copper wearing compression sleeve lovers, cramps can be unavoidable (unless you determine not to push yourself to those limits). As it goes with any other part of your wellness plan, you must tailor it to fit your own needs. Simply Googling ways to avoid cramps or doing what your running club buddies do isn’t going to work the same for you as it has for others. So, the next time you cramp up and wonder how this could happen when you know you drank enough, stretched enough and most importantly, rested enough, take a step back and consider the bigger picture and don’t be too quick to blame a singular factor.