Cramps are terrible. Even the word is displeasing — it’s dismal and clunky — so it’s kind of a perfect descriptor for when your muscles tighten but don’t have enough fuel or spirit to relax back to their original happy state. The good news is that most of us who aren’t training for endurance runs or Olympic rowing competitions can generally keep our systems in working order with a consistent supply of water and electrolytes.
Cramps fall into two camps, says Mark Lavallee, chair of the Sports Medicine Society for USA Weightlifting. The first is metabolic: You’re cramping up because of dehydration or an electrolyte deficiency, where your muscles are happy to contract but don’t have enough fluid to relax. The second is more mechanical, such as if you’ve never run in your life but decide to go for a nice morning five-miler. Both are awful. Here’s how to avoid - or at least minimize - the awful.
Before you cramp
▪ Audit your water levels. Lavallee has a few ways to evaluate your hydration level: If the mucus in your nose or mouth is tacky and thick, if your saliva is sticky, or if you’re urinating a dark shade of yellow, your tank is low. (You want a faint yellow.) Drink up.
▪ Massage yourself. Robinson’s also big on such simple self-care tools as foam rollers and stretch bands. “We think of muscles as one huge group, but there are little micro-spindles that make up fibers,” he says. “Some might be already cramping, but you don’t feel it because it’s on a microscopic level.” A little attention will help loosen them up. He’s also a fan of compression garments, which enclose the muscle and limit the opportunity for it to react and spasm quickly.
Use your brain. “It’s like any preparation or any kind of work - if you get behind it, you have to do a lot more to catch up,” Rummel says. “If you stay on top, it’s not that bad.”
After you cramp
Ugh, sorry. Been there.
▪ Hydrate again. Get some water, a sports drink or a high-sodium drink mix in there; it takes about seven minutes for your stomach to absorb it. If you’re not into sports drinks, which can be high in sugar and calories, drop some electrolyte tablets or powder into your water bottle, or sample coconut water. Years ago, trainers got into pickle juice, which is high in sodium and vinegar. Lavallee says it’s not nutritionally any more beneficial than water or Gatorade, but it is a conversation starter.