For all the good that exercise does for your body—and it does plenty of good—it can take a toll on your hard-working muscles. Soreness and fatigue are two common symptoms that you’ll notice after a tough workout. But, something that you may feel immediately during a workout is a muscle cramp.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a muscle cramp is “a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles.” You know the kind. One minute you’re running, and the next you’re clutching at your calf because it feels like a vise is constricting the muscle into a terrible ball of tightness. Or, maybe you’re lying in bed, and a sudden cramp sets your foot on fire. Either way, they’re unpleasant and may render the muscle useless for a few seconds or several minutes. Fortunately, while they hurt in the short term, and may disrupt your day, they are generally harmless in the long term.
Below, we’ll learn more about these painful nuisances, including why they occur, what to do about them, and how to prevent them from happening in the future.
Why do muscle cramps occur?
“There can be many causes for muscle cramps,” says Aaptiv Trainer Kenta Seki, “including, not stretching often enough, dehydration, mineral malnutrition, muscle overuse, exercising in hot temperatures, and poor circulation.”
Tight muscles are more likely to seize up, so it pays to stay limber. Stretching in the morning, before bed, and after exercise is a great way to keep your muscles loose. And, drinking plenty of water is a good way to keep them hydrated. This is important because dehydration can impair muscle function. However, your body needs more than just water to operate at its best. A healthy diet full of vitamins and minerals will keep your body in balance. If you’re short on minerals like sodium, calcium, potassium, or magnesium, your muscles can’t function at their best, and you’re at a higher risk for developing cramps.
Pay attention to fatigue.
If you’re a serious athlete, muscle overuse and exercising in hot temperatures might come with the job description. But most of us can scale back, as needed, which is good because no one wants heat cramps. So, if your muscles are feeling tight or fatigued, listen to your body. Take a day off to rest, get a massage, or do anything else that feels good and promotes recovery. If the temperature is oppressively hot, try moving indoors, exercising in the early morning, or waiting until the sun goes down.
Seki notes that more serious cases of muscle cramping can be caused by nerve compression. In this case, physical trauma or extended pressure—such as draping your arm over the back of a chair or sleeping in an odd position—can cause a nerve to become compressed. Another example is spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, usually caused by age, that puts pressure on your nerves. The result is often cramp-like pain, numbness, and weakness in your legs, which can make walking or even standing difficult. Different than temporary exercise-related cramps, nerve compression typically requires a visit to the doctor.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
To prevent muscle cramps, just remember what causes them in the first place. You’ll want to stretch frequently—especially before and after exercise—drink plenty of water, and consume your recommended daily allowance of magnesium, potassium, and calcium, says Seki.
In addition to stretching, warming up before exercise is a great way to prep the muscles for activity. Dynamic movements like walking, air squats, and arm circles will help you to loosen up and avoid straining your muscles.
What you eat, and when, can also have an effect on muscle cramps. Exercising right after eating can put you at a higher risk for developing abdominal cramps, like that pesky side stitch. So, aim to eat larger meals at least a couple of hours before exercise. And, while coffee is a great pick-me-up and is known to boost athletic performance, too much caffeine can also hinder you. It’s a diuretic, so loading up before exercise can leave you feeling dehydrated.
How to Relieve Muscle Cramps
“To alleviate cramps while they are happening, stop doing whatever it is that you are doing. Gently stretch and massage the muscle to help it relax,” says Seki. “You can also apply heat or cold to the muscle.”
Stretching is a quick and effective remedy, and it’s something you can easily do almost anywhere. If your calf seizes up, try pulling your foot toward you while keeping your leg straight, or lean into a wall with your legs staggered and your back foot flat on the floor. If it’s your hamstring that’s acting up, place one foot on a chair or bench, and lean forward into the leg. Typically, stretching will cure what ails you.
If that doesn’t work, a little self-massage is effective and feels good. And, if you still need some help after all that, ice can relieve pain, while heat—whether from a heating pad or a hot bath—can relax tight muscles.