Medical Newsflash: Muscle cramps – why me, why now?
Dear runners, we hope you are well on your way to your relative peaks, it’s not long to go now.
You’re an active person, and activity involves movement of your muscles, no matter the type, size or strength of them. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and your muscles will occasionally (or often) call in the debt for all their hard work. This can result in cramping.
FACT: muscle cramps are described as a sudden painful, and involuntary contraction (spasm) of a single, or group of muscles. These can occur during or after exercise, and generally involves muscles of the lower extremities.
Common causes of muscle cramps include:
- Overuse of muscles in an under-trained state (running too fast or for too long when not properly conditioned)
- Lack of regular muscle stretching and poor flexibility
- Maintaining prolonged positions for too long
- Underlying injury
- Genetic predisposition
- Certain medications (always ask your doctor if any prescribed medication could have potential cramping side effects)
- Certain medical conditions
FACT: Although we cannot completely discard the theories of electrolyte imbalances (sodium, potassium, magnesium) and dehydration as causes of cramp, there is no current evidence to support or refute them. So we always say keep adequately hydrated, and top up with electrolytes nonetheless.
FACT: It should be noted that other conditions might mimic muscle cramps, but have an entirely different pathology. For example, inadequate blood supply to the muscles caused by narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) will cause pain, or sciatica which involves nerve compression and resultant pain in the lower limbs, and chronic overuse compartment syndromes. In these cases, and if you are unsure, it’s advised to seek medical opinion as soon as possible.
In general, muscle cramps are harmless, but can cause pain, injury and the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). Here are some suggestions to avoid those pesky pains on race day:
- Stretch your muscles regularly, and throw in some massage when you can
- Go into the race well conditioned
- Try to fit in interval sessions in your training schedule
- Achieve the race distance in training at least a few times before race day
- Rather start slow, and finish fast (a sometimes tough but necessary ask!)
- Remain sufficiently hydrated, and add some electrolytes intermittently
- If muscles are twitching (pre-cramp), ease off the pace and intensity
- If you’re already cramping, stop and stretch in a slow and sustained manner (not always easy!)
- Running through a cramp can cause muscle damage, so it’s always best to stop and stretch it out
Keep up the cramp-free work!
The OMTOM medical team