Muscle cramps, also called Charley horses, happen when a muscle contracts involuntarily, and usually very powerfully.
If you’ve ever had a cramp...
...you already know first-hand how painful and debilitating they are.
During training or competition, a cramp can be severe enough to stop you in your tracks (which is one of the reasons why supplements for muscle cramps is such a hot topic today).
But it gets worse:
While some cramps ease on their own, others can be much longer-lasting. If you palpate (touch) the muscle affected, it will feel very hard and painful. Extremely intense cramps can even cause muscle tears, especially if you try and stretch them out too aggressively.
Cramps can also hit you at night. There you are, relaxing and dreaming about your next workout when one of your muscles suddenly contracts and wakes you up. If you are lucky, this was a one-off event. However, one cramp often leads to another and then another.
Say goodbye to a restful night of sleep!
So... What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramps often come on unexpectedly, but there are also known triggers than can bring them on. Common causes include:
Dehydration – your body needs an abundant supply of water to function correctly. In fact, about 60% of your body weight is made up of water. If water levels fall too low, cramps are often the result.
Exercise increases your body temperature and your breathing rate. Your body excretes water in the form of sweat to keep you cool, and every exhalation contains water vapor too. This is why cramp tends to be more common toward the end of a workout or event.
Overexertion – intense exercise can overload your muscles, leading to cramping. This could be due to a lack of oxygen, the accumulation of lactic acid, or simply pushing yourself beyond your usual limits. In addition, training or competing before you have had a chance to recover could also trigger a cramp.
Mineral imbalances – minerals help control muscle and nerve function. Low levels of minerals can affect how your muscles contract and relax. Your mineral levels may be low or imbalanced because of dietary deficiencies or having lost minerals through sweating or excess urination.
Sedentarism – if you are used to being active, enforced inactivity can often trigger muscle cramp. A lot of exercisers get cramps after long periods of sitting – such as a car journey, plane flight, or a Netflix binge.
What Are The Best Strategies for Avoiding Cramps?
I'll be honest with you:
Cramps can hit you out of the blue, with no apparent reason or warning. It doesn’t matter how fit or well-hydrated you are; sometimes it’s just your turn!
However, there are a few things you can do that may reduce your chances of getting a muscle cramp.
1. Warm Up Properly
As an old coach used to say to me, if you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time to work out. Warming up prepares your body for the exercise to come and increases blood flow to your muscles. As lack of blood flow may increase your risk of cramp, it only makes sense that warming up properly may reduce your risk.
2. Hydrate Like a Boss
Most exercisers are already pretty good at staying hydrated but, if you are prone to cramps, you need to become a hydration master. If you exercise hard, especially in hot weather, you need more the recommended eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. Drink as much as it takes to keep your pee clear and avoid feeling thirsty.
Hydrate before, during, and after exercise.
3. Respect your Body’s Need for Rest
It's not enough to train hard; you have to train smart too. If you hammer your muscles every day without respite, you aren't giving your body the time it needs to recover. This could increase your chances of being struck down by a cramp. Make sure your workout schedule includes easy workouts as well as days off to allow for recovery. Tired muscles are more prone to cramps.
4. Stretch it Out
Stretching helps relax your muscles and also increases circulation. If you are prone to night cramps, or night tortures as they should be known, spend a few minutes stretching the muscles most prone to cramp before you go to bed. For most people, that’s the calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
5. Move, move, and move some more
Cramps are often triggered by inactivity. Avoid this problem by getting up and moving whenever the opportunity arises. For example, get up and walk to the water fountain once an hour at work. If you can’t get up for a walk, maybe because you are on a plane or stuck in a car, just contract and relax your muscles to keep your blood pumping.
Putting these strategies into action should help reduce your chances of getting a muscle cramp.
But there's more!
If you want to go all-in on cramp prevention, you can consider the following supplements.
Supplements for Muscle Cramps
While there is no magic bullet for preventing muscle cramps, there are a few supplements and substances that may help reduce the frequency and intensity of muscle spasms.
If you are prone to cramps, consider adding the following to your diet:
Potassium – potassium is one of several minerals that are important for nerve and muscle function. Low levels of potassium, medically called hypokalemia, are linked to cramps. You lose potassium when you sweat and urinate.
Foods such as avocados, bananas, kiwi, oranges, figs, spinach, and tomatoes all contain potassium. However, if you exercise intensely and sweat a lot, you could still end up running low on potassium unless you use a supplement.
Intake recommendations: Men should consume 3400mg of potassium per day, and women should consume 2600mg. (1)
Magnesium – like potassium, magnesium is another mineral that is important for both nerve and muscle function. People who exercise are often deficient in this crucial substance (2). Good dietary sources of magnesium include spinach, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, milk, and yogurt.
Confusingly, very few studies support the use of magnesium for treating cramps, and those that do were done on pregnant women (3). However, anecdotally, magnesium does appear to lessen the frequency and intensity of muscle cramps. Also, it's such a valuable mineral for everyone that it's worth making sure you get enough anyway.
Intake recommendations: Men should consume 400-420mg of magnesium per day, and women should consume 310-320mg (4).
Zinc – this mineral has many functions. It is the second most abundant mineral in your body and plays a vital role in nerve function. As such, deficiencies could increase your risk of cramp. Dietary zinc is commonly found in shellfish, legumes, red meat, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, and whole grains. If you are low on dietary zinc, studies suggest that taking a zinc supplement could help reduce your chances of getting cramp.
Intake recommendation: In studies, participants took 220 mg of zinc per day to ward off cramp (5).
Vitamin B Complex – vitamin B complex is comprised of eight B vitamins. The B vitamins in vitamin B complex are:
1. B-1 (thiamine)
2. B-2 (riboflavin)
3. B-3 (niacin)
4. B-5 (pantothenic acid)
5. B-6 (pyridoxine)
6. B-7 (biotin)
7. B-9 (folic acid)
8. B-12 (cobalamin)
The B vitamins have many functions, two of which are proper nerve function and muscle tone. Studies suggest (6) that this is a good vitamin for muscle cramps and that supplemental vitamin B complex is especially helpful for preventing nighttime cramps.
Intake recommendation: Vitamin B complexes are available in capsules and tablets. Follow the manufacturer's suggested use guidelines.
Pickle juice – pickle juice might not be something that you think as a supplement for muscle cramps, but studies suggest that this briny liquid can help prevent involuntary muscle spasms (7). According to the study, the reason that pickle juice helps alleviate and prevent cramps was unclear. However, it was hypothesized that something in the juice inhibited misfiring neurons and "switched off” the affected muscle. The study also suggested that vinegar may be as effective as pickle juice.
Intake recommendation: Unsurprisingly, there is no recommended intake for pickle juice. However, subjects in the study consumed 30-60 milliliters.
TRPs – TRPs is short for Transient Receptor Potential Channel Agonists. That’s a fancy way of saying they control nerve impulses in muscle cells. In studies, TRPs have been shown to reduce muscle cramps (8).
TRPs are present in a range of foods, including garlic, chili peppers, wasabi, peppermint, and stevia.
Intake recommendation: There are no specific recommendations for TRPs, but if you are prone to cramping, including plenty of foods like garlic and chili in your diet may help.
Muscle cramps are no laughing matter, especially if they disrupt your workout or wakes you up from a restful sleep. It’s perfectly normal to suffer the occasional muscle cramp, but frequent bouts of cramp can put a major dent in your performance. Use the strategies and supplements in this article to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of muscle cramps.