Q: How can I prevent cramping while exercising?
A: No doubt about it, muscle cramps hurt! So what are they and how can we prevent them? A muscle cramp (aka a “charlie horse” if it occurs in the leg) is an involuntary, sustained and forceful muscle contraction that can last a few seconds to what seems like a lot longer! Skeletal muscles are the type of muscles that are most likely to cramp, with calf, thigh and muscles in the arch of the foot as notoriously common spots. Although the exact cause of muscle cramping during exercise is unknown, four major contributing factors have been identified:
- An imbalance in the electrolyte level of the body fluids (most notably sodium and potassium).
- Lack of a proper warm-up and cool-down.
- Muscle fatigue.
The best way to prevent muscle cramps is to prevent the four major contributing factors:
- Drink lots of fluid before, during and after your workouts. A good rule of thumb to determine how much fluid to drink during your workout is to gauge your “sweat rate” and try to match fluid loss with fluid intake. There are calculations to determine your exact sweat rate, with the average person losing roughly 25 to 50 ounces of sweat per hour. Drinking at least 8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes would cover you if you lose approximately 32 ounces of fluid per hour.
- Eat a healthy plant-based diet naturally rich in potassium (bananas, potatoes, papayas and spinach are all high-potassium foods), and do not restrict sodium in the diet directly before a long exercise bout in the heat.
- Make sure to warm up before exercising by performing a slow version of the same exercise that you will be doing during your exercise bout, and cool down by decreasing intensity until your heart rate returns to normal
- Follow a regular aerobic exercise training program, gradually increasing in intensity and duration from week to week, which is the best way to train your muscles to resist fatigue.