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Five Tips for Tackling Muscle Cramps

Do you get muscle cramps when you’re working out? A side stitch when you’re running? Do your calves tighten up unexpectedly? Does your hamstring tighten on the erg or in the boat?

Up to 95 percent of the general population are affected by what is called exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC)—or muscle cramps that occur when exercising. A cramp is a muscle that has become contracted, or shortened. Not only do muscle cramps occur during exercise, they occur more frequently after exercise or competition.

Excessive sweating has been identified as one culprit for muscle cramps. As is well known, a rower can sweat a lot, whether on the water or in the gym. And if he or she is not well hydrated before exercising, or is failing to adequately hydrate during exercise, the risk for dehydration and cramping may be increased. The loss of important electrolytes such as sodium and potassium may be part of the picture, too. Both fluid and electrolyte losses are why it’s common to hear advice about loading up on potassium-rich foods such as banana or potato, and guzzling large amounts of water or sports drink.

But research has been slim in proving that dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities are the root cause of muscle cramps. This is partly due to the fact that muscle cramps are spontaneous and often unpredictable, making them difficult to re-enact in the lab setting. One researcher, Kevin C. Miller, has found that cramps in mildly dehydrated athletes who were minimally fatigued “were not likely caused by dehydration.”

He proposes neuromuscular fatigue (muscle exhaustion) as a theory for why muscle cramps occur in athletes. Neuromuscular fatigue stems from overuse of the muscles coupled with inadequate rest. When a muscle is extremely tired, mechanisms within the muscle start to misfire. Small nerves that should keep the muscle from over-contracting may malfunction and cause the muscle to bunch up, rather than relax.

The degree of muscle exhaustion from one athlete to the next occurs on a continuum with an individual threshold at which muscle exhaustion is likely to occur. This may be the reason some athletes experience cramps and others don’t.

Understanding why muscle cramps occur is important, but preventing them from sidelining your exercise is even better. Here are five ways to lessen the likelihood of muscle cramps:

Drink Adequate Fluids
Make sure you get enough fluids throughout the day: before practice, during and after it’s over. For more about hydration, read this July 2013 article.

Eat Potassium- and Sodium-Rich Foods

If you don’t eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables and dairy products (or non-dairy substitutes), you may need to revamp it to help prevent muscle cramps. Foods with high potassium content are banana, potato, tomato, white beans, sweet potato, chocolate milk and orange juice.

Nearly all foods contain sodium, but good sources are anything salty like pretzels or crackers (but watch the chips!). Just beware that immediate relief is unlikely to occur—it takes time to digest food.

Try Pickle Juice

Kevin C. Miller has studied the effects of pickle juice on athletes and observed it to quickly correct muscle cramps in some athletes. He suspects that the vinegar in pickle juice, not sodium, activates the nerve receptors in muscle tissue and disrupts the reflex commotion in the muscles. More research is needed to prove this an effective course of action, but those who have had success with it, swear by it. The good news is that pickle juice isn’t likely to cause harm, but it may make your lips pucker.

Adjust the Training Intensity
New or out-of-shape rowers who start intense exercise may struggle with muscle cramps. Build up your mileage and intensity slowly, adding strength training focused on muscles that have cramped in the past.

Stretching is the Secret Weapon

Stretching is the most common advice and most effective for relieving muscle cramping, but this might not be effective for heat-related cramping. Develop a stretching routine as part of your workout to minimize muscle cramps.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School ( and author of the upcoming book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete (July 2015). She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Find out about Jill

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