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Cramping is one of the most bog-ordinary sporting ailments, but also one of the most misunderstood. That’s not your fault – theories on the causes of exercise-associated muscle cramping have changed several times over the years, but sports scientists believe they’re better on track now.
About two out of every three athletes have experienced painful cramps during sport. The term ‘exercise - related muscle cramping’ (EAMC) is used to distinguish cramping that comes through repetitive action from cramps that might come about from a medical condition. EAMC is involuntary, painful skeletal muscle spasms that occur during or immediately after exercise. It is localised cramping that happens spasmodically in different working muscle groups, most commonly the hamstrings or quadriceps, and especially in the calves. Medicine Today reports the following prevalence of EAMC:
There have been different theories about the main causes of EAMC, and some have been ruled out. These include:
The popular belief among exercise and sports physicians is that the most likely risk factor and cause of EAMC is fatigue in the muscle, which presents as cramp due to altered neuromuscular control. Increased exercise intensity and/or duration, decreased muscle energy, environmental conditions and a lack of conditioning can all send you into the muscle fatigue that sets you on your way to crampland. Unluckily for some, there are strong theories suggesting that some people simply have a genetic predisposition to cramping.
Apart from family history, there are several other risk factors that may make you more likely to get cramp. A cross-sectional survey of 1300 marathon runners for Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise Sports found that other risk factors included:
There are some things that definitely set you up for a cramp. These include:
While not the cause of EAMC, extreme heat can increase the risk of cramp. Dehydration, however, has been found to make no difference to the incidence of cramp, according to recent studies1.
If you begin cramping, here’s how you can treat it:
A study of 2600 endurance athletes published in Medicine and Sport in Science and Exercise reported that most users of magnesium supplements said they were of little or no help for cramps. Medicine Today stated that the effectiveness of magnesium supplements in treating cramp has never been evaluated by systemic review. It is also claimed that despite earlier beliefs, salt tablets don’t target the main cause of cramps and are not considered to be beneficial.
Since fatigue in the muscle is the primary cause of cramping, the prime way to reduce risk is to be fit – cramps are less common in athletes who are well trained and conditioned for the sport or event they’re training for. Fuelling with adequate carbs before and during activity will also help stave off muscle fatigue. These two are no-brainers, but then there are other tools sports support staff and physicians use and trust, even though they are not yet proven by science to be effective. These include:
1 Sports Dietitians Australia, Cramps and Stitches