Posted in Blog.
Don’t Let Cramping, Cramp Your Running Style
We’ve all had them…whether on mile nine of your long run, or a hot day playing spikeball at the beach, muscle cramps can happen to anyone! They can be a major hindrance to your performance, not to mention quite painful and incredibly frustrating. But what exactly is the cause of cramps? And more importantly, how can you best avoid them?
The traditional view is that cramps are caused by dehydration and electrolyte depletion. However, more and more research is concluding that these variables play no direct role in muscle cramps! Instead, researchers are pointing to neuromuscular input, usually associated with fatigue, as the main reason that your calf or hamstring cramps up.
Essentially, your muscles have input from two sources, one tells the muscles to go, and the other gets the muscle to stop. As you use your muscles to the point of fatigue, the “go” signals fire so much more than the “stop” signals, that your muscle decides it will stop listening to the signals and just stay on all the time. The poor inhibitory signals get ignored like a PT telling a running patient to take a break from running. This causes the muscle to continuously fire, and the result is a cramp [1,2,3].
Studies have shown that cramping occurs for a number of reasons.
- Performance – athletes who are stronger performers tend to be more prone to cramping. One study found that athletes who cramped during a marathon were WAYYY more likely to run at a sub-6 minute mile pace than those who didn’t.
- Gender – males tend to cramp more than females, likely because of a greater proportion of type II muscle fibers, which fatigue more easily.
- History of cramps – some people are just crampers, how you are naturally wired plays a role in how easily you cramp. If you’ve experienced cramping before, it’s much more likely that it will happen again  . Some evidence even points to a genetic component, as you are more likely to endure muscle cramps if your parents did too!
The million-dollar question is of course, how do I prevent muscle cramps? Traditional advice would be to load up on water and electrolytes. While this may help, as it will delay the onset of fatigue, it really does not address the main cause of muscle cramps. The latest research has focused on ingesting “transient receptor potential channel agonists” to fight cramps. Essentially, there are certain substances you can ingest that will increase the amount of input your brain is receiving from your muscles. With this increase in signals going up to the brain, less excitatory “go” signals from the brain are released, dampening the cramping mechanism. The study referenced used the brand HOTSHOT (http://www.teamhotshot.com), which is a drink you can ingest pre-workout which contains neural agonists. It found that after ingestion, participants were able to workout longer, produce more muscular force. Also, participants reported less muscle soreness post-cramping with ingestion of HOTSHOT  .
Strangely enough, an easier-accessed neural agonist may just be sitting in your fridge…pickle juice has shown some of the same effects! [2,3] Finally, if you’ve tried everything and still can’t get rid of a cramp, go see a good physical therapist. It has been shown that cramps can be eliminated by changing the way you move!  While more research is definitely needed, it looks like another weapon in the war on cramps has been found. If you’ve had problems with cramps in the past, or you fit the high-risk categories, you might want to consider giving one of these approaches a try!
1) Craighead, D. H., Shank, S. W., Gottschall, J. S., Passe, D. H., Murray, B., Alexander, L. M., & Kenney, W. L. (2017). Ingestion of transient receptor potential channel agonists attenuates exercise‐induced muscle cramps. Muscle & nerve, 56(3), 379-385.
2) Nelson, N. L., & Churilla, J. R. (2016). A narrative review of exercise‐associated muscle cramps: Factors that contribute to neuromuscular fatigue and management implications. Muscle & nerve, 54(2), 177-185.
3) Edouard, P. (2014). Exercise associated muscle cramps: discussion on causes, prevention and treatment. Science & Sports, 29(6), 299-305.