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MY BODY: How To Manage Muscle Cramps

Don’t let a sudden seizing in your calf or quad keep you from completing your workout.

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Virtually every athlete winces in sympathy when another runner, biker or swimmer describes the agony of cramping up just before the finish line of a race. Muscle cramps—the involuntary contraction of the body’s muscle tissues—are a universal athletic experience, regardless of sport. They happen when we push out our body to the max—and ignore cues to lift off the gas or refuel our tanks for too long. The sharp pain of a cramp is unmistakable; so is the way your muscle shuts down as a lump the size of a golf ball lodges itself in your limb. The harder you fight it, the more your muscle spasms. Eventually, your run is reduced to a walk; your cycling session is cut short; your pool workout, postponed.

The bad news is, no matter how hard you try and prevent cramps, they are an inevitable evil that crop up from time to time during exercise, and their cause isn’t always easy to ascertain. The good news: With the right precautions and early reactions to cramping, you can effectively manage them so they don’t interfere with your workouts and races.

Reduce Your Risk

*Hydrate properly. The number one way to keep your muscles from seizing up is to be sure you drink enough fluid before and during a tough workout. Dehydration causes a drop in blood volume, which in turn makes it more difficult to deliver the appropriate nutrients to your muscles to help them do their jobs.

*Manage your electrolytes. Sodium, potassium and calcium are crucial to keeping your muscles firing on all cylinders during a tough workout or race. Without enough electrolytes in your system, your muscle cells will become imbalanced, slowing your muscle fibers’ ability to contract as your exert yourself, eventually causing them to cramp. Most sports drinks contain ample amount of all three compounds.

*Pace yourself. Push your limits too hard for too long and the workload you are asking your muscles to assume becomes greater than their capacity to respond. Muscle cramping will surely follow. The most common cramp location is the calves, followed by hamstrings, feet and quads. Stave off the spasms by beginning an endurance session at a slow, manageable pace. If you are still feeling good with 20 minutes left to go, feel free to pick up the pace.

*Warm up properly. There is a lot of debate these days about whether athletes experience any benefit from stretching before a workout as opposed to afterward. If you are prone to cramping, it’s always a god idea to gently stretch the vulnerable area (quads, hammies, calves) before launching into an activity. Find the sweet spot where your muscle is being stretched without forcing it (lunge against a wall for your calf muscles, bend your knee and pull your foot up to your glutes for a quad stretch), and hold it for 10 to 20 seconds.

Ease The Pain

*Relax your rhythm. If you’re running and a cramp strikes, slow to a jog. Biking, switch to an easier gear. Sometimes just checking up your speed can allow a muscle cramp time to work itself out. If not, slow to a complete stop.

*Massage the knotted area. Using your thumbs, apply pressure to either side of the tight area and slowly slide your fingers in toward the center of the cramp, then back toward the edges.

*Stretch it out. Gently stretch your calf or hamstring, holding the position for at least 20 seconds. Release slowly. Repeat several times.

*Heat, then ice. Muscle cramps initially respond better to heat because it relaxes the tense area. Place a heating pad around the muscle in question, or soak for 15 minutes in a hot bath. After the cramp is gone, ice the area to help control inflammation that frequently sets in when your body senses pain.

It’s no consolation when you’re hurting during a race, but you can take heart in knowing that no matter how bad the pain, muscle cramps usually don’t do any long-term damage (although you may feel some lingering soreness for a day or two). Unlike tears or strains, once you are able to get the spasm to relax, you can resume your regular training. So what are you waiting for?!

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