Unraveling the Mysteries of Muscle Cramps in AthletesJohn Miller
Article by Alex Clarke
Unraveling the Mysteries of Muscle Cramps in Athletes:
Factors, Theories, and Preventive Measures
Cramping in Athletes
There are many theories about why we cramp, and mixed evidence around these theories. In short, muscle cramps in athletes are often due to a combination of factors, which affects athletes depending on their situation.
What Does Research Tell Us?
This can occur through excessive sweating with water and salt content loss or occasionally through drinking too much water. This factor is disputed across various literature sources, with no modern studies demonstrating salt loss in the bloodstream. However, local salt loss in the working muscles may not show up when looking at the whole body.
Temperature looks to play a role, with increased cramping seen in both hot and cold (under 12 degrees) temperatures. There needed to be an adequate explanation I could find here. Still, heat increases sweat loss, whereas cold may influence blood flow and muscle contraction behaviour.
This factor is undisputed. Far more cramps occur, e.g. in the last few kilometres of a marathon race, when endurance athletes are performing at a race pace faster than their training pace or when endurance athletes are trying to race to a time faster than their training-level-matched cohort. Also, athletes are far more likely to experience cramps in the first week of returning to training, with the likelihood of cramping reducing week-by-week to more normal levels by week 5. Greater exertion will also increase fatigue rate, for instance, using flippers increases the mechanical advantage of the calf muscles, and as such, they will work harder to produce force. Increasing swimming speed will also increase calf demand.
Metabolic and general health factors
Health issues, including metabolic disease, heart disease, increased BMI, and kidney disease, may increase the likelihood of cramping. Seen the other way, ongoing cramping could indicate an underlying health issue, so a check-in with your GP to screen for any potential issues may be worthwhile.
Athletes over 40 are more likely to experience cramps. Ageism at work again!
This theory looks at muscles working in shortened positions, such as freestyle kicking, where the calf is shortening from both the knee and heel attachment ends. This asks the muscle to work in a position of “active insufficiency”, where interlinking muscle filaments have pulled in on each other to a point where they are at a mechanical disadvantage. This shortened position theoretically also changes firing patterns, disengaging what are called golgi tendon organs while also increasing the response rate of muscle spindles, meaning that the muscle fibres are told to work harder with a moderating influence of golgi tendon organ nerve firing.
How Can You Prevent Cramps?
Evidence around what we can do to help prevent cramping is also mixed. There is limited evidence for:
Love it or loath it, it affects reducing the length of time the cramp goes on.
This has mixed evidence but may increase the threshold at which a muscle goes into cramp, reducing the likelihood of cramping.
Again, there is mixed evidence here, but regular stretching may help reduce the incidence of cramping. This can include massage as this induces localised stretching of the tissues.
Whilst I did not find any mention of this in the literature, it makes sense that training load is gradually increased at the start of season and that in-training loads and pace are matched towards an achievable race pace.
In conclusion, muscle cramps in athletes remain a complex phenomenon influenced by multiple factors. While the exact mechanisms behind cramping are still not fully understood, research has shed light on several contributing factors. Electrolyte loss, temperature extremes, fatigue, metabolic and general health factors, age, and neuromuscular changes all play a role in the occurrence of cramps.
Preventive measures, though with mixed evidence, can be explored by athletes. Some strategies include consuming pickle juice or salt-infused drinks to reduce cramp duration and threshold potentially, incorporating regular stretching and massage into the training routine, and gradually increasing training load while matching pace towards an achievable race pace.
It is essential to recognise that each athlete’s experience with cramping may vary due to individual circumstances. Therefore, a comprehensive approach involving personalised strategies and medical advice may be necessary to address cramping issues effectively.
As further research continues to unravel the complexities of muscle cramps, athletes and sports professionals can better understand and implement preventive measures to optimise performance and minimise the impact of cramping in athletic pursuits.