They may be temporary, but they sure are painful. Muscle cramps, those involuntary contractions that strike when you’re least expecting, can leave you debilitated when it comes to using the affected area. While generally harmless, they’re also not something anyone wants to deal with.
If you’ve ever woken in the night with a charley horse or been struck with a back spasm reaching down to pick up a pen, you’ll know muscle cramps can cause intense pain. And if you’ve never experienced any of the above, let’s keep it that way. Here, we outline the causes of muscle cramps and how to prevent them.
There are a few different causes of muscle cramps. One of these is believed to be disturbances in the balance of water and salt in the body. Others include not warming up properly before exercise and overusing or straining muscles. Cramping causes can be as simple as holding a position for a prolonged period (such as slouching over an office desk). In more complex situations, muscle cramps can be the result of certain medications, or an indication of inadequate blood supply.
Since the reasons cramps occur can be so varied, there is no one surefire way to prevent them from happening. But there are two definite practical tips you can follow to err on the side of caution when it comes to avoiding cramping.
Stretching keeps muscles strong and flexible, reducing the risk of cramps and injuries. Be sure to stretch before and after you use muscles for an extended period — whether this is a long walk or an intense HIIT session. Since your body is full of muscles, a full-body stretch is the most beneficial way to avoid cramping.
From your abs to your hips to your lower back, our simple-to-follow EVO 5-Stretch Flow (with videos) is a useful way to warm up your muscles and avoid cramping. If you’re performing isolated strength exercises throughout the week, your stretching may focus solely on that area of the body. For example, if you’re doing lots of squats or lower body work, more hamstring and glute stretches can be extra beneficial in preventing muscle cramps in those areas.
Studies as far back as the 1920s have shown that drinking electrolytes in water after physical activity can help prevent muscle cramps. In a large-scale study of industrial workers, those given saline drinks or salt tablets greatly reduced incidents of cramps, providing evidence that sweat-related electrolyte imbalances are a factor in cramping.
Interestingly, more studies have gone on to build on the evidence that it is a lack of electrolytes — and not dehydration — that causes muscle cramps. Hydration is crucial when training, but drinking water alone after exercise can dilute the electrolyte concentration without replacing electrolytes lost through sweating. Drink up!
For more practical information on preventing muscle cramps, follow our guide to stretching. Practice it multiple times a week to fully stretch your body muscles and avoid painful cramping.