Have you ever woken up at night because your calf cramped up out of the blue? Or have you ever had to stop your workout or a competition because a muscle was struck and hurt? Cramps are quite annoying and besides, they can be quite painful and leave a nasty sore muscle. But the good news is that the cramps are easy to prevent. A sports physician explains to us which 5 tricks you can use to prevent muscle cramps. He also gives some clever instructions on how to stretch your muscles properly.
The calves of female runners are often affected by muscle cramps. Take your time to stretch them extensively © Josep Suria / Shutterstock.com
How do muscle cramps develop?
When you look at how muscles work in general, you understand better why they sometimes strike. For example, when you want to lift your arm, your brain sends a small electrical impulse to the muscle via the nerves. So the fact that you are “under electric shock” is true in a way, but it is quite normal and not dangerous. Nerves and muscles transmit this stimulus via the electrolytes.
Electrolytes are minerals such as potassium, sodium, magnesium or calcium, which we take in with food and lose, for example, through sweat. “If a muscle cramps, it is precisely this stimulus conduction that is disturbed. The miscommunication then prevents the muscle from relaxing again after a contraction,” explains sports physician Dr. Mario Werner.
Where do muscle cramps come from during exercise?
Electrolytes are therefore important for the muscles to work properly. However, if you sweat a lot in summer or during sports, you lose exactly these minerals through sweat. If too few of them are then in a muscle, it can no longer communicate properly with the nerves and relax properly. But even if you train too impatiently, your muscles can go on strike. “If a muscle is not warmed up or generally untrained, it will have a worse blood supply.
This can also cause it to be supplied with too little electrolytes,” explains the doctor.
But even with too much training, you can risk cramps. On the one hand, you sweat more during longer or intensive exercise, so you need more electrolytes and at the same time you lose more through sweating. If you do not counteract this with enough fluids and minerals, cramps are pre-programmed. In addition, your nerves in the muscle and also in the spinal cord become more and more sensitive due to the permanent irritation during sports.
This is why it can happen that an area reacts too strongly or weakly to a stimulus and the muscle therefore becomes extremely tense.
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Make stretching an integral part of your training, then you will be spared muscle cramps © Josep Suria / Shutterstock.com
Why do you get calf cramps at night?
So in sports the whole thing is still quite obvious. But why do you sometimes get muscle cramps at night? “The reasons for the night cramps are not completely clear,” says Werner. If you often wake up at night from a sore calf, you should check your eating habits. After all, it could well be that you are not taking in as much fluid and minerals as your muscles need to function properly. It is often said that a magnesium deficiency leads to cramps.
“This may well be a cause, but so far studies have not been able to prove that taking extra magnesium leads to fewer cramps,” explains the sports physician. Except in pregnant women. Their entire metabolism is in a state of emergency, and magnesium tablets have been shown to help in this situation.
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But it does not have to be because of your diet or your sporting behaviour that you are plagued by calf cramps again and again. Do you perhaps often wear high heels? Then your calf muscles are in a shortened position all the time and tend to contract more painfully in case of a muscle cramp. That’s why doctors advise you to walk regularly in flat shoes or barefoot.
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What can be done about the muscle cramps?
Muscles cramp if they remain in a shortened position for a long time, are overloaded or do not get enough electrolytes. You can prevent and counteract all these factors very well. Dr. Werner has the following tips:
- Stretch, stretch, stretch Stretching is the most effective method of relaxing a shortened muscle,” explains the sports physician. Massaging also helps against the muscle strike. So in everyday life or before going to bed, regularly do a stretching session and stretch all parts that tend to cramp for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Warming up before the sport Warming up is mandatory for every workout!
So instead of starting the jogging session with a sprint or the strength training with the maximum weight, start with half intensity. Also good: Stretch before the workout – but not static like after the sport, but bouncing. This way all muscles are better supplied with blood and can bear the load better. Strains and other injuries are also prevented.
- Heat yes, cold no If your muscle cramps during exercise, don’t use ice spray or cool packs!
Above all, you need to relax now, but if it’s cold, it would tend to contract more. A short sauna or a warm bath will help to prevent cramps by loosening all the muscle fibres.
- Drink properly: “People get cramps much more often in summer than in winter,” says Werner. This is because we sweat more and lose fluids and minerals as a result. So you should definitely always drink enough water and, especially in summer, have isotonic drinks ready during training.
These replenish your nutrient reserves, whereas water tends to dilute them.
- Eat a balanced diet: If you take enough magnesium, calcium and sodium, this can help against the cramps. But vitamins and other minerals are also important, because the better your overall nutrient balance is replenished, the better all processes in the body function. “Whole grain products, nuts or bananas are good suppliers of a wide range of nutrients,” recommends the sports physician.
But you should be careful with food supplements, for example zinc inhibits the absorption of electrolytes!
To prevent muscle cramps, your sports drink should contain a lot of electrolytes such as magnesium and potassium © Josep Suria / Shutterstock.com 3 mistakes that almost everyone makes when stretching
When should one go to the doctor for muscle cramps?
“A muscle cramp may hurt, but it is not dangerous in itself at first,” says the expert. However, if you are repeatedly plagued by cramps and our tips don’t help, you should check with a doctor. This could be due to something other than incorrect exercise or diet. “Neurological diseases and those that affect metabolism, joints or vessels can affect the interaction between muscle supply and nerves,” explains Werner. These include diabetes, thyroid dysfunctions or varicose veins.
Which also favours muscle cramps: Certain drugs, for example for high blood pressure or asthma, the contraceptive pill and the consumption of too much alcohol. So if your muscle cramps seem unusual, talk to a doctor about it and be sure to mention what medications you are taking.
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Hold a stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds and go to your comfort limit © Josep Suria / Shutterstock.com
This is how you stretch your muscle spasm away
“Stretching is by far the most effective remedy for muscle cramps,” explains the doctor. But not only that, it also increases your athletic performance, makes you more flexible and releases tensions after a long day at work. So if you thought stretching was a waste of your life, you have no excuse now! The sports physician therefore has tips on how to stretch properly:
- Bouncing before sports: If you are straining one or more muscle areas at once, go to a position where you stretch exactly these areas. Then lean into this stretch at short intervals and then relax again. Before you start jogging, for example, you can place one foot on a waist-high area (e.g. on a park bench) and lean forward slightly with your leg stretched. This more dynamic and rocking stretching ensures that the muscle is better supplied with blood. It is not so much a matter of stretching the muscle completely, but rather of preparing it for the upcoming load.
- Static stretching for relaxation: After sports, in everyday life or before going to bed, it is best to stretch statically, i.e. without much movement. With this classic stretching, you can go to your “comfort zone” and stretch your muscles really well. You lean into the stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds and go a little further with every breath. Then you can relax for a few seconds, then the same again until you notice that the area is relaxed and loose. If you tend to have calf cramps, you can, for example, pull the tip of your foot towards you with your leg stretched out – you can even do this at your desk.
- Antagonists tense up when cramping: If your muscle is just spasmodically contracting, you can try to activate the antagonist of it. In a calf cramp, it’s the muscle that pulls up the tip of the foot. If you have writer’s cramp in your hand, you can spread your fingers and extend your wrist. You can relieve a cramp in your front thigh by bending your leg and pulling your ankle slightly towards your bottom with your hand.
- Massage and shake after the cramp: When the pain slowly subsides, your muscle can be loosened further by shaking or massaging it a little. But don’t overdo it, otherwise the muscle might “scare” and contract again if too much pressure is applied.
Cramps are painful but not dramatic. With the right nutrition and effective warm-up exercises before exercise, they can be prevented perfectly well. And if it does pinch acutely, stretching in particular helps. If the cramps occur very frequently and are then difficult to resolve, the problem should be clarified by a doctor.