The primary symptom associated with Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping (EAMC) is as obvious as it sounds: muscle cramping during exercise. EAMC is a familiar problem for many casual and professional athletes and it’s likely that we’ve all experienced an exercise associated muscle cramp at some point. Muscle cramps are often very painful and are caused by involuntary contractions of muscles that should normally be voluntarily controlled. Despite the commonality of EAMC, clinical studies on the condition are not widespread, so there is little definitive information regarding its existence. It is likely due to a multitude of factors, so there are a few theories about its existence that explain why some remedies work better than others.
The two primary theories for EAMC are the “Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance Theory” and the “Neuromuscular Theory.” Among health professionals, the Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance theory is the one that’s most routinely agreed upon. This theory’s argument is that dehydration and electrolyte depletion lead to pressure on nerve endings, which causes sensitivity. One study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine compared four important electrolytes in people with EAMC and people without EAMC. The results were that potassium and calcium were the same between both groups, but magnesium and sodium were different. People with EAMC had comparatively higher levels of magnesium and lower levels of sodium than those who did not experience cramping during exercise. This theory that dehydration and electrolyte imbalance lead to cramping explains why some athletes drink sports drinks or hydration supplements rather than plain water during exercise. Electrolyte supplements like Liquid IV or Nuun provide specific ratios of electrolytes per amount of fluid to prevent dehydration more effectively than water can; packaged sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade also serve the same function.
The Neuromuscular Theory is much newer and its argument is that the overuse of a muscle causes neuromuscular fatigue. This means that an imbalance in excitatory impulses leads to a fatigued muscle, which causes cramps. This theory attributes muscle cramps to overworked and fatigued muscles that are subject to electrical misfiring because of their exhaustion. The Neuromuscular Theory partially explains why stretching out a cramped muscle during its onset may relieve some of the cramping pain. Some mild stretching before exercise may prevent muscle tightness and decrease the risk of getting an exercise associated muscle cramp.
Maintaining adequate hydration and serum electrolyte concentrations is essential to reaching peak athletic performance whether you are an NFL athlete or an occasional gym goer. Evidence of dehydration being associated with EAMC is that environments leading to higher sweat rates increase the chance of athletes getting cramps; in simpler terms, the more water lost during an activity, the higher chance there is of an EAMC occurring. This is connected to the “Dehydration-Electrolyte Imbalance Theory” discussed above stating that excessive sweating leads to electrolyte and water losses. Three important electrolytes that may prevent exercise associated muscle cramps are potassium, sodium, and magnesium. These three can easily be incorporated into a pre-workout snack or meal if you know what foods to look for..
A pre-workout meal or snack should generally be consumed at least one or two hours before the onset of exercise. If there is too much fibrous or oily residue in the stomach during exercise, cramping is more likely to occur. This means foods like seeds, raw cauliflower or broccoli, and fried foods are not great pre-workout food choices. After eating, blood needs to circulate through the gastrointestinal tract to effectively digest food, but during exercise, blood is circulated to other muscles in the body that need it to maintain endurance. This means that if there is a lot of fiber and oil sitting in the stomach, digestion will not occur efficiently, thus leading to cramps.
A good pre-workout food choice is one that contains electrolytes and water and is easily digestible. Bananas, sweet potatoes, plain yogurt, and avocados are all high in potassium and are relatively easy to digest. Edamame, whole grains, and certain nuts are high in magnesium and also happen to be comparatively high in protein. While sodium should be included in a pre-workout food choice, it should not solely determine the foods chosen; foods that are exclusively high sodium are things like chips, which are not the optimal choice for peak athletic performance. Sodium can be incorporated into a pre-workout snack through the consumption of lightly salted nuts, for example.
Need help translating this information into a complete meal or snack choice? A plain yogurt with a banana and mixed nuts is high in potassium, magnesium, contains some sodium, plus it is not too hard to digest (unless of course you are lactose intolerant). Another great option would be whole grain toast with mashed avocado on top; a little sprinkle of salt and pepper on an avocado will add a small sodium component, while also greatly improving the taste. It is also important that water, or another hydration supplement, be consumed with a pre-workout meal or snack to minimize dehydration risk. Adequate hydration, a favorable pre-workout snack/meal, and stretching are your best bets for preventing exercise associated muscle cramps.