Muscle cramping and spasming can significantly derail your best intentioned race plans.
A muscle cramp or spasm is a sudden, involuntary, and typically severe muscle contraction.
Thankfully, it’s very rare for a muscle spasm or cramp to permanently damage the muscle. However, the cramp or spasm can produce mild to excruciating pain. The pain can be very short lived or linger for days after a severe episode.
Unfortunately, muscle cramping can affect your performance. Common causes of muscle cramping include overexertion, prolonged immobility, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.
What Causes Muscle Cramping?
For active individuals like runners, overexertion is the most likely cause of cramping and spasming. Most exercise induced spasms are not generally associated with dehydration or electrolyte imbalances in spite of what the sport beverage industry would have us believe. Spasms are more likely due to overexertion and pushing your muscles harder and longer than they are used to performing. This is overwhelmingly the most common cause of muscle spasms and cramps for weekend athletes.
Overexertion is also likely the most common cause of cramping during your race. During a race, you are likely pushing yourself harder than you did during any training runs. For many of us, it’s the most difficult concept to accept as we feel as though we have adequately trained for our sporting endeavors. We want a magic pill or remedy instead of acknowledging that maybe we weren’t as prepared as we thought we were for our specific activity.
Don’t worry! The point of participating in competition and other difficult activities is to test your body and to have fun! During a race, you will likely overreach from your training plan. The hope is that your body is physically prepared to handle this overreaching without injury. If you experience muscle cramps or spasms before or during an event, modify your training routine for the next event.
Muscle tissue prefers movement versus static postures. Over time, prolonged immobility tends to lead to spasms and pain. A prolonged poor posture, such as a slouched spine with a forward head posture or your knee completely flexed up while riding in a car all day, can cause muscle cramping. Keeping the muscle tissue in a shortened length can lead to poor blood flow, another potential cause of spasms. Poor posture can lead to vertebral and spinal issues, which can cause more pain and spasming.
Dehydration can lead to an electrolyte imbalance and poor tissue extensibility, which can result in muscle spasms and cramping. It also can cause poor blood flow to body parts and organ systems which require blood for oxygen and nutrients. Spasms can be found in the skeletal muscle as well as in the abdominal organs. Dehydration with severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to other cardiac symptoms, including cardiac arrest (heart attack). Dehydration can occur for many reasons including illness resulting in excessive vomiting or diarrhea.
Magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium are all critical to body functions, particularly for the muscle and nervous tissue. Having too much or too little in relationship to each other can lead to muscle spasms and pain. Dehydration with severe electrolyte imbalances can lead to death.
Other causes of muscle cramping include:
- Muscle tears and injury
- Vertebral misalignment
- Poor blood flow (vascular occlusion)
- Pain from an injury to a muscle, bone, tendon, ligament or nerve tissue
- Emotional or psychological pain
- Nerve damage
- Thyroid issues
- Medical conditions such as: Fibromyalgia; Multiple Sclerosis (MS); Parkinson’s disease; Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; Stroke; and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).
- Arachnidism, an injury from a spider bite and bites from other insects. The venom of the bite can cause muscle spasming and cramping.
Although the list of common causes of spasms or cramping is long, it’s certainly not all inclusive. If you believe that the spasm is from a serious medical condition, please do not attempt to self-treat the condition–immediately seek competent medical advice.
12 Strategies to Prevent and Self-Treat Muscle Cramping:
Contact a masseuse, physical therapist, athletic trainer or friend who is skillful in body work and massage to relieve the area in spasm. The specific massage technique to use will vary according to your preference. Massage techniques range from a light relaxing massage to a deep tissue massage or utilization of acupressure points.
2. Foam Roller
The foam roller allows you to perform self-massage and tissue mobilization. Lower Extremity Mobilizations using a Foam Roll.pdf demonstrates different ways to help reduce muscle soreness and spasms. Foam rolling promotes more blood flow to the area, which allows the body to eliminate waste more efficiently while providing much needed nutrients to aid in recovery.
3. Other Self-Mobilization Tools
Many times, a friend or masseuse isn’t available to assist when you need the help the most. A foam roller cannot effectively reach places in the upper back or arms, so other self-mobilization tools may be necessary. You can get creative and use a tennis or golf ball to hold direct pressure to a spasming muscle. When held for a long enough period of time, the muscle spasms tend to release and provide much needed pain relief!
4. Topical Agents
Many topical agents can help to decrease and eliminate muscle spasms. The method of action varies greatly according to the product used. You may find that one product works better than another. Some of my favorite products in my medicine cabinet include: Biofreeze Pain Relieving Gel; Arnica Rub (Arnica Montana, an herbal rub); and topical magnesium.
5. Magnesium Bath
The combination of warm water with magnesium is very soothing and relaxing. Options include: Epsoak Epson Salt or Ancient Minerals Magnesium Bath Flakes. I find that the magnesium flakes work better, but they are significantly more expensive than Epson salt.
6. Oral Magnesium
You can take Mag Glycinate (which is the most highly absorbable) in pill form or by eating foods higher in magnesium such as spinach, artichokes, and dates. Taking additional magnesium (particularly at night) can help to reduce muscle cramps and spasming. It is also very helpful in reducing overall muscle soreness and aiding in a better night’s rest. I recommend beginning with a dose of 200 mg (before bedtime) and increasing the dose as needed. I would caution you that taking too much magnesium can lead to diarrhea.
7. Increase your Electrolyte Intake
You may need to increase your potassium, sodium, or calcium intake to your diet or consider supplementation. Pink Himalayan Sea Salt contains the electrolytes you would expect as well as a host of other trace minerals. I have found this to be highly effective for cramps and muscle soreness. It also helps me to sleep more soundly. I highly recommend it to anyone who is suffering from chronic cramping or after participating in an athletic event. Drink a small glass of warm water, mixing in a teaspoon full of pink Himalayan sea salt, before bedtime.
8. Fix Your Posture
Poor posture is one of the most common causes of muscle cramping and spasming as well as pain. This is particularly true if you spend a good portion of your day sitting. Be careful not to hold a prolonged poor posture. Get up and walk frequently.
9. Move More!
Not only has research proven that sitting for more than two hours at a time decreases your expected life span, but extended sitting also leads to increased muscle tension, cramping, and pain. If you sit most of the day, get up and walk. If you stand most of the day, frequently change your standing posture. To optimize health and joint function, you should take each joint in your body through a least one full range of motion (ROM) every day.
Stretching is a wonderful way to help eliminate a muscle spasm. We instinctively stretch when we feel a spasm begin. Try gently stretching (lengthening) the muscle which is in spasm. I recommend beginning with a short 30-60 seconds stretch, then repeating as needed. If the spasm or cramp is severe, you will likely need to continue stretching several times in a row, multiple times throughout the day. Stretching should always be part of a general fitness and lifestyle program. As we age, muscle and tendons tend to lose elasticity so stretching becomes even more important. I highly recommend a daily stretching routine or participation in a group class, such as yoga, which incorporates full body stretching.
I am personally a big fan of acupuncture. It is very useful in treating all kinds of medical conditions. It can be particularly effective in treating muscle cramps and spasms as it addresses the issues on multiple layers. Acupuncture directly stimulates the muscle by affecting the nervous system response to the muscle while producing a general sense of well-being and relaxation.
12. Speak with your Physical Therapist (PT) or Physician (MD)
If the above techniques are not helping or if the muscle cramps and spasms continue to come back regularly, speak to your medical provider to determine if other causes are contributing to the problem.
Don’t let muscle cramping and spasming derail your running plans or affect your performance. Implement these prevention strategies and quickly self-treat any cramping that may occur. For additional information on common running injuries and how to self-treat, please visit www.thePhysicalTherapyAdvisor.com.
Thank you for a great article. I found it very helpful, especially after a marathon today in Florida.
Thanks for the feedback. Congrats on completing your marathon! Take care.