What Causes CRAMPING & What Can You Do About It?
We have all experienced the complete agony of a muscle cramp before and it can bring whatever you are doing to a complete halt until you address the problem. Cramping is defined as “An involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax.”
A muscle (or even a few fibers of a muscle) that involuntarily (without a signal from the brain) contracts is called a “spasm.” If the spasm is forceful and sustained, it becomes a cramp. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to a quarter of an hour, and occasionally longer. The cramp may involve a part of a muscle, the entire muscle, or several muscles that usually act together, such as those that flex adjacent fingers. Some cramps involve the simultaneous contraction of muscles that ordinarily move body parts in opposite directions. Muscle cramps are very common and become increasingly frequent with age. The legs and feet, and particularly the calf, are especially subject to cramps, but any muscle in the body can suffer from this if subjected to excessive tension for long periods.
It amuses me to hear that people still think this has everything to do with magnesium, lack of salt and various other vitamin or mineral deficits. Sure they can play a role, but it is rarely the big factor.
These are often just a very small factor and usually limited to specific medical cases such as artherosclerosis, sciatica from a pinched nerve, or when there is side effects of medication being taken for another more serious problem. In extreme heat, competing in sports like Tennis, or Triathlon and Marathon excessive sweating can bring on heat cramps, but as you will soon see, even then cramping is still not often due to lack of magnesium or salt.
But for the majority of us not dealing with these problems, or competing in extreme endurance sports, it is often caused from 3 things:
Lack of stretching or incorrect stretching
Weak muscles and muscle imbalance
Excessive training without gradual progression
I have included this first for a good reason. What is the first thing you instinctively do when you get a cramp? You stretch the cramping muscle right. Well often this is a signal of what you should have been doing and need to do ongoing to rid yourself of the cramps. (But not always, more on that later)
Most people rarely stretch, and when they do, they often stretch what feels good, instead of what needs to be stretched. The gym junkie can find hours and hours to train, but barely can fit in 2 minutes in a week to do some stretches. When muscles are being constantly subjected to contracting for long periods of time from training but no time is devoted to restoring their muscle length certain muscles become short and tight. It is even worse for the endurance athlete who never stretches.
Research has found that during prolonged exercise the inverse stretch reflex, the one that inhibits excessive muscle contraction becomes inactive due to reduced sensory input coming from the Golgi Tendon whereas stimulation of the alpha motor neurons in the spinal cord is enhanced increasing the chance of you getting a spasm or cramp. The message more or less comes from the spinal cord and not the brain to move a muscle. The only way to prevent this is to administer a regular stretching program to these constantly shortened muscles. This reactivates the dormant stretch reflex and allows the golgi tendon to do it’s work again. If left unattended the muscle develops trigger points or goes into spasm. It is then you are given the ultimate message to start stretching!
But you don’t have to be a gym junkie or marathon runner to subject your body to constant muscle shortening. For example if you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time, the hip flexor muscles, the quadriceps, the calves and the muscles around the neck and shoulders will also become short and tight, for they are being held in shortened positions for long periods without ever being lengthened. Your chances of developing trigger points and getting cramps is high if you never spend time stretching. Another example is with females who wear high heeled shoes are likely to develop cramps in the feet and the calves as these muscles are left in shortened positions for excessive length of time.
Now I mentioned it is not always a good idea to stretch the cramping muscle for the reason that it is not being contracted but instead overly stretched! The real problem here is not the lack of stretching but the lack of stability and strength otherwise known as muscle imbalance.
2: Muscle Weakness & Muscle Imbalance
With every short and tight muscle there is an opposing muscle that is long and weak. I like to use the analogy of a bicycle wheel to explain muscle imbalance. The rim of the wheel is the skeletal system or your bones, the spokes are the muscles. The spokes must be perfectly tuned to ensure the integrity of the rim. If they are too loose the wheel becomes wobbly and easily loses control. If they are too tight the spokes can break, also causing the bike to crash. The wheel needs a strategy to ensure optimal balance of the wheel, just like the skeletal system with its muscles. Stretching corrects the tight spokes (muscles) but what do you do for loose spokes (muscles)? You must tighten them using strength exercises.
In some cases muscle will go into cramp, not from being constantly shortened but because they are being constantly overstretched. With all tight muscles being constantly shortened there is an opposing muscle being constantly lengthened. When it is being constantly stretched like this it becomes very weak, and this weakness begins to fire signals to contract it back to it’s normal shape for it feels like it will very soon suffer damage and be torn! Not to mention the joint that the muscles are meant to be supporting, being in danger of damage.
This is where permanent stiffness begins to take place. As the joint senses it cannot stabilize itself due to the supporting muscles becoming too weak, it now devises a new way to create stability, and stiffens the entire joint. This is what we see with elderly people who have lost too much muscle.
Stretching tight muscles or massage for this person is a waste of time while the body is so weak and unstable. The body will never loosen these muscles up, for if it does there is a good chance of dislocation of joints which could be a life-threatening problem. Stiffness although limiting movement, possibly causing cramps and discomfort is still a better option than dislocation. The answer for this person is to start using stability drills, and even more importantly start strength training immediately, focusing on the areas of weakness.
3: Excessive Training Without Gradual Progression
This last one is where many unconditioned people experience cramping, or people who compete in an endurance type event or simply just overdo exercise without understanding the rules of gradual progression.
I used to see this all the time with inexperienced exercisers trying to do way too much before their body was ready.
The stupidity of No Pain, No Gain is often in this person’s mind. For example they would try to do some massive workout lasting 2 hours when previously they had not exercises at all for 6 months. The muscles are not even close to ready for this type of exertion, and going from nothing to way too much instantly brought on cramps. This is often when I heard the rubbish, “I must need more magnesium”. No, you just bit off more than you could chew, and your body is going to shut you down for your stupidity!
Even experienced fitness enthusiasts can make this mistake. I would often coach people for half marathon or marathon and constantly have to stop people trying to increase their distance too quickly. They would go from running 5km to next week trying to do 10km in the belief that more is better. All this would ultimately lead to is cramping at first followed by injury later.
People who cramp playing sports such as football, basketball, cricket, soccer etc you can put it down to any of these last 3 factors. If they are are a person who misses many trainings, or does not put in the work to last the 2-3 hours of the game then their lack of endurance in the working muscles will always expose them to cramping towards the end of the game.
If however they do train hard and long, put in the work then you can look more at lack of stretching, incorrect stretching and muscle imbalance. If there is a strategy in place for that then you might look at the diet and suspect magnesium, salt and malnutrition to be a factor.
Okay that should shed some light on what cramping really is and how you can avoid it if you don’t have it, and also how you can get rid of it if you do. Remember most people you can put it down to no stretching at all, or very poor method and inconsistent stretching. If you have an injury suspect muscle imbalance, and if you are playing sports make sure you do the first two things and then ensure you have an adequate conditioning base before you play. Otherwise you risk cramping during the game and compromising performance.