There is much debate over the causes of cramps, this blog offers a little insight into these erratic but annoying episodes!

What is a muscle cramp?
Cramps are involuntary spasms where the muscle forcibly contracts or shortens causing tightness and sudden intense pain and cannot readily relax. A cramping muscle often feels harder to the touch than normal and may twitch. Cramps can last from seconds to minutes or even longer and you have little control of the muscle until the spasm has passed. They usually occur in the hamstrings, calves, arch of the foot and toes.

Who gets cramps?
Cramps are extremely common, almost everyone experiences cramping at some time in their life. Idiopathic cramps – meaning they happen for no known reason – are more common in adults and often occur during the night, these become increasingly frequent with ageing. The overweight are also more prone to this type of cramping. Athletes and exercisers often suffer cramps during or after exercise – see below. Another type of cramp – secondary cramps – may be a symptom of a health condition, pregnancy or side effect of medication, these are not covered in this blog.

What causes muscle cramps?
There are many possible triggers of cramps in healthy, active people, including exercising in the heat, imbalances in the body’s electrolytes or salts (calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium), overuse, muscle fatigue or insufficient stretching pre-exercise. this is what you may get while stretching in bed first thing in the morning or while exercising.

Are cramps dangerous?
Almost everyone experiences a muscle cramp at some time in their life. Cramps are usually harmless but may leave you with temporary discomfort or tenderness afterwards. However, if cramps last a significant time, affect sleep or leave you lacking function or with weakness the next day it may be wise to seek medical advice.

Can I prevent cramps?
It can be difficult to consistently prevent cramps and many people are blighted by frequent cramps no matter what precautions they take. But muscle cramps can be mitigated to a degree by good nutrition and hydration and adhering to correct exercise protocol particularly with regard to warming up, stretching, hydration and electrolyte balance.

What should I do when a cramp comes on?
Most cramps can be stopped or speeded up if the muscle is stretched. So, if you are exercising, stop and hold a stretch; if you are lying or seated, stand and put weight on the affected limb to stretch.

How do I stretch my hamstrings?
The hamstrings are made up of the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris. To stretch the hamstrings lying on your back, lay one leg along the floor and draw the back of the know to the floor, elevate the other leg, hold behind the thigh and straighten the knee until just before the leg starts to tremble. Standing, bend your back leg, extend the front leg (this is the leg you are stretching), push the butt back and sink the weight down. You can change where you focus the stretch: lifting the toe, targets the lower portion of than hamstring above the knee, lifting the heel targets higher up around the hamstring-glute junction.

How do I stretch my calves?
The calves are made up of the gastrocnemius, the bulky head of the calf nearest the knee, and the soleus, that lies underneath the gastroc’. People often struggle because they only stretch the gastroc’ and over-look the soleus. We need to do two stretches to ensure we reach both. To stretch the gastroc’, in split stance, lean against a wall with the hands, keep both feet flat and the back leg straight – this is the leg you are stretching, hold this for 20-30 seconds. Then very slightly bend that same knee and this will take the stretch to the soleus and achilles.

How do I keep my legs in good condition?
Always ensure you increase your training volume steadily
Stretch regularly – before and after exercising and on non-training days too
Use a foam roller to manipulate and release the myofascia – the connective tissue that overlays the muscle
See a Sports Massage Therapist to strip through tight muscles and work out any knots and trigger points.

Written by: Jo Gaskill

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