CRAMP. The word literally sounds as painful and uncomfortable as it actually is.
Many call this sudden, sharp tightening in your calf, thigh or the arch of your foot a “charley horse,” and it can definitely stop you in your tracks. If you want to get technical, muscle cramps are involuntary spasms in one or more of your muscles that last for several seconds, or several minutes. They can happen during exercise, while you’re watching TV and even while you sleep. These jarring contractions are really unpleasant and, unfortunately, fairly common. But there are ways to ramp down your likelihood of cramping up. Here are four things you can do to minimize your chances of getting struck by these pesky pains.
1. KEEP THE WATER FLOWING
By far, the most common cause associated with muscle cramps—especially during physical activity—is dehydration. Drinking water before, during and after exercise should help allow for normal muscle contraction and relaxation. During more strenuous activity or exercise in hot weather, a good rule of thumb is to drink 20-40 ounces per hour. To keep it simple, that means taking about one “gulp” of fluid for every 15 minutes of exercise. If water isn’t cutting it, you may want to consider an electrolyte-packed sports drink to replenish lost minerals.
2. ENSURE ADEQUATE MINERAL INTAKE
Lack of key minerals is another reason suggested for muscle cramps. Eating a healthy and balanced nutrient-rich diet can help ensure your body is fully stocked with the essential vitamins and minerals it needs. One thing to keep in mind: sweating during your workout depletes your stores of electrolytes, particularly sodium and potassium, but also calcium, magnesium and chloride. Snacking on yogurt, bananas and almonds can help replenish levels of these minerals. A daily multivitamin can also provide daily essential mineral support.
3. DON’T MAKE ANY SUDDEN MOVES
Sometimes, cramps are your muscles’ way of letting you know you’re pushing them too hard. That’s why they often occur when there’s an abrupt change to your routine. Even if you walk several miles a day and are in pretty good shape, your first swim in over a year might result in an unexpected muscle cramp. Varying your exercise routine is a great way to stay fit—just be sure to ease into unfamiliar activities. Start slow and introduce new moves and higher levels of exertion gradually. This will give your muscles time to adapt.
4. STRETCH IT OUT
Stretching is a great way to manage muscle cramps. Stretching regularly—particularly after you exercise, when your muscles are warm and limber—can help stave off these painful spasms. And, when you get a cramp, stretching the affected muscle can usually provide some immediate relief. Foam rolling or other targeted forms of self-myofascial release can help you target and loosen tight, knotted areas. This can be as simple as rolling a tennis ball or soup can back and forth along the arch of your foot or up and down your calves. If leg cramps jolt you out of slumber in the middle of the night, do some relaxing stretches just before jumping back in the sack.