5 Scientific Ways to Stop Muscle Cramps (And What Causes Those Annoying Cramps In The First Place).

Calf Cramp
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You hate cramps.

They hurt, they slow you down, and they negate months of hard training by costing your precious time in a race.

To fight cramps, you’re told to stay hydrated and consume lots of electrolytes. You’re not alone. Craig Alexander, Terenzo Bozzone, Chris McCormack and other top professional triathletes take salt tablets during their racing and training to avoid cramps.

Pretty much every sports nutrition book and magazine you can find will tell you that if you want to avoid muscle cramps, you need lots of water and electrolytes.

In this guest article by Armi Legge, an author at Impruvism.com, you’re going to learn why consuming water and electrolytes probably won’t help you avoid muscle cramps, and what you can do instead.

What People Think Causes Muscle Cramps

The most common explanation for what causes muscle cramps goes like this:1

When you exercise, your body sweats, releasing water and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride.

As you continue to lose water and electrolytes during your workout, your body becomes depleted.

Electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, which allows your muscles to contract. When your body loses enough water and/or electrolytes, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged. This makes your muscles cramp.

This is why you’re told to consume sports drinks, electrolyte tablets, and lots of water during and around your workouts to help prevent or treat muscle cramps. Unfortunately, there’s almost no evidence this works.

Why Electrolyte Loss and Dehydration Probably Don’t Cause Muscle Cramps

There are four reasons why losing electrolytes and water probably doesn’t cause — or isn’t the primary cause — of your muscle cramps.2-5

1. Sweat contains far more water than it does electrolytes.

When you become dehydrated your blood levels of electrolytes actually rise or stay about the same.6

2. Athletes who get muscle cramps have about the same level of electrolytes and dehydration as athletes who don’t cramp.7

In some cases athletes who cramp have slightly higher magnesium levels.Other studies have found no relation of any kind between an athlete’s electrolyte levels and their risk of cramping — their risk of cramping was no higher or lower based on their electrolyte levels.9

Athletes who cramp also have about the same level of hydration as athletes who don’t.10

Another study found that drinking Gatorade did not prevent people from cramping (though there are a few problems with that study, so don’t get too excited).11

3. Not all of your muscles cramp.

If your cramps were caused losing too many electrolytes, then all or most of your muscles should cramp — not just some of them.

When people develop a real electrolyte deficiency, virtually all of their muscles go into uncontrollable spasms. On the other hand, athletes almost always get cramps in the muscles they’re using the most during their workouts. For example, in one study on ultra-marathon runners over 95% of all cramps occurred in the leg muscles during the race.8

4. Stretching, resting, and drinking pickle juice shouldn’t help stop cramps — but they do.

If muscle cramps were caused by dehydration and electrolyte loss, then there’s no good reason why stretching, resting, and sipping pickle juice should help cramps disappear — but they do.3

Stretching and resting a muscle doesn’t increase its electrolyte or water content, but both of these strategies do help muscle cramps go away.

In one study, pickle juice helped cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all.12 You might think that the salt and other electrolytes in the pickle juice were what stopped the cramps — not so. The cramps stopped long before the sodium from the pickles could be absorbed, so it didn’t work because it was replenishing lost electrolytes.13

What Really Causes Muscle Cramps

The newest and most scientifically supported theory is that muscle cramps are caused by premature fatigue.2

As you get tired, your muscle’s reflex control becomes dysfunctional. Instead of contracting and relaxing like they’re supposed to, they keep firing. Basically, your muscles become “twitchy” and can’t stop contracting.

This theory is supported by several lines of evidence.

1. The muscles you use the most during your workouts are the ones that usually cramp.

2. Muscles that cross multiple joints are more likely to cramp than other muscles. These muscles generally have more activity during exercise when they’re more likely to get tired.

3. You’re far more likely to cramp during a race than you are in training — when you’re pushing yourself harder than normal. Cramps also tend to occur at the end of races when you’re most fatigued.

4. If you don’t pace yourself properly, you’re more likely to cramp. Athletes who go out too hard relative to their training experience are much more likely to cramp than those who stay within their limits.7,14

5. Drinking pickle juice helps cramps disappear faster than drinking water or nothing at all, and this happens before the salt from the pickle juice can be absorbed. Researchers think this is because the salty taste of the pickle juice “tricks” the brain into relaxing the muscles.12

6. Some evidence indicates that athletes who cramp have more muscle damage before races.14

At this point, there’s no direct evidence that consuming extra electrolytes will help you avoid muscle cramps. There’s some evidence that dehydration might be involved, but it’s almost certainly not the primary cause of your muscle cramps.

5 Scientific Ways to Stop Muscle Cramps

1. Train specifically for your race.

Most cramps happen when you push yourself harder than you’re used to. If you make your training more similar to racing in terms of intensity and duration, then you’re probably less likely to cramp.

2. Rest.

If you get a cramp, the best way to get rid of it is to rest. Most cramps don’t last more than about 2-3 minutes at most.

3. Lightly stretch the muscle.

Some evidence indicates that light passive stretching can help muscle cramps go away faster than rest alone. You’re not trying to improve your flexibility with this stretching — just pull on the muscle lightly to tell the brain it’s okay to relax.

4. Drink pickle juice or another salty solution.

Drinking pickle juice may help your cramps disappear faster than drinking plain water or nothing. Since the effect is probably due to the acidic/salty taste, any similar drink or food would probably work well, too.

5. Stay hydrated.
There isn’t much evidence that dehydration causes muscle cramps, but it might contribute.11 It’s obviously worth staying hydrated for other reasons, so keep drinking when you’re thirsty.

Reduce Your Risk of Muscle Cramps

Nothing can guarantee that you’ll never get a muscle cramp. However, using the best available scientific evidence, you can reduce your chances significantly.

For prevention: Train smart and stay hydrated.

For treatment: rest, lightly stretch the muscle, and maybe drink something that tastes like salt or vinegar.

Do you have any questions about muscle cramps? Leave them in the comments section below and Ben and I will respond.

References

1. Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):279–283. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3445088/.

2. Schwellnus MP. Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)–altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Br J Sports Med. 2009;43(6):401–408. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.050401.

3. Schwellnus MP, Drew N, Collins M. Muscle cramping in athletes–risk factors, clinical assessment, and management. Clin Sports Med. 2008;27(1):183–94– ix–x. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2007.09.006.

4. Schwellnus MP. Muscle cramping in the marathon : aetiology and risk factors. Sports Med. 2007;37(4-5):364–367.

5. Schwellnus MP, Derman EW, Noakes TD. Aetiology of skeletal muscle “cramps” during exercise: a novel hypothesis. J Sports Sci. 1997;15(3):277–285. doi:10.1080/026404197367281.

6. Sawka MN. Physiological consequences of hypohydration: exercise performance and thermoregulation. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992;24(6):657–670.

7. Schwellnus MP, Drew N, Collins M. Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(8):650–656. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.078535.

8. Schwellnus MP, Nicol J, Laubscher R, Noakes TD. Serum electrolyte concentrations and hydration status are not associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in distance runners. Br J Sports Med. 2004;38(4):488–492.

9. Brouns F, Beckers E, Wagenmakers AJ, Saris WH. Ammonia accumulation during highly intensive long-lasting cycling: individual observations. Int J Sports Med. 1990;11 Suppl 2:S78–84. doi:10.1055/s-2007-1024858.

10. Sulzer NU, Schwellnus MP, Noakes TD. Serum electrolytes in Ironman triathletes with exercise-associated muscle cramping. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005;37(7):1081–1085.

11. Jung AP, Bishop PA, Al-Nawwas A, Dale RB. Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps. J Athl Train. 2005;40(2):71–65. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1150229/.

12. Miller KC, Mack GW, Knight KL, et al. Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(5):953–961. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181c0647e.

13. Miller KC, Mack GW, Knight KL. Gastric emptying after pickle-juice ingestion in rested, euhydrated humans. J Athl Train. 2010;45(6):601–608. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-45.6.601.

14. Schwellnus MP, Allie S, Derman W, Collins M. Increased running speed and pre-race muscle damage as risk factors for exercise-associated muscle cramps in a 56 km ultra-marathon: a prospective cohort study. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(14):1132–1136. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.082677.

 

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51 thoughts on “5 Scientific Ways to Stop Muscle Cramps (And What Causes Those Annoying Cramps In The First Place).

  1. Hi Ben! I am a Nutritionist and Triathlon Coach with Morris at the Playtri Performance Center in Dallas. Your article makes a ton of sense, but 1 question: are you insinuating that additional electrolytes (Nuun, Salt Tabs, etc) are not necessary? – water is enough? Thanks so much!!

  2. Nice article.

    I've actually use bouillon during some longer cycling tours and that seems to work pretty well, in combination with eating some reat food of course. It took a few tries to get the mix right and the first time it was pretty gross…like drinking soup during a bike ride but it beats sugar water.

    I actually got the bouillon tip from Peter Attia to be honest.

    1. Try taking Usana. Google it. My mom who is 68 years old who also has the same problem as yours. Its a cellular vitamin (not medicine). She takes it twice a day and after 10 days….no more cramps in the middle of the night.

  3. Is there any research that suggests cause (& cure) for nighttime cramping (usually near morning)? This has become a real problem for me.

    1. I get cramps all over when I go catabolic all so it is match worse if I take clen I can do legs &get cramp in any part of my body.same proublm with high frag or just get a good workout.

  4. Nice article. I appreciate the condensed research. You stopped too soon tho — it doesn’t help me understand why I get muscle cramps (foot and calf) in the middle of the night. (Wakes me from from a dead sleep) I’ve had high calibre advice pointing out that my stretching sucked, and my salts were low, esp. Mg. Even had an angel send me some slow release Mg which is not readily available in my corner. Improvements in stretching, salt & hydration have tempered it. In the heat of the summer I use an electrolyte solution without sugar, and in the winter use the Attia bouillion tip instead. Nearly 2 yrs of tweaking has not eliminated them yet. As I’m typing right now I see a 2010 article link in a comment above. LOL I’ll go there next.

  5. Thanks for the article. I was thinking of asking you about this. It seems the solution to every ultra-running problem is salt tablets.

    In addition to cramps while racing, I get nauseous. Besides more training, which is hard to do while in the middle of a race, is the best solution to slow down and wait for the nausea to pass (either through time or more disgusting ways)?

    If I ask my running coach (aka Google), the solution is salt tablets.

    Thanks for the timely article!

    Ed

  6. Hi Ben!

    Thanks for the post. Cramps plague me during long runs and I have never had much success with salt tablets. Is it possible that the acid in pickle juice and not the salt is responsible for relief? Do you know of any study using alkalinizing foods for cramp relief or prevention? Cheers,

    Michael

  7. i get muscle cramps all the time, in thighs, calfs, back, stomach, and hands esp. I can only contribute it to dehydration, I’ve had Magnesium, calcium, and potassium level checked and all have been fine. Any advice!

    1. I had before cramps, but after started drinking salt water and all is fine now. I mix clean water with himalaian salt and vitamin C powder also. Try this.

  8. Hi Ben, love the podcast, appreciate all the things you share–blown away with all you do. I have suffered from cramps since I was in my 20's (45 now). I've had many different things work at different times. Back when I ran a lot, I was able to deal with calf cramps by eating a banana. At one point in the 90's I was taking Ripped fuel with ephedrine and lifting a lot. Had issues with stomach cramps–that's the worst pain. Today, I'm into things like cycling, elliptical, rowing, lifting, etc. I'm on a ketogenic diet and if I drop my carbs too low, I get dehydrated and can have night cramps. Since reading all of this, I've added mineral supplements to regimen (potassium, salt, natural calm, etc.) when I feel I'm starting to have issues with hydration. That seems to help in a general sense. Not necessarily for an acute incident like I had after a bike ride recently. Drank so much water and sports drinks and still had whole body cramping–miserable.

    So here's my question/comment: I drink a lot of water, and get the trace minerals, but can still get dehydrated. I believe the issue is actually cellular hydration since I'm drinking plenty of water. If cellular hydration is the issue, do you think creatine would help with this?

  9. I am a 13x ironman(4x kona) 52 yr old woman. I have never cramped during race on either bike or run but I cramp when I swim. Pushing off the wall,using fins or pull buoy. Toes,feet and or calves. ESP if fatigued(but notnalways) I’m a hs and college, ocean lifeguard swimmer with flexible ankles and a strong kick. Ay ideas to avoid cramping?

    1. That's tight calves. Do a rrapload of foam rolling, mobility work and stretching on your calves and feet and within 10-12 months of consistent fascial work you will reinvent that tissue.

  10. Ben,

    Great article!…I have also read that using mustard packets also helps with cramping….does any of your research support this?….

  11. I’m plagued with inside thigh cramps following a hard run or ride. Very painful spasms will last for 10 minutes or more. I’ve tried everything to no avail.
    HELP

  12. I’ve just had thigh cramps so bad I went to the floor in pain. I was getting up from an hour or so in a recliner. I’m on a low sodium diet less than 1800 mg/day and diuretic for Endolylmphatic Hydrops

    (Ear fluid imbalance). Lately have

    cramps in my insteps at night. Any ideas?

  13. I have a 15 year old daughter who has scoliosis – 3 curves. The scoliosis is not severe, but is there none the less. She is a varsity volleyball and basketball player who can get through volleyball without a ton of cramping in her back, but basketball is a completely different story. She'll get cramping under her rib cage that radiates up to her shoulders, cramp between her shoulder blades too, but the worst is the cramping she gets in her lower back…so much so that she shakes from the pain to the point of nausea. She'll go from tears on the sidelines and then within 15 minutes, will be better and out playing again. There will be several stints like this during the game. We are going back to the Orthopedic Dr soon, but my question is….is this scoliosis related? weak muscle related? or something else? We have had blood work done and know that she is low in sodium. We've tried pickle juice, Metagenics Endura (medical electrolite drink), massage, heat, ice, chiropractic, and strengthening. I just don't want her to hurt when she plays. Her goal is to play college volleyball so I need to figure out what to do to help her. I'll await your reply…

    1. Probably scoliosis related because as certain muscles are shortened or lengthened, they'll cramp, spasm, etc. and no amount of nutrition will help that as much as assistance with scoliosis through the use of things like Core Foundation Training, Gokhale Method, etc. Especially check out http://gokhalemethod.com/.

  14. Greetings. My calves cramp up extremely easily when flexing. I strained one really bad jumping rope. I’ hadn’t jumped in a long time. Now I keep re-injuring it cuz when I do anything. It strains again. Is it just lack of fitness in the legs? I can’t make any gains since I re injury something every couple months. I rest and take it easy. First day jumping rope everything is fine. By the second time. One seizes up and I’m incapacitated again. Been fighting it over a year.

  15. Great article, thanks for sharing. I play a field sport similar to NFL and get a lot of calf cramps during matches (never in training). I have tried many different approaches but none of them have remedied the problem. I am now planning to try the Pickle Juice. Is this something i should take once my calfs start to cramp, or should i take it as a prevantive measure even before the game starts? I am unsure as many articles say it stops cramping instantly but usually when my calfs start cramping they simply dont stop. Also, would beetroot juice be a viable alternative?

    1. For pickle juice, you'd take it right when the cramps start. Beetjuice wouldn't really do anything in this regard.

      Addressing cramping BEFORE it stars is a combination of proper training at intensities similar to what you'll experience during game, adequate mineral intake, and fascial/soft tissue integrity.

  16. I don’t know why I get cramps every time I take medication for any illness. I get cramps all over from my body. I was not experiencing this in my early teens or early and mid 20s but I started getting cramps into my late 20s till now. My too scared to get any medication but an hour after taking medication, I start to have cramps all over for the next 2-3 days. Is there a remedy for these?

  17. It has been 1 year now since I began to have unusual leg cramps. Prevention is key with 3 large glasses of water daily. I have had them in both legs lasting 45 minutes, hanging onto the bathroom sink as hard as I could as to not be pulled over backwards and drinking as much water as possible. Thank you for the pickle juice suggestion, I will try this. I have tried to narrow down food causes such as msg, coffee, wine, but have not been successful. So far water is the only prevention that has worked at the first sign of a cramp usually fingers or toes. Has anyone looked at this from a food trigger?

  18. Hi Ben, good content. I'm 58 years of age and have alway's suffered cramps, usually only in a mild form. Long story short, been road bike cycling now for three years, in first three years only had a couple of cramps, last 6 months have had 2 very severe leg cramps at end of 40ml + rides, tried everything, more fluid, salt, magnsium, pottasium, electrolyte tablets, etc, etc, nothing stops it coming on or going. I did find a tip on the web, dissolve teaspoon of sugar in mouth when cramping and they will go away, i very much doubted this would work, but had cause to use this yesterday (30/03/2014) within 30secs of going in mouth, cramp totally went away and I was able to continue normally with ride. Can you tell me any reason this worked. Regards, Phil

    1. Glycogen depletion can cause cramping in people on very low carb diet, so that could be part of this. Also, recently LAVA magazine May 2014 issue had EXCELLENT ARTICLE on cramping…

  19. I am 75 yrs old. Obese, diabetic,fibromyalgia, asthma,

    Please help me . My life is a living hell. I do have some ruptured discs which I have had for yrs.

    I have these horrible cramps. They are in my hands my feet, calves like horrible charlie horses, thighs, I usually get them every day for hours and hrs. After they finally go away where I had them hurts like I was beat up.

    I have taken tonic water with quinine,Old Amish formula,Hylands leg cramp pills I also sent away for. took potassium until blood tests came back on the high side.

    I am taking slow Magnesium 5 times what I should be taking. They seem to help with the intensity of it. pickle juice, vinegar. I drink all the time as the prescription medication I take makes me so thirsty. I was drinking green tea and I loved it but I noticed it ran right through me and my fingers were shriveled up. had to stop. when I take slow magnesium my fingers plump up , but I still have them every day. This winter I was very sick with bronchitis and did not get up only to potty and I did not have any cramps. I cannot lay in bed every day as I am a widow and all alone. I have no quality of life, I am so depressed over this. I get in the car my hands curl up,toes curl up, foot turns in . I cannot drive that way nor walk. can’t even come home and lay down due to the severe pain I deal with,

    Is there anything I can do????? Please help me. My Dr. doesn’t know what to do except told me I am taking too much magnesium. I want so badly to be able to have a more normal life.

    Thank you for your assistance in this most troubling matter.

    Sincerely ,

    Beverly Holmes

    1. Beverly, I'm not a doctor, and it sounds to me like you're in a stage where you could really use a doc's help. Here are a few directories that may help you find a good functional medicine or naturopathic practitioner in your area:

      • HealthProfs.com
      • FunctionalMedicine.org
      • Naturopathic.org
      • PrimalDocs.com
      • PaleoPhysiciansNetwork.com

  20. I'm doing it right!!!

    I get SOOOO teased at work for drinking pickle juice every day (Nordic skiing all day, I found it seriously helps. along with water, and dynamic/static Pigeon stretches)

    Lesson learned though!!!! Do NOT drink more than a shot of it. if you overdo it, you swell too much.

  21. I'm doing it right!!!

    I get SOOOO teased at work for drinking pickle juice every day. Nordic skiing all day, 8-13 miles a day, I found it seriously helps. along with water, and Pigeon stretches. The winter before this year, I was in so much pain from tight muscles, I was desperate to try anything. I found pigeon to be my saving grace this winter. My student athletes call it "Coach's Stretch"

    Lesson learned!!!! Do NOT drink more than a shot-or-so of it. If you overdo it, you swell too much, causing more pain.

  22. ben… im am a 61 yr old male who competes at an elite level in spartan obstacle course races.

    this past weekend i experienced debilitating continual lower body cramping about 90 minutes into what should have been for me a 3 hour race, but resulted in nearly 4.5 hours. the race day was not overly hot and based on my urine clor post race, i was not excessively dehydrated.

    previous shorter distance races have produced a lesser degree of cramping, but all beginning at about the 90 minute mark

    i read the comment above about low glycogen and a low carb diet.

    my reg diet would be considered quite low card.

    can you talk more about this angle on cramping and whether that might be my problem, or other potential causes

  23. Ben, you are generating great debate and comments on electrolyte replacement and muscle cramps.

    What are your actual thoughts on the supplement market. I care for patients who suffer from muscle cramps due to their use of medications that flush electrolytes from their bodies. They drink in excess of 3 litres of water a day

    I have been looking into natural solutions and have found a few. The latest I have recommended is a product called Recovery e21 http://www.e21.com.au/

    Do you have any other products you would recommend me to look into?

  24. I have been training for a 200 mile cycling event for 3 months now. Until 2 weeks ago, I had been on a low carb diet for 5 months. Exactly 1 week ago, I was a mile into a flat ride, taking it easy, when my hip flexors, quads, and glutes in both legs cramped. It was so bad I couldn't even walk home. Since then, every day, when I've attempted to bike or even walk more than around the house, I get cramps in my legs. It's never been like this before, and now it's every day. The only way to make them stop is to cease all movement. I've been using Natural Calm and epsom salt baths for 6 days with no relief. My ride is in 2 weeks, and I'm exceedingly bummed! Help? Thanks!

    1. Treat it like scar tissue and an area of hypoxia. Mobilize the tissue. Deep connective tissue work and work on fascial adhesions. Use topical magnesium lotion. Strength it vigorously post foam rolling and deep tissue worko. I'd be happy to help you via a personal one-on-one consult. Just go to http://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/ben-g… and then choose a 20 or 60 minute consult, whichever you'd prefer. We can schedule ASAP after you get that.

      1. Just a follow up to my comment. Saw my GP and had some bloodwork done. My electrolytes were normal but my CK level at 7000 meant rhabdomyolysis. His advice was to avoid vigorous exercise and recheck in a week. I'm still cramping with exercise

  25. I work at a job where I sweat for 12 hours a day. I drink loads of water but when I get home at night to relax, I get inner thigh cramps that hurt so bad I almost pass out and then I’m extremely sore for 3 to 5 days. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

    1. Does your job involve any repetitive motion or static contractions, specifically involving your inner thighs? Perhaps you need to “1. Train specifically for your race” but in your case substitute ‘race’ for ‘work’.

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