How ath­letes can avoid — or at least min­i­mize — cramps

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - JEFF VRABEL

Cramps are ter­ri­ble. Even the word is dis­pleas­ing — it’s dis­mal and clunky — so it’s kind of a per­fect de­scrip­tor for when your mus­cles tighten but don’t have enough fuel or spirit to re­lax back to their orig­i­nal happy state. The good news is that most of us who aren’t train­ing for en­durance runs or Olympic row­ing com­pe­ti­tions can gen­er­ally keep our sys­tems in work­ing or­der with a con­sis­tent sup­ply of water and elec­trolytes.

Cramps fall into two camps, says Mark Lavallee, chair of the Sports Medicine So­ci­ety for USA Weightlift­ing. The first is meta­bolic: You’re cramp­ing up be­cause of de­hy­dra­tion or an elec­trolyte de­fi­ciency, where your mus­cles are happy to con­tract but don’t have enough fluid to re­lax. The sec­ond is more mechanical, such as if you’ve never run in your life but de­cide to go for a nice morn­ing five-miler. Both are aw­ful. Here’s how to avoid, or at least min­i­mize, the aw­ful.

Be­fore you cramp

• Au­dit your water lev­els. Lavallee has a few ways to eval­u­ate your hy­dra­tion level: If the mu­cus in your nose or mouth is tacky and thick, if your saliva is sticky, or if you’re uri­nat­ing a dark shade of yel­low, your tank is low. (You want a faint yel­low.) Drink up.

• Check your elec­trolytes. This is easy and hard. “Ev­ery day in this coun­try, some new voodoo guru sup­ple­ment comes out,” says Keenan Robin­son, most well known for be­ing Michael Phelps’s strength coach and sports medicine provider. “We need vi­ta­min B, sodium, potas­sium and cal­cium. That’s been proven since Galileo was open­ing up med­i­cal books,” he says. But ev­ery per­son’s sys­tem is dif­fer­ent, so you may need a few weeks of trial and er­ror to es­tab­lish how much (or whether) you’ll need to preload with a sports drink, gels or salt tablets (not cof­fee — that’s a di­uretic). Brazenly, Lavallee also sug­gests some­thing “re­ally old-fash­ioned called food.” OJ and ba­nanas, peo­ple — you know the drill.

• Mas­sage your­self. Robin­son’s also big on such simple self-care tools as foam rollers and stretch bands. “We think of mus­cles as one huge group, but there are lit­tle mi­cro-spin­dles that make up fi­bres,” he says. “Some might be al­ready cramp­ing, but you don’t feel it be­cause it’s on a mi­cro­scopic level.” A lit­tle at­ten­tion will help loosen them up. He’s also a fan of com­pres­sion gar­ments, which en­close the mus­cle and limit the op­por­tu­nity for it to re­act and spasm quickly.

• Dur­ing work­outs, hy­drate ev­ery 15 min­utes. Hen­rik Rum­mel of the U.S. Olympic row­ing team makes a simple habit of swig­ging from his water bot­tle and pop­ping oc­ca­sional elec­trolyte tablets dur­ing his team’s bru­tal two-a-days. “We sweat a lot, but we put a lot of liq­uid back,” he says. Con­nor Jaeger, who will swim in the Olympic tri­als this sum­mer, mixes a cock­tail of water, Ga­tor­lytes elec­trolyte pow­der and a salt tablet to keep him go­ing dur­ing his four hours of daily prac­tice. What­ever you’re sip­ping, take in seven to 10 ounces in those in­ter­vals.

• Use your brain. “It’s like any prepa­ra­tion or any kind of work — if you get be­hind it, you have to do a lot more to catch up,” Rum­mel says. “If you stay on top, it’s not that bad.”

After you cramp

Ugh, sorry. Been there. • Hy­drate again. Get some water, a sports drink or a high-sodium drink mix in there; it takes about seven min­utes for your stomach to ab­sorb it. If you’re not into sports drinks, which can be high in sugar and calo­ries, drop some elec­trolyte tablets or pow­der into your water bot­tle, or sam­ple co­conut water. Years ago, train­ers got into pickle juice, which is high in sodium and vine­gar. Lavallee says it’s not nu­tri­tion­ally any more ben­e­fi­cial than water or Ga­torade, but it is a con­ver­sa­tion starter.

• Breathe. Cramp­ing is ten­sion, so you need to re­lax. Emil­iano Tra­mon­tozzi, fit­ness man­ager of a Crunch gym in New York City, starts by breath­ing it out. “Not the fight-or-flight breath­ing through the chest,” he says. “Con­cen­trate on di­aphrag­matic breath­ing, in through the nose, out through the nose.” Yes, this means you may have to take a break, but Tra­mon­tozzi says that’ll help “let the mus­cle ease out of what­ever flex­ion it’s in.”

• Do some light stretch­ing. Don’t au­to­mat­i­cally stretch the cramp­ing mus­cle. Take the load off it. For calves and ham­strings, Lavallee says, sit on the ground and stretch your legs out in front of you. Keep them straight, grab your toes and pull back, which will force the leg to straighten out.

Robin­son sug­gests try­ing ice first, but if you can walk off the court or course, soak­ing your feet in a hot tub would also help. If it’s hap­pen­ing all the time, maybe pull back on the work­outs.

GETTY

Cramps can be caused by de­hy­dra­tion or an elec­trolyte de­fi­ciency or sim­ply do­ing too much too soon.

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