Whenever athletes begin to discuss muscle cramping I have to restrain my eyes from rolling when someone immediately recommends eating a banana. Don’t get me wrong, bananas are great and potassium may possibly help, but there are many other factors that play into the role of muscle cramps.
Unpredictable in nature, a muscle cramp is a contraction that goes out of control and they can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause and the best treatment.
Cramping actually occurs most frequently when muscles are overexerted or fatigued. This problem may be related to a nerve malfunction that prevents the muscle from relaxing. It may be a good idea to discuss your cramping issues with a physical therapist, athletic trainer or coach regarding proper stretching and training techniques.
If you are on a statin medication (cholesterol-lowering med), talk with your doctor. Cramping may be a possible side effect.
There may be other predisposing factors such as dehydration, inadequate conditions, electrolyte imbalance and mineral deficiency. Here are some suggestions for possible solutions if the reason for cramping is diet related. You may want to experiment if you have reoccurring muscle cramping.
Dehydration – Dehydrated athletes tend to suffer muscle cramps more easily. Don’t overlook this obvious solution. Drink adequate fluids before, during and after exercise. Checking urine color is a great indicator (lemonade color = good, apple juice = drink more fluids).
Sodium Imbalance – Exercising for long hours in the heat while drinking solely water can cause a sodium imbalance and may contribute to cramping. Athletes who tend to have salty sweat may need to take extra precautions to avoid a sodium imbalance. Endurance sports drinks, salted pretzels or crackers make wise snack choices. If you’re suffering recurring muscle cramps despite high sodium intake, consider experimenting with electrolyte tablets. Be sure to take them with plenty of fluids otherwise it may lead to gastrointestinal problems
Potassium Imbalance – A potassium deficiency can occur through sweat losses and potentially can play a role in muscle cramps. However, the body contains a significant amount of potassium, much more potassium than a marathon runner could lose on a hot race day. But, you can still rule out the issue by eating potassium-rich foods such as oranges, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes on a daily basis. Potassium-based supplements aren’t necessary, and they can be dangerous to consume large doses over a short period.
Snack Idea — Last September I participated in the JDRF Ride to Cure – Lake Tahoe bike ride. At the checkpoints they had a great selection of food, and one of the strangest food items were these baby red potatoes sitting in a bin. At first I thought they were just raw potatoes, but lo and behold they had been boiled. They had saltshakers nearby, sprinkle a little salt on and they made the most delicious snack to eat on the bike ride. They were a great source of potassium, carbohydrates and sodium and I loved them. I may have to bring them along on some long bike rides this summer.
Calcium Imbalance – Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and plays a role in muscle function. Some athletes report their cramping problems disappear when they boost their intake of calcium-rich foods. The body keeps calcium levels well regulated by releasing calcium from the bones whenever enough calcium isn’t consumed in the diet. If nothing else, make sure you are eating at least 2 servings of calcium-rich foods to avoid draining the calcium from your bones.
Magnesium Imbalance – Calcium is a mineral that helps muscles contract, and magnesium is the mineral needed for muscles to relax. If you experience nighttime cramping while your sleeping, you may want to take a look at your magnesium intake. The recommended intake for men is 420 mg/day and for women 320 mg/day. Rich sources of magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts, beans, legumes and whole grains. I’ve heard of some athletes claiming that antacids such as Rolaids are helpful as they contain both calcium and magnesium.