If you have never experienced the sudden, agonizing pain of muscle cramp when exercising, then count yourself lucky. If you experience muscle cramp when exercising, it can ruin your entire training session or competition.

What is cramp?

Cramp is an involuntary, intense, violent and painful muscle contraction. It's linked to an anarchic contraction of muscle fibres and frequently affects the lower limbs. It occurs during or after exercise and can last several minutes. It disappears, leaving no side-effects.

How does cramp occur?

Cramp occurs in tired muscles, after a period of abnormal exertion or after 4-6 hours of exercise, particularly when it's hot. The main causes are:

  • Inadequate hydration,
  • Insufficient prior training,
  • Insufficient recovery time between training sessions, resulting in tired muscles.
  • An accumulation of acid in the muscle
  • A deficit of minerals: potassium, calcium, sodium or magnesium
  • Unusual stress or the use of poorly designed equipment etc.

Cramp occurs during or immediately after exercise. The occurrence of cramp can be explained by a number of mineral-related conditions (potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium) as these minerals are needed to transmit nerve impulses.

How can you prevent and treat cramp?

The best treatment is prevention and the best way to prevent cramp is to develop a specially designed hydration and training plan.

Once afflicted by cramp, treatment involves stretching the affected muscle.

There are several nutritional-related measures you can take which may help prevent the occurrence of cramp:

-       Firstly, ensure you are well hydrated, before, during and after exercise.

-       Secondly, ensure you consume an adequate amount of complex carbohydrates before and during exercise,

Then, follow a balanced diet to ensure you receive an optimal supply of calcium, magnesium and potassium.

When it comes to controlling muscle contraction and relaxation, calcium and magnesium are two important minerals, working synergistically to maintain normal electrical potential and coordinate muscle contraction and relaxation responses in the muscles.
In muscle cells, an increased concentration of calcium triggers contraction of the muscle fibres while increased intracellular levels of magnesium counteract this effect, resulting in relaxation. Because of their importance for muscle functioning, much research has focused on the role of calcium/magnesium in muscle cramps.

Despite these findings, the evidence that magnesium (or calcium) supplements can reduce the risk of muscle cramping associated with exercise is inconclusive; some studies have reported altered blood magnesium concentrations in those afflicted by exercise-induced cramp (1), but the clinical significance of these findings are poorly understood.

Marie Fauchille
Dietician | Nutritionist
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