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Exercise-induced cramp

Ever felt the painful spasm of a muscle cramp while exercising or shortly afterwards?

Here are some tips on how to treat it, and to try to prevent it happening in the first place.

Cyclists stretching


  • What is cramp? What is cramp?

    Cramp is when your muscle goes into a hard, tense, painful state and you can’t relax it. You’ll know if you’ve had it!

    Although any muscle can go into spasm, cramps mostly affect the muscles in the:

    • calf (gastrocnemius)
    • front of your thigh (quadriceps)
    • back of your thigh (hamstrings)

    The pain usually dies down after a few minutes but sometimes it can last for 10 minutes or more. And your muscle can feel tender for up to 24 hours. Cramp can come back a few times before eventually getting better.

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  • How can I treat cramp? How can I treat cramp?

    Gently stretch the muscle with cramp and hold until it relaxes.

    Muscle Stretch
    Calf (gastrocnemius) Stand in a lunge position and stretch your affected leg out straight behind you.
    Front of your thigh (quadriceps) Stand upright and lift your ankle towards your buttocks while holding the top of your foot. Pull your heel gently in towards your buttocks to stretch.
    Back of your thigh (hamstrings) Straighten your leg out in front of you. Slowly bend down with the other knee until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh.

    It may also help if you gently massage your muscle. And try to have a walk around too to get your blood flowing. Although there isn’t any strong scientific proof, some people think that dehydration can lead to cramp so it might be worth drinking some water.

  • How can I prevent cramp? How can I prevent cramp?

    Warm up and stretch

    Have a gentle warm-up before you get into anything too intensive. It’s thought that stretching your muscles reduces your likelihood of developing injuries and cramp, and improves your flexibility. Although studies haven’t found this to be definitely true, it’s probably worth giving it a go – you might find it helps.

    Keep hydrated

    Drink enough water while you exercise and afterwards, particularly in hot conditions. Even though it’s not known for sure if it helps prevent cramp, it’s important anyway to stay properly hydrated when you’re exercising.

    How much you need to drink varies hugely from person to person so it simply isn’t possible to give exact amounts. Instead, keep an eye on the colour of your urine colour as this is a really useful indicator of how hydrated you are.

    Click the image to enlarge it.

    Image showing hydration level by urine colour 

    Get your electrolytes in balance

    If you’re sweating a lot when you’re exercising, you can lose electrolytes, such as sodium (salt). It’s not known for certain but this may cause cramp so you could try replacing the electrolytes you lose with sports drinks. Be sure to check the label carefully though as some sports drinks don’t actually contain many electrolytes. But really, if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, this should be enough to keep your electrolyte levels where they need to be.

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  • Resources Resources


    • Muscle cramps. The Merck Manuals., published August 2012
    • Muscle cramps. PatientPlus., reviewed 1 March 2013
    • Leg cramps. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published September 2012
    • Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, et al. Exercise-associated muscle cramps. Sports Health 2010; 2(4):279–83. doi:10.1177/1941738109357299
    • Blyton F, Chuter V, Walter KEL, et al. Non-drug therapies for lower limb muscle cramps. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008496.pub2
    • Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
    • How to recognize, prevent and treat exertional heat illnesses. National Athletic Trainers' Association., published 1 November 2013
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    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, September 2015.

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