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Exercise-induced cramp

Muscle cramps are painful spasms that can happen during or after exercise, or even when you’re at rest or asleep. Your muscle goes into a hard, contracted state and you can't relax it. The pain usually subsides after a few seconds or minutes but, rarely, it may last for 15 minutes or more. Cramps can come back a few times before eventually subsiding.

Muscle cramps aren’t thought to have any serious long-term effects but they may be a sign of an underlying health condition.

This article explains possible causes of cramps that come on with exercising, and how you can treat and try to prevent them.

What causes cramps?

The exact cause of cramps is still unknown, but some things that may lead to them are:

  • overexertion (straining or overusing a muscle), or after strenuous activity such as running a marathon
  • dehydration
  • lack of fitness or specific training
  • a lack of electrolytes in your diet (for example sodium from salt) or a loss of electrolytes from your body (such as through sweating)
  • exercising in hot weather
  • a poor running technique

What can I do to treat cramps?

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

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

If you have ever had cramp, you will know that the first thing you want to do when it comes on is to do something to ease the pain. Here are some tips that should help to relieve it.

  • Stop whatever exercise you’re doing.
  • Gently stretch the cramped muscle and hold until your muscle relaxes – you may need to ask a friend to help you.

-  For cramp in your calf, stand in a lunge position and stretch your affected leg out straight behind you.

-  If you have cramp in your 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.

-  To relieve cramp in your hamstring muscles, sit down, stretch your leg out in front of you and, keeping your knee straight, lean forward to touch your foot.

  • Gently massage the muscle.
  • Walk around a little.
  • You may initially want to apply some heat to your muscle to relax it. After this, ice may give some relief – use an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel. Don’t apply ice directly to your skin as it can damage your skin.
  • Drink some water to replace any fluids you may have lost.

How can I prevent cramps?

As with any injury, prevention is better than treatment. You may find the following useful for stopping injuries, including cramp, before they happen.

Training

Try to build up the intensity and duration of your training gradually. This way, your body will have time to adjust to the increasing activity.

Hydration

Make sure you stay well hydrated while you’re exercising. Urine colour is a useful indicator of how hydrated you are. Generally, dark urine suggests that you’re dehydrated, with pale yellow urine being ideal.

Warming up and stretching

Start exercising with a gentle warm-up before you get into anything too intensive. It’s a common belief that stretching your muscles reduces your likelihood of developing injuries, including cramp, and improves your flexibility. However, the benefit of stretching before or after exercise for preventing injury is unproven.

If you regularly get muscle cramps, see your GP or physiotherapist for advice.

Action points

  • Build up your training gradually.
  • Drink enough water before, during and after exercising – how much you need will depend on how thirsty you feel.
  • Wear the right clothes and properly fitting trainers when you exercise.
  • See your GP if you regularly get cramps.

 

Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2012.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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