Earlier this year I found myself lying face-down on the ground, both of my quads locked up and completely immobile. I was three events into a CrossFit competition, and I had totally broken down.
During the first event, I felt a foreboding twitch down the front of my legs and had been doing my best to keep muscle cramps at bay. Between rounds, I slammed coconut water, ate magnesium pills, and chowed down on bananas. But halfway into Event 3 (a mile-long run with a weighted vest), here I was, writhing on the pavement and waving away offers of help.
This wasn’t the first time it had happened, but I was determined to make it the last. So I reached out to one of the nation’s top researchers on exercise-induced cramping, Kevin C. Miller, PhD., Professor at Central Michigan University, to see just what we can do to prevent and stop muscle cramps. Spoiler alert: You might want to stock up on pickle juice (but not for the reason you’d think).
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Muscle Cramps: Understanding the Causes
Turns out, cramping is likely caused by changes in nervous system activity (e.g., increased excitability), rather than dehydration or electrolyte losses. What excites the nervous system? Pick your poison.
“My personal belief is that everyone has their own unique recipe for cramping,” Miller says. “I might need a certain level of fatigue in my muscle, a prior amount of muscle damage and a lack of sleep, and I’ll cramp. If I only have two of those factors, I don’t cramp. Your ‘recipe’ may be completely different than mine.”
To prevent cramping, Miller recommends keeping a cramp diary. “I tell people that whenever they get a cramp, write down as many things as you can think of that may have increased your risk of cramping. Then, look for trends in your diary to identify your individual factors. Once you know your “recipe for cramping,” you can target those factors with interventions.”
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Here are some potential triggers to consider when you write in your cramping diary:
- A prior history of cramping
- Prior ligament or muscle damage
- Lack of sleep
- Exercise duration and novelty of exercise
- Recent diet including fluid and sodium intake
- Notable increase in exercise intensity
According to Miller, the following factors aren’t potential triggers:
- Stretching history (or lack thereof) or flexibility
- Dehydration (Miller notes that it may contribute to fatigue, but in and of itself is not actually a trigger)
- Weight and gender
Once you’ve identified a few common triggers, work on eliminating them to see which ones reduce your instances of cramping.
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Treatment Is Tricky, According to Research
Bad news is: Once a muscle cramp takes hold, there aren’t a whole lot of treatments that are actually backed by science. Here’s a breakdown of the good, the bad and the inconclusive.
Eating bananas? Nope. You might have heard the extra potassium from foods like bananas will help replenish the electrolytes your clenching muscles crave. Problem is: “It takes at least 30 minutes for your body to digest the banana and increase your blood potassium,” Miller says. Sadly, just enough time for that 5K race to pass you by.
Slathering on topical ointments? Nope. “It is difficult to get ingredients in topical ointments through the skin to the cramping muscle. You’re likely just tricking your skin’s pain receptors.”
Getting a massage? Maybe. “It probably helps relieve cramping, since the physical manipulation will reduce pain, but it’s a temporary fix. As soon as you go back to exercising, it’ll start again.”
Drinking pickle juice? This one might actually work, but the reason will surprise you. “We’ve found that pickle juice actually reduces the duration of cramps by 40 percent, but it’s not the electrolytes like sodium or potassium responsible for the relief,” Miller says. According to Miller, the vinegar in pickle juice triggers something called an oropharyngeal stimulation, which shocks the nervous system and cuts down on cramping. Science hasn’t figured out why just yet — we just know that it’s effective. “We’re not really sure how the process works yet,” Miller says. “All we really know is that it must be a neurological effect because it happens so fast.”
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If you can’t stomach pickle juice, you might have other options, too. Miller stresses that while there isn’t any published research yet, there is some belief among researchers that ingredients like cinnamon, ginger and capsaicin (the active ingredient in chili peppers) will have similar benefits. So it might not hurt to pack a few Atomic Fireballs in your race vest the next time you go for a long run.