A muscle cramp or muscle spasm is an extremely common occurrence that almost 95% of the population will experience at one point or another, albeit for a vast array of different causes. We will be talking about skeletal muscle cramps & ways you can prevent them. Keeping in mind that everyone is different & cramps for a different reason, so we will try and cover the most common ways of cramping & prevention & leave it upto you to decide what works best for you.
There are three primary types of muscles found in the human body:
* Skeletal muscle - voluntary muscle, such as the bicep, that can be consciously controlled.
* Smooth muscle - involuntary muscle that is found in the walls of organs and other structures such as the bladder and stomach. Smooth muscle isn’t under conscious control.
* Cardiac muscle - Found in the heart and is involuntary in that it isn’t under conscious control, but is structurally akin to skeletal muscle.
What Are Muscle Cramps And Spasms?
Voluntary muscle contraction occurs from a persons’ conscious effort to make a specific movement. This is a natural process of alternatively contracting and relaxing to produce movement.
A muscle spasm occurs when muscles involuntarily contract momentarily, without the person willing it to do so. The person looses the ability to relax or control the muscle for a few seconds.
When the spasm is sustained or is forceful, it’s called a cramp. The sustained contraction, depending on the muscle involved, can often be seen or felt from the skin surface as the involve muscle hardens from the violent and prolonged contraction. The cramp can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur multiple times before dissipating.
Spasms and cramps may affect grouped muscles, a single muscle, or a portion of a single muscle. Cramping may also occur in some involuntary muscles, such as the uterus, bronchial tree, and intestinal tract.
Symptoms Of Skeletal Muscle Cramps
* pain, often severe, over the affected muscle
* pain that may cause debilitation until the cramp subsides
* local swelling, tenderness, and soreness over the affected area that may last a few days after the cramping
* a firm knot atop the affected muscle that may be felt or seen externally
Types And Causes Of Skeletal Muscle Cramps
When it comes to skeletal muscle cramps, there are innumerable causative agents - muscle overuse; muscle injury; muscle wasting diseases; dehydration; B vitamin deficiencies; circulation, blood, and nerve diseases; metabolic conditions; pregnancy; side effects of certain medications, such as Aricept, Evista, Tolcapone; and so forth. That said, skeletal muscle cramps are generally categorized into four distinct groups:
1. True cramps
This is the most common type of skeletal cramp and can involve part of one muscle, all of one muscle, or an entire muscle group. Most often caused as nerves becoming overly excitable and stimulate a corresponding muscle(s). True cramps may occur from any of the following:
* as a protective mechanism to stabilize an area of injury, such as after a sprain, strain, or broken bone, or as a direct result of the an injuring blow to a muscle.
* during or after a vigorous activity, after long period of being stationary, or during a repetitive moment.
* cramping may frequently occur at night, a type of cramp commonly referred to as rest cramps or nocturnal cramps.
* chronic dehydration, such as from taking diuretic medications, or acute dehydration, such as excessive sweating.
* any other acute or chronic shifting of bodily fluids, such as in dialysis.
* sodium depletion (usually associated with dehydration or fluid volume shifts)
* low blood levels of magnesium, potassium, or calcium can cause nerve excitability
2. Tetany Cramp
Tetany causes the nerve cell in the body to become “activated,” thus stimulating the muscles and causing widespread spasms and cramps to various muscles. The name tetany cramp is based on the toxic effect tetanus has on the nerves, but a tetany cramp can also be caused from calcium and magnesium deficiency.
Contractures occur if a muscle is unable to relax for an extended period of time, beyond that of a cramp. The constant spasm activity is due to a lack of the energy chemical, ATP, in the muscle cells preventing muscle fiber relaxation.
4. Dystonic cramps
This type of cramp stems from muscles being stimulated in a movement that they weren’t needed in making. Common locations are the jaw and eyelid. The arms and hands may also have dystonic cramps from repetitive movement - commonly referred to as writer’s cramp, typist cramp, or pianist cramp.
Ways to prevent cramping
Muscular fatigue is currently touted as the most likely cause of cramping. Pushing your muscles in a different way from how they have been trained by using a different movement pattern can cause cramping. Pushing harder, longer and faster than before can cause cramping. For mountain bike racers riding 100km or more, harder and longer is the most likely cramping culprit.
Prevention: There are two ways to prevent cramping from fatigue: pacing and training. Pace your race to accurately reflect the level at which you have trained. Out-pacing your training is an almost certain recipe for cramping. Hold back in the first half of your race to prevent cramping. In training, push harder and longer to adapt to the pace you want to maintain during the race. This is a tough one to accomplish for a endurance mountain bike race that takes on average 6+ hours to complete.
There is anecdotal evidence that muscle cramping can be prevented by strength training.
I myself have also had great success with doing a hard hill session or weights before going out on my regular training rides over fatiguing the muscles to simulate a race situation. It comes down to simulating your race situation as closely as possible without over training your muscles and teaching them to fire repetitively under fatigue.
LOW ELECTROLYTE THEORY
Muscle cramping may be brought on by loss of sodium, chloride, calcium, potassium or magnesium in sweat during exercise. This is the oldest cramping theory and recent evidence suggests it also the most unlikely cause of muscle cramping. However, as athletes it is also an easy one to cheaply and safely cover during a race.
Prevention: Before the race add extra salt to your meals to top-up electrolyte supplies. Avoid over-drinking fluids the day before the race as that will dilute your blood electrolyte concentration. During the race supplement with a solution such as Elete or capsules such as Endurolytes to replace electrolytes lost in sweat.
Hyper-hydration is linked to the low electrolyte theory as drinking too much will dilute the electrolyte concentration in the blood.
Prevention: Drink just the right amount and not too much water or better still drink electrolytes instead leading up to a race.
Dehydration may or may not cause muscle cramps. Avoiding dehydrations is a no-brainer for racers, as dehydration negatively affects race performance in multiple ways.
Prevention: Maintain hydration status by drinking when you are thirsty.
Some people are simply crampers, while others are not. If you have read this far, then you probably are a cramper. There is evidence that cramping susceptibility increases with age.
Prevention: Regular stretching may help reduce the incidence of cramping. If you are a cramper you should become a regular stretcher. If you have a pill or tonic that prevents your cramping, keep taking it. The Placebo effect might be working nicely for you. Some athletes swear by pickle juice!
Once your legs do cramp in a race, your best option is to drop the pedal force and spin your way through them or if your not concerned about loosing then get off and walk for a bit. If your cramps are too intense to keep the pedals moving, gently stretch the affected muscle.