Muscle cramping stinks. It’s something that may be in the back of your mind prior to competing. It’s a terrible feeling because as the cramp starts, you slow play it in your mind and you hope it doesn’t happen and BAM! The muscle tightens up and drops you. And often times it can be pretty painful.
I’m sure if you ask anyone on how to deal with muscle cramping or what causes muscle cramping you’ll get: it is a dehydration problem. You’re not drinking enough water. The second answer: You’re not getting enough potassium in your diet, eat more bananas. Which in translation it means there is an electrolyte imbalance and you need to get more electrolytes in your liquids. Both of those would be considered “Nutritional” cramps. A third answer you may get is: you didn’t stretch enough and your muscles weren’t loose. That answer would be fall under the category of “Functional” cramps.
While they can be contributing factors to muscle cramping, there is an often overlooked factor that doesn’t get the same notoriety. That muscle cramps could be caused due to your body being tired, Neuromuscular Fatigue.
The Neuromuscular Fatigue Component:
Many athletes, especially endurance athletes, tend to cramp up at the end of their events. Furthermore, the athletes that tend to cramp towards the ends are athletes that have been play longer, play at a higher intensity, or tend to be the better athletes (i.e LeBron James during the San Antonio Spurs). While dehydration and fatigue can absolutely play a factor, you cannot dismiss the notion of Neuromuscular Fatigue.
Neuromuscular Fatigue Component is the theory that the nerves that control the skeletal muscles ability to contract have been compromised and are not firing in a functional manner. The nervous system can become compromised by: high body temperatures, reduced blood flow, low blood glucose, low muscle glycogen, severe salt loss.
Managing and Preventing Muscle Cramps:
Carbohydrate Up: Carbohydrates before and during your prolonged exercise and training regiments is a must. Adequate intake could prolong muscle fatigue.
Pre-Game: 1-4 hours prior and then 30 minutes prior
In-Game: If your activity last longer than 60 minutes
Hydration Up: You cannot just drink Gatorade or Body Armor right before your event and say you’re all good to go. Hydration starts days before your big event. Hydration throughout the day several days out is really important to your system being able to perform at a high level.
Pre-Game: 20 ounces 2 hours out from competition and 20 ounces prior to competition
In-Game: 8-10 ounces every 15 minutes of sport
Targeted Manual and Strength Work: Targeted manual work can help with muscular cramping. Before, during, and after training days and competition days can help. Not only manual work is important but also targeted strength work as well. If there is a muscle group or area that cramps often targeted manual work and strength training can help prevent fatigue in that muscular group; if for endurance improvement GENERALLY speaking higher repetitions, lower loads, and less rest in-between sets and if for strength improvement GENERALLY speaking less repetitions, higher loads, and more rest in-between sets.
Compression Apparel and Gear: While the studies seem to be inconsistent on the actual benefits it may help decrease the likelihood of fatigue. Many apparel companies have made a buck or so on stating that compression apparel can help prevent fatigue and help with recovery.
The Neuromuscular Component is influenced by many of the factors listed above from nutritional and functional components.
There is always going to be new science and research out there about muscle cramping and ways to improve it. But for now, it’s what we have…do more than just stay hydrated and eat bananas.