Preventing Muscle Cramping During Exercise

Preventing Muscle Cramping During Exercise
Posted on 09/21/2021

Preventing Muscle Cramping During Exercise

Angela Baleztena, MS, LAT, ATC

Head Athletic Trainer

Douglas County High School


Muscle cramping is a common affliction for many athletes.  In particular, endurance athletes such as marathon runners and triathletes are susceptible to Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping.  An additional population of athletes who frequently suffer from muscle cramping is American football and soccer athletes who compete in hot, humid weather.  These weather conditions combined with high intensity exercise contributes to dehydration as well as fuel and electrolyte depletion.  There has been a long-held belief that these cramps were in large part due to dehydration and electrolyte deficiency.  In order to combat muscle cramps, athletes are often encouraged to consume water as well as electrolyte-rich fluids such as Gatorade.  Gels, jellybeans, and bars have also been used to help prevent and treat muscle cramps. 

Pickle juice is another remedy sometimes used to treat Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps.  Fitness professionals and football players in hot, humid regions of the United States report relief of muscle cramps by drinking a small amount of pickle juice.  This concept first made headlines when the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles claimed pickle juice as their secret weapon to combat muscle cramps during a game against the Dallas Cowboys.  Early thought on this remedy was that the salty liquid would replenish electrolytes lost due to dehydration.  Several media outlets have reported on this method.  A New York Times article states that consuming about 2.5 ounces of pickle juice after an intense workout will provide relief from muscle cramping in around 85 seconds.  If this claim is true, electrolyte replenishment cannot be credited for the cramp relief.  Eighty-five seconds is not enough time for the liquid to empty from the stomach and enter the bloodstream.  Research has shown that plasma sodium concentrations and plasma potassium concentrations did not change when tested 60 minutes after pickle juice consumption.   

A more recent mode of thought disputes the claim that pickle juice works on muscle cramps due to its electrolyte content.  In fact, it disputes the claim that muscle cramping is caused by dehydration and electrolyte deficiency at all.  Instead, researchers and athletic professionals believe that Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps are due to muscle fatigue and exhaustion of the biomechanical processes involved in muscle contraction.  When muscles reach the point of exhaustion, the nerves misfire and cause over contracting.  Theories hypothesize that the vinegar in the pickle juice sends signals to the nerves interrupting the contraction.  The same effect can be found with other tart or sour substances like mustard. A study conducted at Brigham Young University tested this theory.  Study participants performed 30-minute bouts of cycling until each person lost 3% of his body weight through sweating.  At this time a muscle cramp was stimulated electronically.  When the subjects consumed pickle juice, the cramp was relieved 45% faster than when they consumed water.  As a result of their research, Miller et al concluded that the key to preventing exercise associated muscle cramps may be to concentrate on preventing or at least minimizing neuromuscular fatigue as opposed to focusing on hydration. 

Many athletes have adverse reactions when consuming tart pickle juice, mustard, or sugary electrolyte beverages during a bout of exercise. Thankfully there are other methods for reducing muscle cramping. Much like tart pickle juice sends signals to nerves to interrupt the over-contracting cycle of exhausted muscles, stretching the muscle can have the same effect. A common method to deal with on-field calf muscle cramping during a football or soccer game is to lie down and have your calf stretched out. However, passive stretching has been proven less effective than active stretching. An athlete can better send a signal to the nerve by standing with the leg straight, heel planted into the ground, and toe pulled up toward the shin. This stretches the calf muscle and sends the signal to the nerve to stop the over-contracting cycle.

Prevention is the most effective method of all. Muscle cramping mostly occurs due to exhaustion. Preventing exhaustion can be accomplished with a rigorous conditioning program that trains the muscles to withstand the demands of competition. Athletes can benefit from taking advantage of training well in advance of competition. Muscles will respond to the demands imposed on them and perform to the level needed. Proper nutrition and hydration in the days and weeks leading up to intense exercise is also a key to reducing muscle cramping. Muscles need an adequate amount of fuel and water to function properly, especially in the athletic setting. Athletes who often suffer from muscle cramping during exercise may be deficient in food and/or water. It may be helpful to keep a food diary for a few days to examine which nutrients are lacking. Don’t wait until the day of a competition to eat well and drink plenty of water. Athletic performance is highest for athletes who prepare in advance by fueling and hydrating every day.

  

 

 

References 

Allen, S., Miller, K., Albrecht, J., Gerden-Robinson, J., Blodgett-Salafia, E. (2013). Ad libitum fluid intake and plasma responses after pickle juice, hypertonic saline, or deionized water ingestion. Journal of Athletic Training, 48.6, 734 


Edouard, P., Exercise associated muscle cramps: Discussion on causes, prevention and treatment,Science & Sports,Volume 29, Issue 6,2014


Marosek, Hooper, Stephanie E.; Antharam, Vijay; Dowlatshahi, Katayoon Quantitative Analysis of the Acetic Acid Content in Substances Used by Athletes for the Possible Prevention and Alleviation of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2020 - Volume 34 - Issue 6 - p 1539-1546 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003595

Miller, KCI, Brendon P. McDermott, Susan W. Yeargin, Aidan Fiol, Martin P. Schwellnus; An Evidence-Based Review of the Pathophysiology, Treatment, and Prevention of Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps. J Athl Train 2021; doi: 

Miller KC1, Mack GW, Knight KL, Hopkins JT, Draper DO, Fields PJ, Hunter I. (2010). Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42, 953-61 


Miller KC1, Mack GW, Knight KL. (2010). Gastric emptying after pickle juice ingestion in rested, euhydrated humans. Journal of Athletic Training, 45, 601-608. 


Miller KC1, Mack GW, Knight K. (2009). Electrolyte and plasma changes after ingestion of pickle juice, water, and a common carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. Journal of Athletic Training, 44, 454-461 
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