Muscle cramps, why they occur and how to avoid them

Muscle cramps, why they occur and how to avoid them

They can happen when you least expect it, they will take you by surprise… But you will soon realise, just as if an electric current had passed through you, that your calf is involuntarily contracting, forcing you to stop any movement you are making. Swimmers, cyclists, marathon runners, footballers… practically any sportsman and/or athlete will have suffered or may suffer during their sporting career from the dreaded cramps.

However, taking the appropriate measures, we should not be afraid of them, and in the worst case, with a simple massage, and electrolyte replacement, we can continue…

What are muscle cramps?

Leg cramps are a painful and frequent occurrence that can occur during physical activity, such as walking or running. They are very common among endurance athletes and older people who engage in strenuous physical activity.

They often occur during, or at the end of, intense exercise

Calf cramp

Cramps occur when a muscle contracts involuntarily, without us intervening at will

 At that moment, right in the place of the pain, we can notice a lump or protuberance, which indicates the stiffness and stiffness that the muscle has just suffered. Of course, a certain amount of pain will accompany it. The duration of this cramp can be as short as a few seconds, or even a few minutes. In the worst case, it can last for several hours, intermittently.

As we get older, cramps may become more common…

Calves cramp

If they are quite frequent and regular, it is advisable to go to the doctor

Although muscle cramps are usually benign, on certain occasions they can indicate a medical condition or symptom of some kind of pathology, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism…

Muscle spasms

This term is related to cramps, but one possible difference is that while cramps tend to occur as a result of medium to long term activities along with a number of factors such as poor hydration leading to excessive loss of minerals, muscle spasms occur outside the time of exercise.

Muscle spasms occur as a result of an involuntary contraction of a muscle and can cause pain

Muscle spasms

Spasms can affect practically any muscle group, giving rise to various symptoms, and obviously a different scale of pain

A clear example is seen in the facet joints of the spine, which when injured or inflamed, the muscles that support the spine can cause spasms, causing low back pain as well as limited movement

How do muscle spasms happen?

Among the most general symptoms are dehydration, which produces electrolyte alterations, and also an excess or inappropriate workload of the muscle.

Such a combination is conducive to the appearance of spasm, which tends to be punctual, producing pain, but at the same time, of short duration

Muscle cramps overnight

To relieve and calm the pain, it may be sufficient to apply a massage to the area

How to treat muscle spasms?

Muscle spasm is typically treated conservatively with muscle relaxants and exercise therapy. Muscle relaxants inhibit painful contractions by sedating the muscle, while exercise stretches the muscles so that they are less prone to tension, tearing or spasm.

Spasms or nocturnal muscle cramps

The nocturnal muscle spasms or cramps that usually occur in the legs are sudden contractions that occur while we sleep, and cause the calf muscles to contract involuntarily, although the thigh or even the foot can also be affected.

Spasms or nocturnal muscle cramps

They often occur just when we fall asleep

Although the causes of nocturnal Muscle Spasms or Cramps are not known for sure, they can be due to a combination of several factors, among which we can find:
  • Muscle injury
  • High volume of exercise or training
  • Pregnancy, since it produces a decrease in mineral concentrations
  • Climate, such as being exposed to low temperatures, or also cold water
  • Problems arising from certain pathologies, such as circulation problems, kidney problems, thyroid function, sclerosis…
  • Maintaining the same position for a long time
  • Lack of potassium, calcium and other essential minerals
  • Dehydration
  • Side effects of certain drugs

Causes of muscle cramps

Although muscle cramps may be the result of rare diseases, most cramps associated with or induced by exercise are unrelated to disease or disorder.

  • Skeletal muscle cramps can occur in the middle of a competition, immediately after the competition or at night in the middle of sleep.
  • Cramps are equally frustrating for scientists because they have not been able to fully determine their cause or how to prevent or treat them.
  • Exercise-associated cramps have been defined as involuntary, spasmodic and painful contractions of the skeletal muscles that occur during or just after exercise.

Muscle fatigue

Muscle fatigue seems to cause this lack of control through an effect of the Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles. The activity of the muscle spindles increases while the activity of the tendon organs decreases.

Early research suggested that muscle cramps were caused by disorders in fluid and electrolyte balance, associated with high rates of sweating. Although this may be the case for some exercise-induced cramps, more recent studies propose that they are the result of alpha-motor neuron activity, caused by aberrant control at the spinal cord level

How are muscle cramps produced?

The most frequent causes of cramps occurring during sport correspond to the following:

  • When we carry out an activity, of a certain intensity, our organism begins to sweat in order to eliminate the heat generated. Through sweating, water and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride are excreted.
  • If we continue, more liquid and mineral salts will be depleted.
  • Electrolytes are essential for the transmission of the electrical impulse, so that the muscle is ordered to contract at will. But the moment the body loses a quantity of water and mineral salts, the nerve impulses from the brain to the muscle fibre are altered.

How to avoid muscle cramps

Preventing cramps

Maintaining a frequent stretching routine, everyday, and if it is possible, dedicating a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes to it, brings a series of improvements, both physical and physiological in the case of reducing the risk of suffering cramps.


Thanks to stretching, the tissue covering the muscles, the fascia, will be kept relaxed, and the continuous tension, which it normally suffers due to exercise, will be avoided

When is the best time to stretch: before, during or after exercise?

Before doing exercise

Try to hydrate yourself well, drinking at least 1 glass of water. Drink plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. If the weather conditions are adverse and the temperature is high, you may choose to take a dose of powdered electrolytes as a precaution.

Warming up and stretching before exercise

Before starting the exercise, it is always necessary to warm up, consisting of mobility exercises, and then warm up by doing low-intensity activity, such as running or jogging for several minutes, in the case of running.

Leg cramps

Endurance athletes are more prone to leg cramps

Stretches to avoid cramps

  • Calf Stretch: Leaning on a wall with one leg in front of the other. Stretch your leg back and press your heel to the floor. The front knee should be bent. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Keep both heels on the floor and the tips of your toes facing the wall.
  • Hamstring stretch: Sit upright, with your legs stretched out in front of you. Your feet should be relaxed, not bent. Place your palms on the floor and slide your hands towards your ankles. Stop when you feel the stretch at the back of your thighs and behind your knees. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  • Quadriceps stretch: Lean against a wall or the back of a chair. Lift one foot towards the buttocks. Hold your ankle with your hand and lift your heel towards your body until you feel the stretch. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Avoid twisting your back.

Remedies for cramps

Obviously we will be forced to stop running. If the intensity is too low, we will stop the activity and proceed to stretch

  • Stretch and gently massage the muscle: Keep it in a stretched position until the cramp stops. Someone can help you keep your leg straight.
  • Hydration: As we have seen, the most common cause of muscle cramps during sporting activities is dehydration. Drink sports drinks to replace lost minerals.
  • Electrolyte supplements: before and, above all, during physical activity, also as a recovery aid

Remedies for cramps

Advice to avoid suffering muscle cramps

  • Do a brief stretching routine.
  • Don’t do stretches that cause you to feel pain
  • Do exercises that fit with your ability
  • If you want to increase the intensity of your workout routines, do so gradually
  • Doing exercise in excess could increase the risk of muscle cramps
  • See your doctor if cramps are frequent and don’t respond to treatment.
  • Avoid running during the hot season. Run or walk at night or early in the morning during summer.


  • Wilmore, Jack H., and David L. Costill.Fisiología del esfuerzo y del deporte. 1. ed. Barcelona: Paidotribo, 1998.

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About Javier Colomer
Javier Colomer
"Knowledge Makes Stronger", Javier Colomer's motto, sets out his clearest statement of intentions expressing his knowledge and fitness experience.
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