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Muscle Cramps — Cramping Your Performance?

By Katie Davis

I often have athletes in my office who complain of muscle cramping. They wonder what they can do to ward them off. If only the answer was clear. Unfortunately it's not always apparent what might be "cramping your style."

crampWhat are muscle cramps?
The exact reason why muscles cramp is unclear. It’s difficult to distinguish a single culprit, but improper training, stretching or carbohydrate intake techniques are sometimes the source. However, another common reason is an imbalance of electrolytes in the muscle may predispose the muscle to cramping. Electrolytes are present to help muscles contract and relax appropriately during exercise. You have probably heard the term “electrolytes” in sports drink or recovery drink advertisements. This is because during exercise the body can lose a substantial amount of electrolytes in sweat (mainly sodium). If these are not replaced in the right amounts, it creates an imbalance within the muscle, locking the muscle in a painful spasm. 

Why would someone have problems with cramping?
If due to a nutritional imbalance, poor hydration habits can lead to muscle cramping. The most common is an infatuation with drinking only water during exercise. While this is fine during moderate or even semi-intense short-term (lasting <60 minutes) exercise, athletes completing prolonged vigorous exercise — especially more than 90 minutes at a time — need more than just water because they are losing more than just water. There can also be a substantial amount of electrolytes lost with water during sweating. Athletes who are particularly heavy sweaters or exercise for long periods of time need to be cognizant of this fact. Other hydration-related habits that can increase the likelihood of developing muscle cramping is exercising in hot and/or humid environments when the athlete is not acclimated or simply not drinking enough of anything during exercise – water or not.

How does one prevent muscle cramping?
Plan ahead and don’t drink just water during or after heavy exercise. This will assure that you are replacing your body’s electrolyte losses. During exercise, use a sports drink or diluted 100 percent fruit juice (half water, half juice) with added salt. Particularly heavy sweaters may need something with extra electrolytes such as Gatorade Endurance, or may choose to add a separate electrolyte supplement to their regular sports drink, such as Nuun tabs. Read my blog here for more information. After exercise, you may need to continue that sports drink, or instead use a recovery drink such as low-fat chocolate milk.

Assure you are also getting enough potassium in your daily diet from foods such as pinto and kidney beans, bananas, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupe and milk. To maintain sodium levels, some athletes may need to use the salt shaker liberally at meals or eat salty foods such as pretzels, pickles, or canned foods. But remember, these types of recommendations are very individual and don’t apply to every athlete or even every day of the training year.

If you are having problems with muscle cramping during or in the hours after exercise, it’s important to re-evaluate your hydration plan before, during, and after exercise. Muscle cramping may be common in athletes, but it is not smart and IS preventable. 

kateKatie Davis MS, RD, CSSD, LDN has a mission to help ordinary athletes become extraordinary competitors by using whole-food based nutrition to improve athletic performance. She is the owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting, based out of Naperville, where she offers expertise in sports nutrition, eating disorders/disordered eating, intuitive eating and weight management for sport. Katie holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology. She is both a registered dietitian (RD) and 1 of only 550 RDs in the United States to be board -certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. As a runner, triathlete, snowboarder, and rock climber, Katie understands the physical and mental challenges of being a top athlete. Katie has previously consulted with NCAA Division I & Division III, NFL and NBA athletes; she truly brings both her knowledge and experience to the table as sports dietitian. Katie is available for individual consulting, team talks and group seminars. Visit her website at; from there you can navigate to her weekly blog, Eat to Compete, and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook. Contact her directly at