I was 21 days into the 30 day squat challenge when a nasty bout of middle-of-the-night-cramp forced me to withdraw from the challenge. This got me thinking – what exactly is cramp? How does it start? How does one avoid it? What should one do if one’s calf is being a total wimp and whining about cramp two days after the cramp first set in?
I thought I simply wasn’t breathing properly – this is based on my knowledge from PE (the torture!) and A-level Biology. The basic premise of an ache in the muscles is a build-up of lactic acid. This acid is produced when the muscles respire anaerobically. Hang on, I’ve skipped to the end, let’s rewind.
Respiration – aerobic and anaerobic.
We all know what respiration is: the process of oxygenating the blood and expelling the waste product, carbon dioxide. The muscles between our ribs contract and raise our rib-cages, enabling the alveoli (little sacs shaped a bit like broccoli florets) to expand as our lungs take in air. The alveoli increase the surface area of the lungs and blood vessels pass directly across these, absorbing oxygen from the air we breathe. This oxygenated blood is then pumped (thanks to the heart) through our arteries and capillaries around the body to provide our muscles and organs with much needed oxygen.
When we exercise, our heart and respiration rates increase, in order to get the oxygen to our muscles that much quicker, and to remove the harmful carbon dioxide. However, sometimes our heart and respiration rates cannot cope with the demand and our muscles are forced to work anaerobically – without aeration (oxygenation). This produces another harmful waste product – lactic acid – which, when allowed to build up in our muscles, causes pain.
Before any medics take umbridge at my rather basic explanations – please bear in mind that it’s a long time (10 years) since I took A-level biology and that I would welcome any comments which may improve the biological detail of this post. I do intend to further research it but, in the interests of publishing accurate information, please do feel free to contribute / offer corrections if you see this before I check it.
But is this pain cramp?
According to BBC Sports Academy website, the answer is no. In fact, according to said website, scientists still aren’t 100% what causes it.
Cramp is the name given to when a muscle goes into spasm and refuses to relax.
What is known, is that there are three apparent major factors:
- Poor conditioning (or, in layman’s terms – fitness).
Basically, the less fit you are, the more likely you are to experience cramp. If you’ve suddenly started a new exercise regime and your muscles get tired, this can increase the likelihood of cramp. Add to that a lack of proper hydration and you have a pretty good chance of experiencing one of these painful spasms. http://www.therunningbug.co.uk concurs with this theory, adding that high levels of alcohol and caffeine may have an impact, as well as exercising in hot conditions as sweat contains electrolytes and key nutrients required by the muscles to function. It recommends a slow progression of fitness regime, allowing for rest and recovery days. I am unfit, have suddenly started a new regime, went from rest to 150 cramps in no time at all and didn’t stretch my calves out properly after the exercise. Simply put, I was asking for it.
So what now? How does one avoid it? How do I relieve the symptoms?
I couldn’t believe what I was reading – the one thing that should help relieve cramp is the one thing that no one would have been able to convince me to do when I was experiencing full-force cramp: to repeat the stretch that triggered the spasm. Stretch your calf out and pull your toes upwards. A slightly more friendly solution put forward by the BBC Sport Academy website is to gently massage the muscle, use an ice-pack in severe cases, and to drink water or a sports drink.
And if it still hurts 24hrs later?
24hrs rest is recommended.
So folks, what have we learned?
* conditioning – build up your fitness regime slowly and steadily (don’t go trying to run 5k straight from a career as a couch potato!)
* stretching – a proper warm-up and cool-down complete with stretches are instrumental to a successful workout and the avoidance of cramp
* hydration – ensure that you drink plenty of water before and during exercise to avoid the muscles dehydrating and freaking out on you.