Treating and preventing cramps


Muscle cramps - sometimes called spasms or charley horses - can put a serious crimp in your workout. Everyone is vulnerable, from the elite ultramarathoner to the common couch potato.

I’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re running across a tennis court, and suddenly it feels like someone jabbed a knife into your calf. Or you’re doing laps in the pool, and your toes curl up and cramp so badly that you have to quit kicking. Or - this is painfully common - you’re asleep in bed and you suddenly wake up with a shooting pain, as though tiny lightning bolts were attacking your thigh.

Cramps happen for many reasons, but the main ones include dehydration after exercise, electrolyte imbalance and insufficient blood supply to a muscle caused by exposure to cold, heavy sweating or - listen up, fashion fans - fitness clothing that is too tight. Poor conditioning, prior injuries and overexertion may also cause muscle cramps.

There’s a good chance you can relieve the cramp by calmly and gently stretching the cramping muscle. If you’ve ever had one of these seizures, you’ll know that doing anything calmly and gently is a joke when you’re writhing on the floor in pain.

Plan B is to immediately ice the area. Self-massage is almost always soothing - during and after the cramp - so next time it happens, try putting matters into your own hands.

Let’s say you suddenly feel a cramp in your calf. It’s very common and very painful. Take a few deep breaths, begin to gently massage the stricken area and, at the same time, flex your foot upward. This contracts the muscle in front of your shin and relaxes your calf. It may also help to lie down, bend your knee and grab your toes and the ball of your foot, gently pulling them toward your knee.

If night cramps are a recurring problem, try not to point your toes when you sleep at night. This is tricky to monitor while you’re asleep, but it helps if you sleep on your side.

Also, don’t tuck your blankets or sheets too tightly. This, too, can bend your toes down.

I have three tips for preventing cramps:

  • Eating foods high in potassium may help prevent cramping, like bananas, oranges and fresh vegetables. Potassium tablets before exercise may be helpful for some, but not others.
  • Drink plenty of water - but don’t overdo it - before, during and after your workout. Dehydration causes cramps.
  • Very important: Get in good condition and stay there. A well-trained body with strong and flexible muscles should be less vulnerable to cramps.

Remember: If your cramping is severe and doesn’t improve after trying these self-care remedies, by all means see a sports-oriented doctor you trust. Sometimes cramping can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
Dear Marilynn: I am 75, male, retired and work out three times weekly. I rotate two muscle groups each day covering six each week. So, it is a week between a single muscle group’s workouts, arms, back, legs, shoulders, abs, chest.

Is that good? How much time should you rest a muscle group between workouts? I could easily change if I knew what would be best. Thank you.

  • J. G. Lakewood

Dear J.G.: Strength training three times a week at age 75? Bravo.
A week between workouts is a little light, but if you’re happy with the results, don’t worry about it. If you want to step up your program, that’s good, too. I suggest you buy a little time with a personal trainer who can check your form and refresh your routine.

By the way, not to nag, but what are you doing as an aerobic activity?

Marilynn Preston welcomes reader questions at