Summer is ending and fall is the on the way. This means the start of another school year, and pre-season workouts beginning for fall sports. One thing that is as reliable as the start of a new season is muscle cramps for athletes. Most athletes at one point in their career experience muscle cramps, and most don’t know where they come from. Myths abound about the origin of muscle cramps, and everyone thinks they have the secret to preventing them. Most people think that dehydration brings on cramps, or that they are caused by a lack of potassium (hence the banana-eating prevention technique). But what is the real reason, and how can you prevent them?
Muscle cramps are especially common during the summer months when athletes begin their off-season or pre-season conditioning. Since the summer months are typically warmer than the rest of the year, the most common myth about cramps is that they are caused by dehydration or loss of electrolytes. However, the scientific community has debunked these myths in several international studies. For example, it has been shown that cramps occur just as consistently during moderate-to-cool temperatures, and exposure to extreme cold has been associated with cramping in swimmers, so temperature alone is not the cause.
One of the leading researchers on muscle cramps from the University of Cape Town has recently published a review on the causes of cramping in sport. According to this review, there is not a single published study showing that athletes with acute muscle cramping are more dehydrated than control athletes. In contrast, the review stated that several published studies have reported that muscle cramps are not associated with dehydration or disturbances in blood electrolyte (sodium and potassium) concentrations. The author concluded that the “dehydration hypothesis” and the “electrolyte hypothesis” as causes of muscle cramps should be rejected.
So how do cramps occur and why are they so common in the summer months? An alternative idea for the cause of cramping was introduced in 1996 at the international “muscle fatigue” symposium in Cape Town. It was proposed that muscle cramps are more often caused by disturbances in the nervous system and skeletal muscles. This idea suggests that repetitive exercise and muscle fatigue is ultimately the trigger for cramping. Several studies support this idea. Cramps have been induced with repetitive voluntary muscular contractions, or with stimulation of a single muscle. It has also been shown that the symptoms of cramping can be relieved with gentle passive stretching. Both of these facts support the idea that muscle cramps are caused by simple fatigue of the muscle.
So back to original question, why are there more muscle cramps in the summer months? Athletes experience cramps more often in the summer months because of an increase in training volume and intensity. Many athletes have taken time off going into their summer and fall training. These athletes’ muscles will be more susceptible to fatigue from the repetitive nature of sport. Their muscles simply aren’t used to the workload they are experiencing. The best way to prevent cramping is: 1) to be in reasonable shape by the time that training begins; and, 2) properly recover between workouts (this means adequate sleep and good nutrition). This is why SPARTA athletes have a distinct advantage over untrained athletes as they begin their sports season.
SPARTA off-season training helps reduce fatigue and overtraining when the sport season begins. Athletes also learn proper nutrition and sleep strategies to recover better between workouts and avoid overtraining. Athletes have to approach their off-season as the best time to improve their physical abilities, prepare them for the sport season, and install proper nutrition, recovery and sleep patterns.