Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Cure for Cramps

I started having cramps in my calves when running a few months ago.  Initially they would be more common when I was running hard, but eventually all I had to do was run easy for a mile or two.  I learned real quick that when one started to come on that it was time to stop and walk back home.  But it was really getting frustrating. I had signed up for a couple of half marathons in the coming months and it was starting to look like I would not be able to participate in them.

I spent some time reading about muscle cramps on a number of web sites and found that they were not terrible uncommon for runners.  But most of what I read said that no one really knew what caused them, although there are several things that seemed to be contributing factors.  As a result there is no cure all solution for cramps, although there are a number of things that one could try.

Dehydration is one of the more common causes believed to cause cramps.  But I drink plenty of liquids, even if not all water.  I tried to up the fluid levels some but that seemed to have no impact, other than having to get up more often during the night.

Muscle fatigue is another possibility.  But I have run much less the past few months than in the past few years.  Granted that was largely because of a bad cold and the cramps.  But still, muscle fatigue seemed unlikely.

Staying well stretched is a solution that some offered.  Stretching, using a roller stick, or a foam roller all are touted as the way to go.  I stretch a lot and have tried the stick and foam roller to no effect.

Finally I found an article on potassium that seemed to offer some possibilities.  A pair of quotes from this article really stuck out.
Potassium plays an important role in muscle contraction and nerve transmission. Many of our muscle and nerve cells have specialized channels for moving potassium in and out of the cell. Sometimes potassium moves freely in and out, and sometimes a special energy-driven pump is required. When the movement of potassium is blocked, or when potassium is deficient in the diet, activity of both muscles and nerves can become compromised.
Potassium is involved in the storage of carbohydrates for use by muscles as fuel. It is also important in maintaining the body's proper electrolyte and acid-base (pH) balance. Potassium may also counteract the increased urinary calcium loss caused by the high-salt diets typical of most Americans, thus helping to prevent bones from thinning out at a fast rate.
Low levels of potassium can hinder the proper functioning of muscles and nerves as well as the storage of carbohydrates used as muscle fuel.  The results are weakened muscles and muscle fatigue.  I don't recall this article addressing cramps specifically, although other articles did draw a connection between the two.

We get most of our daily allocation of potassium from our diet, in particular from fresh fruits and vegetables.  As I read that it suddenly struck me that my intake of fresh fruits and veggies had declined dramatically when I quit going into the office, just a couple of months before the cramps started.  I had been taking a container of melon, or other fruit, along with another container of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, all good sources of potassium.  Now, working from home, I was eating frozen prepared foods for lunch, and seldom got fresh fruits and veggies.

Could it be that just starting to eat the healthier foods would cure the cramps?  It was worth a try, so I immediately started eating a quarter of a cantaloupe and a banana for breakfast as well as eating a cup of raw cauliflower at lunch.  While it has only been a week and a half, I have had no cramps since then, although I could still feel an occasional twinge initially.  But now even that is gone.  I am once again able to run full out without any sign of cramping up.

Who would have known that the cure for cramps, at least for me, was as simple as eating healthier.  And now my half marathons are back on track.

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