Cramps are involuntary contractions of the muscles, usually in the legs. They are not serious, but they are painful. Once a cramp has set in, you can stretch the muscle groups concerned, to experience rapid relief. There are tricks to limit the occurrence of cramps, whether they are linked to pregnancy, physical activity or a period of temporary fatigue.
Possible causes of leg cramps
Leg cramps occur suddenly and last from a few seconds to a few minutes, causing an unpleasant sensation. The affected muscle group becomes stiff, painful and sensitive to touch. Cramps usually occur in two different contexts:
● Night cramps occur at rest during the night, often in the feet or calves. Pregnant women and
the elderly are most affected.
● Cramps in sportsmen and women occur as a result of intense strain on the lower muscles, especially when it is hot and the body is not sufficiently prepared for the effort. They are caused by the sudden shortening of the muscle fibres. The muscle becomes tetanised, which obviously impairs performance. As soon as the fibres relax, the pain stops.
The origin of cramps is not known with certainty, but several possibilities have been put forward:
● Muscular fatigue, either from intense use or from lack of physical preparation
● Lack of energy following a long effort: the lack of oxygen during prolonged exercise can
disrupt the functioning of the muscles
● Lack of magnesium or other trace elements, especially as a result of loss through sweating
● An imbalance between sodium and calcium ions: when the body is active, part of the sodium is evacuated with perspiration; the electrolyte balance is then modified, with a level of calcium that is too high in relation to that of sodium
● Circulatory problems that interfere with the oxygenation of the muscles, whether due to a lack of physical activity or tight clothing
If the cramps persist or you are unable to find the cause, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Fortunately, cramps are usually not serious in themselves and you can act quickly to relieve them.
Diet, physical preparation and hydration, acting on the long term to avoid recurrences
The best way to avoid cramps is prevention:
● Keep yourself well hydrated, before, during and after exercise (but also on a daily basis, even on non-training days)
● Eat carbohydrates with meals before exercise, especially if it is long or intense
● Increase the proportion of minerals in your diet, especially magnesium and sodium (without over-using salt)
● Warm-up well to prepare your muscles for exercise
● Stretch systematically after your sessions, both in training and in competition, with gentle, fluid and smooth movements
● If you have night cramps, adding a stretching session before bed can be a good idea
● Walk, move, and exercise regularly if you do sedentary work to activate the circulation of the legs
● Massage your legs with calophylla vegetable oil, macerated arnica oil and a few drops of wintergreen or take a hot shower: heat is a good way to relieve the pain (but avoid the cold,
which constricts the blood vessels)
Stretching to relieve leg cramps
These passive stretches targeted at the three areas of the leg most frequently affected by sportsmen
and women are an effective way of making a cramp disappear quickly:
● Back of the thigh (hamstrings): place your foot on a chair, keep your torso straight and your
leg straight, bring the tip of the raised foot towards you, turning the leg slightly inwards and
outwards to mobilise the whole muscle group
● Front of the thigh (quadriceps): bend one leg and hold the heel against the buttocks for a few
seconds, using a wall if necessary to maintain balance
● Calves: stand at the edge of a step with your heels sticking out slightly, stretch the cramped calf by lowering the corresponding heel
Find more stretching ideas on iFIT, for example in the Quick Stretch Series, with 16 short sessions by
iFIT coaches, most of them filmed in beautiful landscapes. This will make your leg cramps go away in
a more pleasant way!
For more information and tips around your health and fitness – Visit our other articles