Cramping: Reasons and Possible Solutions

One of the most popular articles on this Blog is Leg Cramps while Sleeping and Preventing Leg Cramps while Racing (or Training).

In addition, you’ve probably read about my experiences with REgel (Tahoe 2011, Tahoe 2012, and product review).

So here is a guest article from By Thach Ho, the creator of REgel which is an all-natural anti-inflammatory topical gel popular with athletes to relieve pain, repair injuries, and recover faster from workouts .

He is also a Masters Track and Field sprinter, the World Record holder in the Men’s 4 x 100 meter relay (Age 35-39), a Sprint coach, and Injury Prevention Consultant.

During High School, Thach was coached by Bobby “The Bullet” Poynter and Frank Slaton, original members of the San Jose State Track Team in the 1960’s known to the world as “Speed City”.

In College, Thach constantly had shin splints, pulled hamstrings and other injuries while competing for the University of California, Davis.  Tired of being injured, he set out to understand the root of injuries and used a systematic holistic approach to become injury free. His mission is to share his knowledge and help athletes enhance and prolong their athletic career by using these same principles.

Visit his website at



Cramping is quite frequent with athletes in all sports. Often, runners will get them in their calves or quads. Out of shape warriors get side pain and cramping from the diaphragm being overworked. Seniors may experience writer’s cramp from weakness and inflammation in their hands. There are a variety of reasons people experience cramps but the majority is explained through electrolyte imbalances. Your body is a complex machine that wants to be kept at a natural balanced state. Internal or external changes to the body forces it to make adjustments to the levels of Na, K, Mg, and Ca to keep in equilibrium.

What is a cramp?

A cramp is the term often used to refer to a painful, involuntary contraction of a single muscle or a muscle group. Muscle cramps arise from spontaneous firing of special nerve groups followed by contraction of certain muscle fibers. Your body is a vast freeway of nerves linked to muscle groups. Signals come from the brain and begin a cascade of chemical interaction to create action potentials. This vast freeway is made up with Sodium and Potassium pumps which open and close. They are controlled by less commonly known electrolytes: Magnesium and Calcium, acting as the gate keepers. Calcium controls the opening of these pumps and allows the muscles to fire while Magnesium closes these pumps and allows the muscle to relax.

Your body loves to be in homeostasis and can adapt to different situations, however when a variable is changed, such as taking a high blood pressure medication, the balance of water and electrolytes may not calibrate itself quickly leading to a cramp.

Here is a list of changes that may force your body to cramp before it can get in a state of equilibrium and possible solutions.

1. Weak muscles:  An out of shape runner who jogs for 5 miles and gets a side cramp. His diaphragm is out of shape and overworked, finally giving out… CRAMP. You can ease yourself back in shape. It took you 10 years of sitting on the coach you can’t get into shape overnight. Slowly ease yourself into shape. Also, if you are prone to getting calf cramps it is a sign that you may have weak calves. Spend a few times a week working this muscle groups to get them stronger. The cramps will disappear or reduce when they can catch up to the same strength as your other muscles.

2. Inflammation:  Seniors suffering from arthritis may suffer writer’s cramps in their hands. Also, Inflammation creates stagnation of blood flow that provides nutrients and electrolytes to your muscles (It can be a combination of inflammation and weak muscles).

First get rid of the inflammation and then work on the weakness. Personally, I avoid taking NSAIDs because ibuprofen and acetaminophen ingested will go out to the entire body instead of being concentrated in the specific area. Plus, popping these pills like candy in my college years has left my body sensitive to side effects. Excessive use of NSAIDs can cause ulcers, kidney problems, heart failure, etc. As an alternative, a combination of ice and heat over the areas can improve blood flow. Using REgel, a topical anti-inflammatory gel can decrease inflammation and increase blood flow to the specific area. Eating foods that are high in antioxidants such as tart cherries, blueberries, cinnamon, and ginger can reduce inflammation. Avoid eating foods that can cause inflammation such as alcohol, sugar, and processed foods.

3. Exhausted and overused muscles: Excessive workouts and overtraining can lead to cramping. If you have a leg workout with massive sets of squats, leg press, and deadlifts, you might cramp up if you try a sprint workout an hour later. Catabolic changes occur to your body within minutes after a workout including inflammation that release toxins that will tax resources. A state of chaos exists in your body with any variable added to the equation may cause cramping. It is better to just rest and not over train.

4. Dehydration:  Is the number one reason people cramp. Your muscles are predominantly made of water. Changes in the amount of water, electrolytes, nutrients, and blood pressure effect how your muscles will work effectively. You could be drinking water like a fish, eating bananas like a monkey for potassium but if you are missing magnesium your muscles will continue to fire without stopping. Drinking excess water can lead to dilution of these electrolytes and imbalances. If your pee is clear you may need to take something to supplement the deficiency. Consuming a sports drink that contains all four electrolytes is essential. Also, gaining in popularity is coconut water which has the SAME electrolyte balance as plasma. Just make sure you drink 100% coconut water and not concentrate.

5. Absorption deficiencies:  Absorption rate of electrolytes differ from individuals and dependent on various reasons. Soy isolates can inhibit the absorption of calcium. Smoking cigarettes, alcohol, and excessive can affect absorption rates of Potassium and Magnesium. Low blood levels of magnesium occur in 90% of alcoholics experiencing alcohol withdrawal (L. Abbott et al, 1994). For seniors, magnesium absorption decreases and renal excretion of magnesium increases and could be a reason they experience night time muscle cramps. Increasing your intake of ALL the electrolytes can help prevent cramps. Taking a probiotic and/or proteolytic enzymes can increase the absorption of nutrients and electrolytes.

6. Medication/Supplements: Various medication and supplements can create changes to your body’s equilibrium. You take them to reduce your blood pressure, increase metabolism, increase heart rate, improve performance but with the benefits they can make you more likely to cramp. Next time, read the label and talk to your doctor about how this can interact with you.

7. Outside Forces (Hot/Cold Weather & Elevation): Outside forces can wreak havoc on the body even though you might not know it. Hot weather can cause your muscles to heat up too fast. Your body will spend time cooling down the muscles by sweating thus changing the electrolyte content flowing through your body. Keeping cool in the shade or using a cool wet cloth can cool your body temperature leaving your muscles less over heated. The difference between sitting in the sun and sitting in the shade can differ by 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Biologist at Stanford University invented a Rapid Thermal Exchange (RTX) device which allows an athlete to cool their internal body temperature quickly. During Jim Harbaugh’s coaching reign at Stanford, football players were spotted on the sidelines with their arm inside an odd looking device. Players were using it to cool off faster stopping and preventing cramps (Maybe that’s why the 49ers are doing so well).

For cold temperatures, your body is fighting extra hard to keep warm. You lose most of the heat through your hands, feet and head. Again, your body is using excess energy to keep warm changing the electrolyte balance. Working out indoors in a controlled environment will avoid cramping.

Finally, altitude can effect cramping. If you live and train in San Francisco (Sea level) but drive and compete in Lake Tahoe (6,224 ft. elevation) your body may experience changes with increase blood pressure, headaches, and oxygen consumption. Changes in elevation can increase/decrease blood pressure causing a shift in your electrolyte balance. One way to prevent cramping with outside forces is to spend 4-5 days in the new environment in order for your body to adapt to the change.

8. Neurological Sources: Cramping can be caused by neurological sources. Bones may move out of alignment (especially on the vertebrae) creating pressure on the nerves. Commonly known as subluxation, it can interfere with the signals traveling over the nerves and create a cramp. If you experience pinched nerves often see a chiropractor to adjust the subluxation.

*One last tip: Pick Juice & ketchup.  Keep some around because they both contain vinegar which is known to quickly stop cramping within seconds. In 2010 a study consisted of subjects being induced in having a cramp. Pickle Juice was given to subjects to see how fast they would recover from a muscle cramp. On average the subjects recovered within 85 seconds with some recovering faster. What was interesting is that the study noted that the vinegar probably played a factor with the neurotransmitters in the muscles (K. Miller et al, 2010). When you cramp, your muscles are fatigued or have some sort of imbalance, transmitters keep firing and the muscle cannot relax. The vinegar may play a factor in keeping the transmitters from firing and help it reset. Before you go out and start guzzling pickle juice, this is only a quick fix because vinegar contains acetic acid which eventually removes sodium from the body.

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • Good stuff Thach. Vinegar really does work. My wife had rotator cuff surgery this summer. During therapy, she could consistently recreate cramping in her arm during a specific stretch. I had just read the Miller study, so we tested the vinegar theory several times (sometimes before stretching, sometimes after her first cramp, sometimes not at all) and it was clear that the vinegar stopped her cramps.