Some of the best ways to fend off cramp might surprise you

Last week, a combination of being overly keen and in desperate need of exercise, I booked myself in for an ill-advised four consecutive days of tennis. I keep telling myself how important rest and rejuvenation is. I just don’t listen.

Each would be a two-hour contest against people who were either just above me in the ladder or just beneath me, so the pressure was on. Three of the four matches were played out in ludicrously baking conditions, merely hours either side of the midday sun and they very much took their toll. Lying by the pool after match four, immensely content with having won three and lost one, I felt a cramp in one of those awkward little muscles nestling in the rib cage.

A cramp is essentially a sudden unexpected contraction of the muscle which is accompanied by the intense discomfort that you might have experienced in your calf while sleeping or witnessed when watching footballers go deep into extra time. With empathy like you’ll never experience at any other time on a football pitch, even players from the opposing side will leap into action in offering assistance by raising the offending leg and forcing the foot into a flexed position, thus stretching the calf out in the opposite direction to its involuntary contraction.  

Knowing this, I immediately tried to contort my torso to stretch out the muscle. As we know from Newton’s third law however, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, so as I garnered some relief in that muscle, another in my back started cramping up, sending me into a chain reaction of cramp relieving / causing mayhem that had me in a minor panic of pain and contortion. This went on for several minutes and to observers, of which there were a few, it must have seemed as if I was having a major health incident – not that anyone came to my aid.

So what caused this cascading episode of pain and how do I avoid it in the future? 

Experts seem united in suggesting that cramps most-commonly occur thanks to a triumvirate of fatigue, hot weather and dehydration. Sounds familiar, but amid the equatorial sunshine and frequent scrambling for exquisite drop shots, I had put away 1.5 litres of water. So what gives?

Well, it can get complicated. Muscle fatigue seems to be the key here and it’s likely that I just pushed myself more than my body was able to give. But alcohol, kidney and thyroid issues, pregnancy, diuretics (coffee), asthma medication, statins and various other contributors can also impact the experience for some. reports that there are no medications specifically designed to treat recurring muscle cramps. However, if your cramping is a symptom of another condition, addressing that underlying issue could provide relief. Incidents that follow exercise, usually then boil down to fatigue and hydration. Electrolytes such as potassium (this is why Rafael Nadal eats bananas during his tennis matches) and magnesium, help your muscles work more smoothly, and fluids help your body process them.

As well as bananas, dried fruits (raisins, apricots), beans, lentils, potatoes, spinach, broccoli and avocado will certainly bolster your potassium intake. Nuts and seeds are great for magnesium.

Many personal trainers and physical therapists recommend using magnesium on the outside of your body in the form of Epsom salts. Going old school and applying a wet cloth and pressing it onto a cramped muscle is a common recommendation, but falling into a hot bath for a soak has certainly been very effective for me in the past. Dry heat in the form of a heating pad may also help. 

There are many hydration blends available in the form of gels, powders, tablets and ice popsicles (Nadal also meticulously lines up several bottles of intriguingly-coloured solutions from which he takes a swig at every change over). But if you’re fearful of over sugaring yourself, be sure to go for the sugar-free options as some may exceed your personal daily allowance.

One of the more surprising remedies I’ve come across is milk. Remember that hydration is the key here and while thirst is an obvious guide as to whether you’re dehydrated or not, what ends up leading to cramp may come despite the immediate satiation of a tall glass of ice cold water at the end of your work out.

The easiest way is to examine this is a glance at your urine. For most people, lemonade-coloured urine reveals optimal hydration status, while a darker, amber-coloured stream indicates mild dehydration. The fact that you struggle to produce any urine despied having downed 1.5 litres of water may also tell a story.

A cup (240 ml) of milk contains 349 mg of potassium, calcium (300 mg), sodium (125 mg) and vitamins A and D. That’s a decent source of sodium and potassium. There are also enough carbohydrates in a glass to contribute to hydration.

Water alone lacks the important electrolytes for effective hydration. Healthline cites a 2007 study which found milk to be better than water or a sports drink for treating mild dehydration following exercise. It also references a 2015 study on the hydrating effects of 13 beverages which found milk to be superior to water at preventing dehydration. Blending milk with your favourite protein powder means your consuming multiple benefits.

Milk isn’t for everyone, so sugar-free sports drinks, orange juice or commercially made hydration drinks can step in. Just make sure they fit your overall nutrition and calorie goals.

And try not to play tennis in the mid-day sun; at least not over four consecutive days.
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