No More Muscle Cramps

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By: Hayley Harris

By: Hayley Harris

Registered Dietitian, Health and Fitness Instructor, and Recipe Developer

Have you ever heard to “eat a banana to avoid muscle cramps” after a workout? Maybe you’ve had a coach or trainer tell you that you need the potassium in bananas to keep your muscles from seizing up after a long workout. While this advice surely means well, there is more to the story behind muscle cramping, and there are actually more things you can do and eat to stave off those painful charley horses! 

A muscle cramp is characterized by a muscle that contracts without you telling or wanting it to. Potassium is necessary for proper muscle contraction and relaxation, so the banana advice is not unfounded, however, potassium is not the only key player. Both calcium and sodium ions are necessary for the normal process of contracting and relaxing your muscles. Staying adequately hydrated is also one of the most important factors on whether you will cramp up or not. 

Perfect Prevention Plan

Step one to avoid cramps: drink more water. The reason is because sodium and potassium ions are found suspended in water both inside and outside of your cells. The concentrations of these ions on either side of the cell wall help create a “charge” that is used for cell signaling (think muscle, or nerve cells). The charge signals the muscle contraction. Without adequate hydration, the aqueous environment that houses these important ions is depleted, making the process a lot more likely to produce a muscle cramp due to the muscle contracting but then struggling to get a signal to relax. 

Step two includes getting enough potassium in your diet. Not only does it help muscles fire and relax, potassium is an important nutrient for a few other exercise-related functions. Potassium is important for good heart health. On top of helping support healthy blood pressure, potassium actually dilates blood vessels during exercise to increase the flow of blood (and therefore oxygen and nutrients) to your working tissues (1). Your cells also use potassium to help break down and transport glycogen, your body’s form of stored fuel, so that your body can use it during workouts. 

When you sweat, you lose potassium, making this nutrient even more important for people who are active (2). If you are exercising in a hot environment or for an extended period of time, potassium is a critical nutrient if you want to avoid cramps later!

So Much Sodium

To mitigate cramping, you may be wondering why coaches don’t tell you to include more sodium in your diet, on top of drinking more water and eating more potassium. The answer is simple: you get plenty of sodium in the standard American diet. Sodium is found in table salt, but is also found in copious amount in processed foods (think chips, deli meat, and canned foods) so the average American really doesn’t need to add any more to their diet. The reason potassium gets the spotlight is because your average person doesn’t get enough in their diet.

Now you’re probably wondering how to get more potassium in your diet. Here’s a hint, you don’t need to get it through expensive, sugar-laden sports drinks! Potassium is found in delicious whole food forms such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cooked broccoli, cooked spinach, cantaloupe, oranges, and yes, bananas. But potassium is not limited to fruits and vegetables! White beans, yogurt, milk, halibut, pork, and salmon are other good sources of potassium. 

If you eat a healthy diet which capitalizes on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and dairy, you are most likely getting your recommended daily requirement of potassium (4700mg recommended by the USDA). If you love to exercise and want to minimize the possibility of cramping, focus on getting more of the foods listed above in your diet each day! The bottom line is that muscle cramps occur for a variety of reasons, but drinking more water and making sure you’re getting plenty of potassium might be your new secret weapon to keeping cramps at bay and getting through your next workout so you’re ready for the rest of your day! 

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