WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE CRAMPS?

We’ve all had it happen. The workout is going great – then all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a muscle begins to feel “twitchy” and seizes up. You slow down, hoping it will go away. It does, but as soon as you start pouring on the power, it comes back. The promise of a stellar workout is gone.

 

Muscles seem to knot up at the worst possible times – seldom in training, but frequently in workouts. The real problem is that no one knows what causes cramps. There are theories, the most popular being that muscle cramps result from dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. These arguments seem to make sense – at least on the surface. Cramps are most common in the heat of summer, when low body-fluid levels and decreases in body salt due to sweating are likely to occur.

 

But the research doesn’t always support these explanations. For example, in the mid 1980’s, 82 male runners were testes before and after a marathon for certain blood parameters considered to be likely causes of muscle cramps. Fifteen of the runners experienced cramps after 18 miles. There was no difference, either before or after the race, in blood levels of sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, hemoglobin, or hematocrit. There was also no difference in blood volume between the crampers and non crampers, nor were there significant differences in the way the two groups trained.

Note that we are talking about exercise induced cramps here. In such cases of cramping, the knotted muscle is almost always one that is involved in movement in the sport. If depletion of electrolytes was a cause of cramping during exercise, why wouldn’t the entire body cramp up? Why just the working muscles? Electrolytes are lost throughout the body, not just in working muscles. We know that people who become clinically hyponatremic by losing a great deal of body salts (not exercise-induced) cramp in all of their muscles. It’s generalized, not localized.

 

It should also be pointed out that when someone cramps, the “fix” is not hurriedly drinking a solution of electrolytes, but rather stretching the offending muscle. For example, a runner with a calf cramp will stop and stretch the calf muscle by leaning against a wall or other object while dorsiflexing the ankle against resistance – the standard “runners stretch.”

 

In fact, what is known is that sweat, with regards to electrolytes, is hypotonic. That means the concentration of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium is weaker than it is in the body. This indicates that more water is lost in the sweat than electrolytes. So if the body lost more of its stored water but not as much of its electrolytes, what would happen to electrolyte concentration in the body? The concentration should increase. So during exercise when you dehydrate and lose electrolytes, their concentration in the body is greater than it was before you started to exercise. The body functions based on concentrations, not on absolute amounts.  That alone presents a great problem for the argument that the cause of cramping is the loss of electrolytes that must be replaced.

 

So if dehydration or electrolyte loss through sweat doesn’t cause cramping, what does? No one knows for sure, but theories are emerging. Some researches blame poor posture or inefficient biomechanics. Poor movement patterns may cause a disturbance in the activity of the Golgi tendon organs – “strain gauges” built into the tendon to prevent muscle tears. When activated, the organs cause the threatened muscles to relax while stimulating the antagonistic muscle – the one that moves the joint in the opposite way – to fire.

 

There may be some quirk of body mechanics that upsets a Golgi device and sets off the cramping pattern. If that is the cause, prevention may involve improving biomechanics and regularly stretching and strengthening muscles that seem to cramp, along with stretching and strengthening the antagonistic muscles.

Another theory is that cramps result from the burning of protein for fuel in the absence of readily available carbohydrate. In fact, one study supports such a notion: Muscle cramps occurred in exercising subjects who reached the highest levels of ammonia release, indicating that protein was being used to fuel the muscles during exercise. This suggests a need for greater carbohydrate stores before, and replacement of those stores during, intense and long-lasting exercise.

 

When you feel a cramp coming on, there are two ways to deal with it. One is to reduce your intensity and slow down – not a popular option in an important workout. Another is to alternately stretch and relax the affected muscle group while continuing to move. This is difficult if not impossible to do in some sports and with certain muscles.

There is a third option some athletes swear by: pinching the upper lip – it may work for you the next time a cramp strikes.

WOD – Monday 18 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    15min establish a 2RM deadlift

    then

    3 RFT:
    20 Deadlifts 70/45kg
    10 Push jerks 70/45kg straight into..
    For time:
    30 chest to bar pull ups

  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    15min EMOM 7 medball deadlifts

    then

    3 RFT:
    20 KB swings.
    10 Seated DB press straight into..
    For time:
    30 Jumping pull ups

  • BARBELL CLUB:
    Hang squat clean
    1-1-1-1-1
  • GYMNASTICS CLUB:
    Skin the cat
    1-1-1-1-1

WOD – Friday 15 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    For time:
    30 Muscle ups
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    10 Rounds for time:
    3 Jumping pull ups
    3 Ring dips

WOD – Thursday 14 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    10min AMRAP:
    5 Power snatches 50/35kg
    10 Deadlifts 50/35kg
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    10min AMRAP:
    5 Kb swings
    10 Kb Deadlifts
  • SWEATFEST:
    20min AMRAP:
    300m row
    15 Burpees

WOD – Wednesday 13 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    For time:
    400m run
    21 OHS 40/30kg
    500m row
    21 OHS 40/30kg
    1200m bike
    21 OHS 40/30kg
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    For time:
    400m run
    21 OHS empty bar
    500m row
    15 OHS empty bar
    1200m bike
    9 OHS empty bar
  • BARBELL CLUB:
    Strict press
    5-5-3-3-3-1-1-1
  • GYMNASTICS CLUB:
    Tabata hollow rocks

WOD – Tuesday 12 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    For Time
    50 Box Jumps
    50 Jumping Pull-Ups
    50 Kettlebell Swings 16/12kg
    50 Walking Lunges
    50 Knees-to-Elbows
    50 Push Press 20/15kg
    50 Back Extensions
    50 Wall Balls 20/14 lb
    50 Burpees
    50 Double-Unders
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    For Time
    30 Box Jumps
    30 Jumping Pull-Ups
    30 Kettlebell Swings 16/12kg
    30 Walking Lunges
    30 Knees-to-Elbows
    30 Push Press 20/15kg
    30 Back Extensions
    30 Wall Balls 20/14 lb
    30 Burpees
    30 Double-Unders
  • SWEATFEST:
    20min AMRAP:
    200m run
    250m row
    300m bike

LACTIC ACID’S BAD RAP

For the better part of a century, athletes and physiologists alike have considered lactic acid a primary cause of fatigue during high-intensity exercise and referred to it as “waste product” of muscle metabolism.

But now this way of thinking has changed, as scientists have learned that this substance we produce in large quantities during exercise, especially highly intense exercise, is not a cause of fatigue and actually helps to prevent it.

 

The former misrepresentation started with British physiologist and Nobel laureate Archibald V. Hill, who in 1929 flexed frog muscles to fatigue in his lab and noted that lactic acid accumulated when muscular failure occurred. He concluded that the lactic acid caused the fatigue associated with repeated muscle contraction. What he didn’t know is that when the muscle is examined as part of a complete biological system instead of in isolation from the rest of the body, we can see that lactic acid is processed and converted to fuel to help keep the muscles going. It does not cause fatigue.

 

Nor does lactic acid cause muscle soreness the day after hard exercise. This myth has been around for decades and refuses to go away, despite evidence to the contrary over the past 30 years. Soreness is more likely the result of damaged muscle cells resulting from excessive usage. So if lactic acid is not the villain we’ve made it out to be, what does cause fatigue and the burning sensation in the muscles during short, intense exercise bouts, such as CrosssFit workouts? To get the answer, it’s necessary to understand the pH scale, which tells us how acidic or alkaline (base) the body’s fluids are in range of 1 to 14, as hydrogen ions increase or decrease.

On this scale, hydrogen readings dropping below 7 indicate increasing acidity, while those rising above 7 indicate escalating alkalinity. Examples of acidic fluids are hydrochloric acid (pH = 1) and vinegar (pH = 3), while milk of magnesia (pH = 10.5) and ammonia (pH = 11.7) are alkaline. At rest, the pH of your blood is around 7.4 – slightly alkaline. In terms of your blood, small absolute changes in acid-base balance have major consequences. For example, during a 2- to 3-minute all-out effort, your blood’s pH may drop as low as 6.8 or 7.0. In biochemical terms, this is a huge acidic swing, producing a burning sensation in the working muscles and an inability for them to continue contracting.

 

Fatigue has set in.

 

If lactic acid didn’t cause the drop in pH, what did? The answer has to do with our sources of fuel during such short exercise bouts – glycogen and glucose. Both are carbohydrates, but they have slightly different chemical compositions. Glycogen is stored inside the muscle, where it can be quickly broken down to produce energy. Glucose, a form of this carbohydrate-based fuel that is stored in the liver and floats around in the bloodstream, is called on to produce energy for exercise when muscle glycogen stores can no longer keep up with the demand or are running low. As glycogen is broken down to produce energy, it releases one unit of hydrogen. But if glucose must be used for fuel, such as when the intensity of the exercise exceeds glycogen’s ability to keep up, two units of hydrogen are released. This rapid doubling of hydrogen ions in the system lowers the blood’s pH, causing the burning and fatigue associated with acidosis. The same amount of lactic acid is released no matter which fuel is used.

Far from being an evildoer, lactic acid is an ally during intense exercise. It does a great deal to keep the body going when the going gets hard. Besides being converted back into a fuel source, when hydrogen begins to accumulate, lactate transports it out of the working muscle cells and helps to buffer or offset its negative consequences.

 

After 80 years, lactic acid’s bad boy reputation has been lifted.

 

Reference:
Biochemistry of exercise induced metabolic acidosis. America journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 2004. 

WOD – Monday 11 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    For time:
    200-ft. dumbbell overhead lunge
    50 dumbbell box step-ups
    50 strict handstand push-ups
    200-ft. handstand walk
    Time cap: 10 minutes
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    For time:
    200-ft. dumbbell front rack lunge
    50 dumbbell box step-ups
    50 strict handstand push-ups (5inch elevated)
    200-ft. bear crawl
    Time cap: 10 minutes

WOD – Friday 8 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    21-15-9
    Sumo deadlift high pulls 40/30kg
    Thrusters 40/30kg
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    21-15-9
    Kb swings 24/16kg
    Wallballs

WOD – Thursday 7 March 2019

  • WORKOUT OF THE DAY:
    Hang power snatch
    1-1-1-1-1-1-1
  • CROSSFIT LITE:
    20min EMOM:
    Odd – 7 Kb swings
    Even – 12 Hollow rocks
  • SWEATFEST:
    20min AMRAP:
    250m row
    50 Double unders
    25 Wallballs