Cramping During Competition: The Real Causes. Bri Gwaltney B.S. Exercise Science, CSCS, USAW

For as long as most of us have been playing sports it has been a known fact that muscle cramping during sporting events was caused by dehydration and depleted electrolytes. Turns out, it is no longer a “known fact”. Recent research has come to show that dehydration and electrolyte imbalance is not the primary cause of muscle cramps. Is it a contributing factor? Possibly. Is it still very important to stay hydrated and fueled? Absolutely. Research is still inconclusive on the exact cause of muscle cramps but the following will go over a few of the possible causes.

Most of the research currently going on is looking at possible neurological cause for exercise-associated muscle cramps. The most common factor in all of these studies is fatigue. The debate rests on how fatigue affects the body and causes the actual cramp. It is possible that when the body is fatigued certain neural processes in the body that control the relaxation of the muscle malfunction, causing continuous contraction, or cramping, of the muscle. This is likely to be one of many factors that affects cramping. There is also evidence that suggests those who compete at a much higher intensity than they train, and athletes with a history of cramping are more likely to cramp up during a competition regardless of hydration status. Because we know that hydration and electrolyte levels still play a role in performance, studies were done to see if there was any affect on cramping when adjusting hydration and electrolyte levels. Researchers found that although it did not affect whether or not the athlete experienced a cramp, it did affect how long it took for them to get the cramp. So as you can see there is not just one factor involved in cramping during sports.

With all of this said, how can we prevent cramps from occurring? With the current research and knowledge available to us we can do a few things to try and prevent cramps from occurring, or prolong the onset of those cramps.

  1. Make sure you are sufficiently hydrated and fueled properly for activity
  2. Avoid static stretching before competition
  3. Performing a dynamic warm-up before competition
  4. Practice like you play! Do not practice at 50% then try and play at 100%!
  5. Do, however, taper the week before competition. Especially for endurance athletes.
  6. If you do get a cramp, passive stretching is the fastest way to relax the muscle.

If you have any further questions regarding cramping during sports, proper fueling and hydration, or proper warm-up please email me at


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