Calf and Foot Cramps – Why They Happen and What You Can Do To Prevent Them*
Foot and leg cramps are not uncommon. Many people suffer from these at night when lying in bed at rest, during periods of prolonged inactivity or even when working out. These muscle spasms can be very painful and take anywhere for a few seconds to 10 minutes to subside. If you’ve ever had a Charlie horse in your calf or felt your toes curl under because of a cramp, you know what I mean! And the answer to preventing them likely lies in drinking more water and eating your veggies 🙂
Why do cramps happen?
Cramps may be disease-associated but most often they occur in the absence of pathology. The reasons aren’t fully clear as to why they happen. We do know that cramps most frequently happen in individuals who are either elderly, pregnant, continuing to contract a muscle already at its shortest length, or exercising vigorously1.
Exercise-associated muscle cramps occur either during or immediately following intense exercise, usually in the exercising muscle groups1 (think of an Essentrics class when you are doing purposeful foot work while pointing your toes – we often see it there).
If there is no disease, the reasons for cramping could potentially be2,3:
- Dehydration (generally not drinking enough water and especially not drinking enough when exercising)
- Intense exercise
- Mineral/Electrolyte Depletion (too little magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium and chloride in your diet AND the depletion of these minerals because of dehydration)
How to Prevent Cramps:
- Increase your intake of water – avoid dehydration
- When I’m training clients I almost always say “grab some water” in between sets. We just simply don’t drink enough water as a general rule.
- Amounts vary depending on what you eat, your sex, your level of activity, the weather, your health, your age and medications you take.2 According to the Dieticians of Canada, adult women should be consuming about 9 cups of water per day and men 12 cups (1 = 250ml)4.
- Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. During activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and continue drinking water or other fluids after you’re finished.2
2. Stay Active:
- Include regular physical activity every day.
- You want to both stretch and strengthen your body to promote optimal health.
- We start losing muscle mass after the age of 40 (and sooner if we are sedentary). According to the Mayo Clinic, older people may potentially have more muscle cramping due to age-related muscle loss. Their remaining diminished muscle mass can get overstressed more easily and potentially lead to more cramping2. SOOOO let’s build some muscle!
3. Increase your intake of certain minerals:
- Minerals such as Potassium, Magnesium and Calcium are all important for muscle health.
- That being said, perhaps the most discussed mineral when it comes to alleviating leg cramps is Magnesium. It is the fourth most abundant mineral in the human body and a normal component of a typical diet.
- Magnesium is involved in proper muscle function, plus over 300 other reactions in the body. It works along with potassium to support proper muscle function and is essential to muscle relaxation5.
- Many will say that eating a banana will provide you with extra potassium and eating nuts or taking a magnesium supplement will alleviate your cramps. This certainly seems to work for some but remains anecdotal. A meta-analysis of the research concluded that magnesium supplements are unlikely to prevent leg cramps1.
- If you eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fish, you will likely intake all the minerals you need in the required amounts.
- Men over the age of 30 should be aiming for 420mg of Mg per day from diet and women of the same age 320mg6.
4. Eat a diet with a variety of foods to increase your mineral intake.
Those foods high in the minerals that we’re discussing include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Unrefined grains
Here are some great recipes and ideas covering all the foods that will help you reach and exceed your mineral intake, helping to alleviate muscle cramps:
Pumpkin seeds are super high in Magnesium. In ¼ cup of seeds there are 307mg of Mg. That’s almost your daily recommended amount!
Should I take a Supplement?
The answer to this should come from your health care provider.
It is interesting to note however that according to Health Canada, over 40% of adults (men and women) have inadequate intakes of magnesium7.
According to the Dieticians of Canada, magnesium supplements up to 350mg/day appear to be safe4.
Should you decide to try a supplement, here are some of the popular ones on the market:
Calm – powdered supplement
Stress-Relax – powdered supplement
Mag Malate Renew – capsules
1 – https://www.researchgate.net/profileijaya_Musini/publication/230842970_Magnesium_for_skeletal_muscle_cramps_Protocol/links/5a89e1e2a6fdcc6b1a424ef8/Magnesium-for-skeletal-muscle-cramps-Protocol.pdf
***This is not medical advice. Please speak with your physician prior to taking any supplements.