Cramps happen to athletes, but why? Learn all about preventing muscle cramps in teen athletes from Off-Season Athlete, a trusted site of built just for teen athletes.
- What is Happening When you Cramp
- Why Muscle Cramps Happen
- Preventing Muscle Cramps in Teen Athletes
- Sodium Chloride and Muscle Cramps
- Potassium and Muscle Cramps
- Magnesium and Muscle Cramps
- Pickle Juice and Muscle Cramps
- Other Ways to Prevent Cramping
- Sports Hydration Product Comparison Chart
- Key Take-Aways for Preventing Muscle Cramps in Teen Athletes
It’s the weightlifting State Championships and the athletes are ready to leave it all on the platform. Many months have been spent training the body and mind to perform at the highest level. Some competitors are just happy to be there but Jason was the district, and regional champion. He’s not there to simply compete, rather, to perform, and make his family proud.
Seconds before his first lift, Jason’s calf begins to tense up which quickly turns into an excruciating pain that makes him kneel and fall to the ground. The cramp lasts for several seconds, and he misses his first two lifts which ends up placing him 2nd at States. Did cramping keep Jason from becoming the State Champion? It very well could have and it might’ve been prevented.
Situations like Jason’s often leave parents and their athletes riddled with questions about cramping – Why do athletes get them? Is it dehydration? Lack of electrolytes? Lack of stretching? As parents, is cramping something out of your control or is it preventable? These are the questions that will be discussed below in preventing muscle cramps in teen athletes.
What is Happening When you Cramp
Cramps often range from minor, pain-free muscle flexions to bouts of severe pain. Some forms of cramps include exercise associated, nocturnal leg cramps, and writer’s cramps which occur in the hands, however, the most common form of muscle cramps are exercise associated1.
Cramps may just feel like painful contraction of muscle fibers but it should be noted that the brain plays a huge role in muscle activity. This is because of muscular nerves that send electrical signals to muscle fibers which allows for the thought of movement to become reality. This is not to say, however, that we are actively thinking about cramps therefore we get them. Rather, it leads us to believe that there is some disconnect or malfunction in the electrical signaling from brain to the muscle when the onset of cramps occurs. This electrical signaling is facilitated by the electrolytes sodium, potassium, and calcium whereas calcium and potassium play significant roles in actual muscle contraction.
Why Muscle Cramps Happen
Muscle cramps are common among athletes. However, despite their commonality and prevalence, their cause remains somewhat unknown.3,4 When a teen athlete experiences a cramp, like in the story above, it can be frustrating at best and devastatingly painful at worst. While the exact reason for every muscle cramp is not always clear, there are many widely accepted explanations to explore.
One major reason cramps happen that is often overlooked is muscle fatigue. (source) When the body is tired, under-conditioned, undergoing an increase in training intensity or volume, or training in hot environments, muscles can fatigue more quickly than an athlete realizes. This is important for athletes to be aware of as they begin this type of training, especially if they have a history of muscle cramping.
Other leading scientific theories as to why muscle cramps happen in athletes are related to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and neuromuscular strain. A multi center American study found that 74% of cramps occur in athletes in hot environmental conditions leading us to believe there is a strong connection.1
Another important consideration with sports related cramping is whether an athlete is having chronic, repeated cramping issues or a seemingly random, single experience with cramping. Chronic cramping, according to Seth Magnani, PT, DPT, ATC is often related to tight or tense muscles and/or connective tissue that result in poor mobility. Stretching, mobility work and myofascial releases by professionally trained providers can be helpful in reducing frequent cramps.
Preventing Muscle Cramps in Teen Athletes
The million dollar question here is whether or not muscle cramps can be prevented in teen athletes. Unfortunately, there’s not one, solid answer to this question, because every cramp situation is unique and lot of body processes are going on. But there are certainly a number of nutritional recommendations that you can implement to help in preventing muscle cramps in athletes.
While dehydration is thought to be an obvious cause of cramps, it has actually been found that in healthy and athletic subjects altered electrolytes and fluid depletion do not directly relate to muscle cramps.1 While research hasn’t perfectly capture this connection, it is widely accepted that hydration plays a role in proper muscle function, and certainly overall performance, during athletics. Even a small level of dehydration can negatively impact strain on the muscular system including the heart, alter nervous system functioning and increase core temperature. (source, 5)
All athletes (mostly) sweat and therefore experience fluid and electrolyte losses. It is prudent to have a solid hydration plan for practices and competition that includes the right quantity of fluid and electrolytes when appropriate. Athletes who have experienced muscle cramps should absolutely pay attention to how well they are hydrating before, during and after both training sessions and competitions.
It’s important to take into account that some teen athletes don’t voluntarily drink water as a means to hydrate, rather it is the coach or the parent that may remind them to do so. This might be why teen athletes are at risk for hydration related issues. As parents, you can help play a role in ensuring adequate hydration for your young athletes, especially when the stakes are high.
Adding flavor to water is one way to encourage drinking throughout the day. There are many ways to add flavor to water along with electrolytes for added benefits. Products like Nuun tablets, NOW Effer Tablets, zero calorie sports drinks are widely available and help make water more appealing. For many teens, any step that can be taken to increase voluntary fluid intake will help reduce the risk of health issues associated with dehydration, heat stress, and may even prevent cramps.5
Electrolytes are a buzz word in the world of sports beverages, but what are they exactly? Electrolytes are minerals in your body that contain an electrical charge. Examples are: magnesium, potassium, chloride, sodium, calcium, and phosphate.
Electrolytes serve important roles in your body such as maintaining proper function of cells, muscle contractions, nervous system functions, and even balance your body’s pH levels5. Low electrolyte levels are also suspected to play a role in cramp occurrence. Here’s why.
Sodium Chloride and Muscle Cramps
Sodium and chloride are the two electrolytes lost in greatest quantities in sweat. Sodium and chloride together make sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt. They play an important role in the function of nerves and muscles as well as fluid balance.
The loss of sodium and chloride through sweat has been linked to many heat related problems such as cramps in athletes and can significantly hinder performance.5 A 2005 study found that college football players who experienced muscle cramps had two times higher levels of sodium in their sweat than those players who did not experience cramps.(source) A 2009 study on football players found that those with a history of muscle cramps had lower blood sodium levels during and after practices. (source) This strongly suggests that ensuring adequate sodium intake during athletic performance is important when large sweat sodium losses occur5 and may help reduce muscle cramp occurrence.
While the average teen is likely consuming sodium at higher than the recommended amount, athletes are excreting sodium chloride through sweat especially when they have multiple practices in a day, multiple competitions in a day or are in hot conditions.6 This means that their baseline needs for sodium may be met just fine, but if they are heavy sweaters or going to sweat a lot in a day’s time, adding sodium chloride to their beverages is probably a good idea.
If you have concerns about your teen consuming too much sodium through their diet, working with a sports dietitian can help you sort out the best approach for them.
In some (usually rare) cases your teen may not eat enough overall food or salty foods to support their sodium needs. Simply encouraging them to consume salted foods such as whole grain crackers, pretzels, salted nuts, jerky, and electrolyte rich drinks are a quick and convenient way to get adequate sodium.
Potassium and Muscle Cramps
Potassium is an electrolyte that has many important roles such as assisting muscles and nerves in their functions . Potassium specifically plays an important role in signaling muscle contraction, making it only natural to hypothesize that it has something to do with the cause of sports related cramps. However, unlike sodium, potassium is not an electrolyte that is significantly lost in sweat. Only a small amount is lost in sweat where 90% is lost in the urine and roughly the other 10% is excreted in the stool.8 Even though it is not significantly lost in sweat, athletes may require more potassium than the Adequate Intake (AI) of 3,000 mg for males and 2,300 mg for females between the ages of 14-18.10
Beyond just muscle cramps, potassium plays an important overall role in health specifically when consumed through whole food sources. The whole food sources with highest amounts of potassium are:
It is prudent for teen athletes to increase their intake of potassium-rich whole foods first before considering if they need it in their sports beverage.
You might have noticed that bananas were not at the top of the list of food sources. Bananas are one of the OG whole food fueling options for athletes. One of the reasons why is because they are thought to be a source of potassium, which they absolutely are. One medium banana provides 422 mg of potassium which is not as high as the other sources mentioned above but still certainly helpful.
Bananas actually have been studied in athletes and it was found that eating up to two servings of banana produced marginal increases in blood potassium concentrations.9 So keep on packing your bananas in your game day cooler. They are a great fuel choice, might help replenish some potassium and are super portable.
It is important to note here that athletes who have inflammatory bowel disease might be at a greater risk of potassium deficiency.10 If your athlete is dealing with irritable bowel issues then it is strongly recommended to work with a sports dietitian to develop the right electrolyte plan for their unique situation.
Magnesium and Muscle Cramps
Magnesium is an important mineral that is involved in more than 300 metabolic reactions in the body. Magnesium helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function, heart rhythm (cardiac excitability) and much more.11
Magnesium has been studied as an ergogenic aid for athletes because of its role in muscle function and blood-glucose level maintenance. Some research has shown that magnesium deficiency can impair muscle function and could be associated with muscle cramping. However, there is not adequate evidence to support that this is the case for exercise related cramps. (source)
Nevertheless, magnesium is a mineral that young athletes in particular should pay attention to because of its role in building bone mineral mass during growth,11 and its impact in all types of exercise performance.(source) Strenuous exercise increases the loss of magnesium in urine and sweat which may increase magnesium requirements by 10-20%.12 Studies have confirmed that a magnesium deficiency in athletes can lead to impairment in performance,12 and is often an overlooked nutrient.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for 14-18 year old males is 410 mg a day and females is 360 mg a day. An intake of less than 260 mg/day can result in a magnesium deficit.11,12
Magnesium is easily found in foods and should be eaten daily for good health, sports performance and the possibility that it may prevent cramps. A magnesium supplement can also be an easy addition to an eating plan to support higher needs and overall health, but consult your healthcare provider or dietitian first.
Pickle Juice and Muscle Cramps
If you hang around sports long enough, you’ll likely hear all kinds of interesting and bizarre approaches to preventing muscle cramps. Two common, albeit weird, remedies in this department are pickle juice and mustard packets.
While some athletes swear by the secret power of these options, there’s not any good research results to support them. Dr. Miller from Central Michigan University performed a cross-over study specifically on the ingestion of pickle juice, mustard, or deionized water and their effects on hydration, and electrolyte replenishment. Miller concluded that consuming small volumes of pickle juice or mustard did not fully replenish electrolytes and fluid losses.7 So, try it if you must, but there’s probably a better, more appealing alternative to getting in sodium.
Other Ways to Prevent Cramping
Stretching has been prescribed by coaches as a way to mitigate or even prevent cramps all together, but the research shows us that stretching before physical activity does not prevent cramps. On the bright side, stretching and massaging during the onset of a muscle cramp does seem effective in dealing with an already occurring cramp.1
An important consideration for preventing cramps is to be aware of the amount of strain or intensity an athlete undergoes, especially if it is a new level of training. Preparing by conditioning beforehand may better equip the athlete to handle the strain with less risk of cramping. In addition, if an athlete will be training or competing under very hot conditions, ensure he or she is well hydrated and fueled prior to the event and has a good plan to implement during the event.13,14 This is definitely easier said than done especially when you are dealing with an eager athlete, but ensuring they are resting, hydrating, and eating enough is the best way to set them up for success.
Sports Hydration Product Comparison Chart
The amount of sports hydration products available on the market is quite impressive and is ever growing. Do not assume just because a product is marketed as a sports hydration solution that is the right choice for your athlete.
A basic sports drink with sugar, sodium and potassium is likely a good choice for most athletes. However, there are a lot of great products available that serve different purposes or flavor preferences.
Many powdered options are available which can be convenient for travel and tournament play as well as offer some additional potentially beneficial ingredients.
Get a full comparison of over 10 top hydration products by joining the Off-Season Athlete e-Team. Get updates on the latest content and courses, built just for teen athletes.
Key Take-Aways for Preventing Muscle Cramps in Teen Athletes
- Cramping can happen to any teen athlete and the cause is not always known.
- Muscle fatigue may be a contributor to a teen athlete experiencing cramping.
- Teen athletes should be aware of significant changes to their training environment and load as this could increase their risk for experiencing muscle cramps. Effective pre-season training will likely alleviate some of this risk.
- Chronically tight muscles may be a risk factor for cramping. Working with a physical therapist and/or regular stretching may help.
- Teen athletes should work to stay well hydrated 24/7 to enhance performance and help prevent muscle cramping.
- The electrolyte sodium likely plays a role in muscle cramping. Heavy sweaters should replace sodium losses in sweat during and after training or competing.
- Other electrolytes may play a role in preventing muscle cramps but teen athletes should work with a sports dietitian to determine the best regimen for their unique body.
- An athlete’s fueling plan can also help reduce risk for cramping. Learn more about The Best Carbohydrates for Teen Athletes and Protein Powders and Teenage Athletes.
- Sports hydration products vary widely in their ingredients and nutrition facts and use marketing to convince you to purchase them. Choose a product that best serves your personal needs as a teen athlete.
- Bordoni B, Sugumar K, Varacallo. M. Muscle cramps. StatPearls [Internet]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499895/. Published August 7, 2021. Accessed November 9, 2021.
- Myotonia Congenita: Medlineplus Genetics. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/myotonia-congenita/. Published August 18, 2020. Accessed November 14, 2021.
- Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):279-283. doi:10.1177/1941738109357299
- (Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Muscle Cramping During Exercise: Causes, Solutions, and Questions Remaining. Sports Med. 2019;49(Suppl 2):115-124. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01162-1)
- Karpinski C, Rosenbloom C. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals: Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group. Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017.
- Brouillard A, Deych E, Canter C, Rich M. Trends in Sodium Intake in Children and Adolescents in the US and the Impact of US Department of Agriculture Guidelines: NHANES 2003-2016. Define_me. https://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(20)30527-8/fulltext. Published June 26, 2020. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- Miller KC. Electrolyte and plasma responses after pickle juice, mustard, and deionized water ingestion in dehydrated humans. J Athl Train. 2014;49(3):360-367. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-49.2.23)
- Stone MS, Martyn L, Weaver CM. Potassium Intake, Bioavailability, Hypertension, and Glucose Control. Nutrients. 2016;8(7):444. Published 2016 Jul 22. doi:10.3390/nu8070444
- Miller KC. Plasma potassium concentration and content changes after banana ingestion in exercised men. J Athl Train. 2012;47(6):648-654. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.6.05
- Potassium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-HealthProfessional/. Accessed onMarch 3, 2022.
- Volpe SL. Magnesium and the Athlete. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(4):279-283. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000178
- Nielsen FH, Lukaski HC. Update on the relationship between magnesium and exercise. Magnes Res. 2006;19(3):180-189.
- Muscle Cramp. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/syc-20350820. Published March 3, 2021. Accessed December 10, 2021.
- Jahic D, Begic E. Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramp-Doubts About the Cause. Mater Sociomed. 2018;30(1):67-69. doi:10.5455/msm.2018.30.67-69