Preventing Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Building a Better Program

Exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) are painful, involuntary contractions of skeletal muscles that occur during or shortly after exertion. They can be debilitating, causing athletes to have to stop recreational exercise or pull out of a competition.

Although EAMC is a common condition, its cause hasn’t been well demonstrated in research studies. But two main theories currently exist about why EAMC occurs: neuromuscular fatigue and hypohydration—electrolyte depletion caused by sweat loss.

In this article, we’ll review the basic components of a prevention program for EAMC. This program includes eccentric, concentric, plyometric, single-leg, and proprioceptive lower extremity (LE) exercises, each designed to strengthen and condition muscles effectively. LE are the skeletal muscles usually involved in EAMC as they typically become fatigued the fastest in all types of sports and training exercises.

Eccentric Lower Extremity Exercise

Eccentric exercises involve the lengthening of the muscle under tension. These movements are crucial for muscle strength and resilience, allowing athletes to absorb shock more effectively during high-impact activities. An example of an eccentric LE exercise is the Nordic hamstring curl, which emphasizes controlled lengthening of the hamstring muscles.

Concentric Lower Extremity Exercise

Concentric exercises, where the muscle shortens under load, are essential for building muscle strength and power. Squats and leg presses are prime examples, focusing on the upward movement phase to engage the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes in a powerful contraction​​​​.

Plyometric Lower Extremity Exercise

Plyometrics are designed to improve explosive power through fast, forceful movements, such as jumping and bounding. These exercises incorporate both the eccentric and concentric phases, with a focus on rapid transition from one to the other to enhance muscular power and neuromuscular efficiency. Box jumps and jump squats are effective plyometric exercises targeting the lower extremities.

Single Lower Extremity Exercise

Single-leg exercises, such as the single-leg deadlift or lunges, are instrumental in identifying and correcting imbalances between the limbs, improving balance, and increasing joint stability. These exercises also enhance core strength and coordination, vital for athletic performance and injury prevention.

Proprioceptive Lower Extremity Exercise

Proprioceptive exercises aim to improve the body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location, crucial for maintaining balance and agility. Balance board activities or single-leg stance exercises, performed for time, challenge the athlete’s ability to maintain stability, engaging the lower extremity muscles in a dynamic and functional manner.

Taking a Comprehensive, Tailored Approach

A good beginning point for helping athletes with EAMC would be to start with an already existing LE injury prevention program, such as the FIFA 11 program. From there, remember that a tailored approach, considering the individual needs and capabilities of each athlete, will yield the best outcomes in preventing muscle cramps during and after a workout. When putting together an EAMC prevention program for an athlete, be sure that it is sport-specific; for example, a runner who experiences muscle cramping near the end of the race might need to incorporate longer runs into her training in addition to following the exercises mentioned here.

By integrating these exercises into a regular training schedule, athletic trainers can offer a comprehensive strategy that not only aids in enhancing athletic performance but also reduces the risk of EAMC and injuries. It’s essential to ensure that each exercise is performed with proper form and technique to maximize benefits and minimize injury risk.