Experiencing leg cramps after working out is common, but not healthy. Severe cramps can be debilitating and painful, leading you to give up your workout. However, taking simple precautionary steps before you work out helps prevent many types of cramps. If you consistently experience leg cramps after workouts, consult a doctor to rule out an underlying medical disorder.
A leg cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of your muscle fibers -- which sometimes results in pain or a knotted sensation in your leg. Cramps can range from a mild annoyance of several seconds to a severe, painful contraction of minutes or hours. You can get a cramp in any muscle in the body, but cramps most frequently occur in the calf or thigh. Leg cramps are common among athletes -- particularly marathon runners and triathletes -- who participate in endurance activities.
The exact mechanism that triggers a cramp is unclear, but several factors contribute to the likelihood of a cramp occurring. Common conditions that lead to cramping include dehydration, muscle fatigue, electrolyte imbalances and water retention. Working out in a hot environment can also lead to cramps, as can drinking hypertonic beverages -- drinks with higher concentrations of salt and sugar than are in the human body. Sometimes, cramps are not directly related to exercise but occur because of a medication you take or an underlying medical condition.
Taking a few simple steps will help prevent most types of cramps. To avoid dehydration, start hydrating the night before exercising, and drink several cups of water just before your workout. Stay hydrated during your workout by drinking water whenever you’re thirsty, and drink plenty of water after exercising, particularly if you sweat a lot. Electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks or water can hydrate you and provide sodium, potassium and other electrolytes vital to proper muscle function. Consume them in place of water after or before your workout, but avoid drinking hypertonic beverages until after your workout. Avoid muscle fatigue by pacing yourself during your workout and working within your limits. Don't exercise sore or tired muscles, as that can easily lead to cramping. Consult your doctor about any medications you take to ensure they are not the cause of your cramps.
Leg cramps will sometimes go away on their own, but if they don't, stop whatever you are doing and stretch your leg muscle. Massage the affected muscle while it's stretched, if you can, until the cramp goes away. Drink water or a sports drink with electrolytes if available. If the leg cramps don’t go away after a few minutes, apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, every hour, until the muscle relaxes. See a qualified medical professional for cramps that don’t respond to treatment. If you take preventive steps but still experience cramps consistently after your workout, consult a doctor.
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