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Published August 16, 2008

Eating bananas is the best thing to do for muscle cramps … well, on second thought …

For those of you who’ve experienced muscle cramping during your lifetime, I feel for you.  For those of you that haven’t, I wish I were you.  Muscle cramping can bring any workout to a grinding halt; not only is it terribly painful when it happens, but it can also leave you very sore for a couple days following this dreaded event. 

One of the worst things for someone who’s trying to lose weight is to be in the middle of a flab-kicking workout and suddenly feel your breath being sucked right out of you as you collapse to the floor hitting notes like Stevie Wonder and making a bargain with your body to give you back control of it. 

Although it hasn’t been proven, a big culprit to muscles spasms is thought to be caused by dehydration and mineral loss due to excessive sweating; just another reason why water is so important for weight loss, not to mention fitness in general.1,2  But sometimes, water isn’t always the cure all for cramping muscles; sometimes, a sports drink is necessary to prevent cramping from happening.

Even though it’s not a proven fact, staying hydrated and maintaining that right mineral/electrolyte balance is still the smart thing to do in doing your part to prevent cramping from happening.  Get this, though.  Well, actually, let me present it this way.  When you think of how to prevent muscle cramps, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind?

“Oh, I know this one; it’s eat a banana!  Right?”

Wrong.

Many people think that eating a banana will help replace the potassium your body has lost, and while this is true, cramping is really thought to result because of sodium (salt) loss, not potassium loss.1,2

The truth is cramping is a very mysterious occurrence.  While the majority of cramping is experienced during physical activity, what’s even harder to explain is waking up in the middle of the night with a cramp.  And even though no one really knows the true cause to muscle cramps during exercise or while sleeping, I recommend you experiment with what works for you. 

Yes, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are thought to be a possible cause, especially in very hot exercising conditions, but so is lack of flexibility, too much lactic acid in the muscles, abnormal nerve activity, hyperventilation, and contracting your calf muscles by curling your toes under the covers.1

If you’re plagued by muscle spasms, the first thing I suggest is not only regularly drinking water, but also consuming some type of sports drink if you exercise for more than an hour or are in the process of cramping.  Getting that extra salt in your body helps with keeping your nerves under control.  Also, even though cramping seems to result more from sodium losses than potassium losses, eating high potassium foods isn’t a bad idea.  So go at it with those bananas because you never know, it may help a little.  Remember, these are all just suggestions; these aren’t proven scientific facts, but a trick that I’ve used with my brother, during basketball games, is to have him add a pinch of salt to his sports drink, and that seems to do the trick.  You may have also heard of using antacids or salt tablets, and even though some say it works, I wouldn’t try it.  Typically, it’s too much salt and not enough fluid.  By getting too much salt, you actually will dehydrate your body even more, so that obviously is counter-productive.  Going along with dehydration, I’d suggest avoiding taking medicines, such as allergy medications, right before exercise.  These medicines act as diuretics, which leads to even more dehydration.

On top of these suggestions, massaging the cramping muscle is highly recommended.  By applying pressure to the tight muscle, it actually results in a signal telling it to relax.  Pretty cool, huh?

One prevention tip I tell anyone suffering from muscle cramps is to stretch a lot more.  By keeping your muscles more flexible, it seems to have a correlation to reduced cramping.  I’d also suggest making sure you’re eating enough carbs, and if you’re out of shape, make sure you reduce your exercise intensity and duration.  By exercising too intensely, you can tire your muscles out too much, and as a result, you know what’s thought to happen; you’re curled up in a ball on the floor, making funny faces.2

And although this idea is kind of “out there”, adding extra calcium to your eating may help … at least some say it does.  Calcium is essential for muscle contractions to occur, but the reason I find this one hard to believe is because your bones are made of calcium, so if your body is really not getting enough calcium from your diet, your bones will make up the difference.  Still, there are those out there that say extra calcium cures cramping.  There are also those out there that say drinking pickle juice or eating a tablespoon of mustard, before working out, helps prevent cramping, so if you want to live on the edge, be my guest.

Finally, if you suffer from “night cramps”, learn to sleep better.  Just a little joke, but seriously, you never know.

OK, so here’s the big three things to do when you’re in the middle of a cramp:
1.    Drink a sports drink
2.    Massage the muscle
3.    Stretch the muscle

Afterward, you may need to give your body a break by resting for a day or so.

Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge and techniques to prevent and treat cramping, you’re one step closer to your fitness success.  Here’s to no more muscle cramps!

References:

1 American Council on Exercise (2003). ACE personal trainer manual: The ultimate resource for fitness professionals, (3rd ed). San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.
2 Wilmore, J., & Costill, D. (2004). Physiology of sport and exercise, (3rd ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Dan Falkenberg is the cofounder of Your Live Trainers.  He can be reached at DanFalkenberg.com.

Don't miss Dan's new fitness book, tentatively scheduled to hit stores soon!  Put your name on the VIP waiting list to be notified when and where his book is available for purchase.

Tags: exercise safety, , weight loss

Comments

25 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

terry seal
May 22, 2009 7:00pm [ 1 ]

Disagree about bananas. They absolutely help. I cramped frequently at night during pregnancy and all I had to do was eat a couple bananas and the cramping at night would end.

Yolanda
June 17, 2009 4:06pm [ 2 ]

Very imformative and I have peace of mind. Thanks a lot.

Yolanda
June 17, 2009 4:07pm [ 3 ]

Very interesting

Mermer
September 22, 2009 11:02pm [ 4 ]

Thanks dan for the info. i often experienced cramps when i play basketball now i know what to do.

Matt
October 17, 2010 10:21pm [ 5 ]

Good article except I disagree with the bananas claim. Cramps come from an imbalance in K+ and Sodium so it could be either one. Drink your occasional sports drink but definitely keep up on the bananas or other potassium source as well as water and you should be good to go. I always drink a quart of water and have two bananas the night before a run and rarely ever get a cramp. Thanks!

Myriam
November 16, 2010 10:38pm [ 6 ]

i think this is a great article but can you tell me the page number where you found the information about the association between the consumption of banana and cramps.

Dan
November 16, 2010 11:39pm [ 7 ]

Hi Myriam,

Thanks for your comment. As far as a page number that references bananas, I don't think you will find that in either of the sources. Bananas are known to be a common source of potassium, so they were just used as an example when saying that obtaining potassium isn't necessarily the number one thing to do. As I said above, researchers have a very hard time pinpointing an exact cause to muscle cramping. All of these are suggestions because it's hard to say without a doubt what the true treatment is. I hope that helps.

Dan

Heather
March 2, 2011 7:37am [ 8 ]

Thanks for the article. My husband has been frequently getting severe upper thigh cramps during sex. It puts a damper on things because his cramps are so sudden and so intense that he has to stop, and sometimes he falls to the ground in pain. He is constantly telling me "we need to buy more bananas"; though we never seem to remember to buy them when we go grocery shopping. I have been telling him that potassium tablets or vitamins with extra potassium would be better than eating bananas alone. It is good to know that it can be caused by dehydration. He sweats 8 hours a day at work. When he comes home is soaked in sweat from head to toe. Being a young couple and wanting to make love every night can be frustrating. Particularly this week, because he has gotten severe leg cramps every single time. We are going to follow the advice and make sure he is stretching more, drinking more electrolytes and definitely taking a potassium supplement. I read online somewhere that these sudden, severe cramps can be an early sign of heart failure or stroke (PAD). That was enough to scare me into taking better care of my man.

Heather - North Carolina

August 1, 2011 1:34pm [ 9 ]

Potassium CAN help but can also hurt -- just ask any kidney dialysis patient. The article is incorrect in that cramping isn't due to mineral loss but is triggered by an imbalance in the concentration of minerals. Dehydration causes cramps, but so does over-hydration.

To relieve your cramps there are a few steps you should take. Stay hydrated, but not overly so. Stretch. Eat healthy. Take a supplement that interrupts the cramping mechanism (for example Quellitall). Try to go easy on the sports drinks -- most people over-consume them and just end up replacing a lot of calories they just burned off. Good luck!

steve
August 31, 2011 7:05am [ 10 ]

Let's not forget that the body takes in what it needs and expels what it doesn't -- provided your kidney's work just fine. If they didn't you would know anyway.So eat 10 bananas and your body will take what it wants out of it and isn't going to overdose you on Potassium.

Jim
January 27, 2012 6:34pm [ 11 ]

Which sports drinks are best for cramp problems?

Dan
January 28, 2012 2:51pm [ 12 ]

Hi Jim,

I really have no personal preference as far as which is better.

Dan

charlie
February 3, 2012 9:52am [ 13 ]

do bannas heal cramps

Dan
February 7, 2012 9:02am [ 14 ]

Hi Charlie,

While the potassium in bananas can help prevent cramps, it doesn't heal cramps. When you have a cramp, the best thing to do is massage the cramp, stretch, and hydrate.

Dan

Daniel
February 10, 2012 7:18pm [ 15 ]

i take magnesium tablets every day drink plenty of fluids and still get crampy. i work outside and when its humid and theres no wind around i sweat like a pig and know for sure the cramps will come.

Crystal
March 8, 2012 3:38pm [ 16 ]

Hi Dan, thanks for the info! So just to make sure I understand. Potassium can help prevent cramps, but more importanty we should be drinking extra water, right? I'm about 25 weeks pregnant, and I'm starting to experience these cramps. I walk everyday and drink lots of water. I've also started stretching my calves throughout the day. Would eating more potassium rich foods, in addition to what I'm already doing help with my leg cramps at night? Thanks! www.pregnantwhileheisdeployed.typepad.com

Dan
March 8, 2012 4:18pm [ 17 ]

Hi Crystal,

Thanks for the question. Cramps are funny because no one really knows the true physiological cause of cramps. Dehydration and electrolyte (potassium, sodium, etc.) imbalance are thought to be two big culprits. Poor flexibility is another potential cause. It sounds like you have the basics covered. Stretching and water intake should be your best friend right now. You can also try foam rolling, but be careful not to foam roll the inside of your calves as this can cause premature contractions.

You mentioned you walk every day. If that's the case, make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes. Poor shoes are another potential cause of leg cramps. Finally, eating potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, may also help alleviate leg cramps. Hope this helps. Good luck, and congratulations!

Dan

Amy Taylor
May 30, 2012 12:17pm [ 18 ]

I have just started working out and even though I am really large and embarrassed to go to the gym I suck it and go anyways. Last week my legs, feet, arms well just my entire body was swollen. So I ate lots of watermelon to help take off the fluid. Well doing this I have had body cramps every muscle from toes to fingers and even the muscles around my liver and stomach are cramping at night. I too have heard about banana's so I started eating more banana's and adding a potassium pill to my diet. However, the cramps have not gone away so today I got on-line to see what information I could find and I found this post. It makes sense really I took all the sodium and water from my body by eating the watermelon which according to my OB-GYN is a natural diuretic and then I haven't done anything to add any of the fluid back and now cramping everywhere one can imagine. I will increase my water today in hopes this will help not sure if I will any sodium because I think I get enough in my diet hence the swelling of the feet last week. Thank you for your post Dan I have high hopes in being able to sleep tonight without having to wake up a thousand time to fix a cramp some where located in my body.

May 31, 2012 12:40pm [ 19 ]

Thanks I increased my fluid intake yesterday either with water, milk, and orange juice. No body cramps at all during the night. :)

Steven
December 31, 2012 5:45am [ 20 ]

My back really hurts. If you want to know what 3 things help is 1. Get the offending muscle massaged by a friend or professional 2. Use deep heat, it comes in a cream or spray that when applied makes a lot of heat directly more or less to the muscles. I don't know about its availability in other countries but look out for red labelling. 3. Get good rest

cheyne
April 27, 2013 7:01am [ 21 ]

I get cramp in my calf muscle during football always in the 80th minute when i start to feel it from shooting or even sprinting. I bought a calf sleeve to keep it tight but that didnt work . I was reading this article and am thinking of bananas and lots more water any other suggestions?

Dan
April 27, 2013 4:42pm [ 22 ]

Hi Cheyne,

Thanks for the question. Just as the article says, a sports drink may help. If that doesn't work, adding a pinch of salt to the sports drink is another potential solution. Hope that helps.

Dan

Animalnutt
March 28, 2014 4:22am [ 23 ]

To Heather- North Carolina:

Claudication is the medical term for leg pain that happens during activity. Most describe the pain as a cramp, occurring while walking, that is relieved with rest.

When such leg pain occurs each time you engage in exercise or movement & it stops soon after you stop, it could be a sign of peripheral arterial disease, or PAD.

Animalnutt@hotmail.com
March 28, 2014 4:27am [ 24 ]

Here's the link to the website where I found the info for Heather- North Carolina. Hope it helps:)

http://www.dukemedicine.org/blog/leg-pain-when-worry

Steve
May 15, 2014 4:43pm [ 25 ]

I get excruciating cramps in my calves and feet from time to time, as did my father. Walking, stretching and massage don't stop it. I know it's only anecdotal, but I eat one banana and within of minute or two of my last bite, the cramps are gone. I can see that the cramps do come on after a long day fishing without taking a drink of water, so I'll look to better hydration for prevention, but for me, once the cramps start, the banana is a miracle drug and we try to always have some in the house.

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