Written by: Charmaine Jones, MS, RDN, LDN — Superfeet Wellness Panel Member. Charmaine Jones is founder and owner of Food Jonezi, a website and nutrition counseling service dedicated to ensuring all individuals have access to proper food and nutrition education to achieve optimal health.
You’re enjoying your run. Suddenly, you stop in your tracks because you feel a tight, sharp pain sensation in your left calf muscle. You quickly grab hold your calf. You take deep breaths, limp to the safest place for recovery and take a break. You continue to viciously massage the hard-lump tissue in your calf muscle until the lump disappears and the pain subsides. You abandon the run and decide to walk the rest of the way.
What caused your leg cramps? How can proper nutrition prevent leg cramps from happening on your next run?
What Causes Leg Cramps in Runners?
Muscle spasms or leg cramps are caused by the sudden an involuntary contraction of one of more your muscles, resulting in a painful sensation that will often cause you to completely stop your run. Leg cramps are caused by a number of issues: overuse of the muscles, working out too hard, taking extremely long walks, runs or hikes, improperly stretching or not stretching at all, inactivity, and electrolyte imbalances. The painful feeling from muscle spasms can last from seconds to several minutes, and sometimes days.
Risk Factors for Leg Cramps
Generally, leg cramps are harmless. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, some may be related to underlying medical conditions like inadequate blood supply, nerve compression, and mineral depletion (having a diet low in Potassium, Calcium or Magnesium).
You may be at greater risk of experiencing muscle cramps if you are an older adult. People lose muscle mass as they age, so the remaining muscles can become overstressed easily. Athletes become fatigued and dehydrated from electrolyte imbalances, especially when exercising in warm weather. Pregnant women, and individuals who suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, nerve, liver or thyroid conditions may also be at greater risk of experiencing muscle cramps.
How to Prevent Leg Cramps
Eating well-balanced meals and snacks can decrease the incidence of leg cramps in athletes. It’s imperative that an individual meet the daily requirements of both macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat and water), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for healthy muscle contraction.
For muscles to contract properly, they need assistance from essential vitamins and minerals like Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium Chloride, and vitamins like Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin D and Vitamin K. Each of these nutrients plays a significant role in healthy muscle contraction.
What to Eat to Prevent Leg Cramps — Macronutrients
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine all recommend consuming between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day — that’s 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. Eat quality proteins, like lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy or soy, and be sure protein intake is spread evenly throughout the day.
While protein is essential for muscle repair and growth, the right intake of carbohydrates and fat is important for refueling your muscles and preventing leg cramps. The Institute of Medicine’s recommended dietary allowance of carbohydrates for all adults is 130 grams per day. The carbohydrate requirement for runners and high-performance athletes generally exceeds this recommendation. As for fat intake, consume low-fat entrees to prevent gastrointestinal distress during exercise.
Dehydration is also commonly associated with leg cramps. Drinking plenty of water helps your muscles contract and relax and keeps muscle cells hydrated. Recommended water intake depends on factors like age, health, prescribed medications, what you eat, activity level and weather conditions. It’s a good idea to drink fluids regularly throughout the day, before workouts, during workouts and after workouts.
What to Eat To Prevent Leg Cramps — Micronutrients
Your body’s electrolyte fluids consist of essential minerals like Calcium, Sodium, Magnesium, Potassium and Chloride. The same minerals, plus Phosphorus, also assist in muscle development and growth, muscle and nerve regulation.
Iron, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 together are responsible for supplying your muscle cells with oxygen, which breaks down glucose and creates ATP energy.
Vitamins C, D and K aid with the absorption of other minerals for muscle, bone and collagen growth, repair and maintenance.
Meeting the daily requirements for micronutrients is not an unattainable goal. These nutrients are found naturally in a variety of foods, like green leafy vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meats, poultry, fish, seafood, beans, nuts and seeds.
What to Eat to Prevent Leg Cramps — Nutrition Supplements and Vitamins
A well-balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, lean sources of proteins, beans and healthy fats should meet your nutritional needs without supplementation. Supplements should never take the place of eating well-balanced meals and snacks.
However, a busy schedule or dietary restrictions can make eating well-balanced meals and snacks challenging. Therefore, taking multivitamins/multimineral supplements from a reliable source is recommended. In fact, taking a one-a-day multivitamin/multimineral can compensate for daily inadequacies, improve overall health and help prevent chronic disease. The importance of consultation cannot be overstated — always speak with your doctor or registered dietitian to learn more about supplements before taking any.