I am a starting forward on the Marathon High Basketball Team. Normally I play all 40 minutes of our games, but recently have only been able to make it to the 30 minute mark or so. My legs start to seize up and I have to sit down and stretch. My trainer says that it’s just muscle cramps and that I should eat more bananas and drink more fluids. I already drink Gatorade throughout games and eat a lot of bananas, why am I still getting cramps?
Thank you for your question. Based on what you have told me, your trainer could be right: you are experiencing exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC). However, Gatorade and bananas may not be the answer to your problem. Let me explain…
One of the most common theories is that EAMC is caused by dehydration and electrolyte depletion. This means your body does not have enough salt, potassium, or water, all things found in Gatorade and bananas. As a result of this, nerves, which use electrolytes, will randomly fire causing your muscles to tighten. While this theory is often referred to, it is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and recent research has not shown a connection between electrolytes, dehydration, and EAMC. As such, alternative theories have been suggested, and evidence to support them is starting to grow.
A theory that is starting to gain traction is the altered neuromuscular control theory. Basically, this means that there is miscommunication between the nervous system and the muscular system. Sensory structures in the muscle become overactive and nerves in the spinal cord (which you cannot control voluntarily) don’t know what to do, so they activate, resulting in muscle cramps. Most research suggests that this short is likely to occur because of fatigue, not dehydration.
If you are already consuming sufficient amounts of electrolytes, your muscle cramping may be the result of late-game fatigue. If this is the case, passive stretching has been show to help by calming those overactive sensors. To passively stretch, someone else stretches your muscle while you relax. Examining your training program and including more rest, or focusing on endurance may also be beneficial. You may also want to talk to your coach about breaking up your playing time with short breaks; this may result in you being available late in the game when your coach needs you.
While cramping may be a pain, you are not the first or the last person to experience this at an inconvenient time. The best thing you can do is to listen to your body and you will learn how to manage your EAMC.
Hope that helps!
Sports Medicine Counsel