A Tale of Two Cramps

Experts say you need to listen to your body. TOJs can be hard of hearing when it comes to that advice because every day there are some aches and (small) pains. If you have a set exercise routine, most of the aches are the same old, same old. You do this, you can expect some DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) there. They are familiar and predictable.

But less predictable if you change your normal routine is the location and intensity of the new aches and pains. During these periods of change, sometimes your body screams loudly to be heard, as was the case with the two cramps.

A month ago this TOJ and my wife got American Council on Exercise certification as a personal trainers. It was amazing to discover after having been very physically active as long as I've been alive, and sort of a student of exercise, how little I really knew. We're going to start a business focusing on 50+ people. We wanted to get familiar with what's going on around our new community (moved from Colorado to Oregon last summer) so started attending some group classes at the excellent community fitness center in Bend, plus familiarizing ourselves with some of the newer resistance machines.

We have a really good home gym with weights, dumb bells, kettlebells, bands, TRX, stability balls, ab roller, jump ropes, pull-up bar, and large training mat. However, there are some advantages to the machines (a prime one being safety). The group classes can be good too because you get some solid coaching from experienced trainers and maybe push a little harder because you want to keep up with the rest of the group.

So on a Wednesday we did a low to medium difficulty class on Functional Conditioning - lots of core work on the ball, some Yoga postures, lateral movement, squats, body weight presses. I do more with heavier weights at home, but this was different and very worthwhile. New movements enlisted some muscles I hadn't used in awhile.

The next day I was walking from my car to the house when there was a sharp, painful cramp in my right calf. It hung around most of the day, but steadily bercame less intense and more intermittent.

Cramp #1 was gone by Thursday, when I did a double circuit routine of ten exercises on the resistance machines. One thing I really liked is I could do leg presses and squats with much more weight than I could at home. I cooled down afterwards with a few minutes on a treadmill. The workout felt great.

On Friday, my legs were a little tight from the presses and squats, but no pain in the right calf. It was a beautiful day outside, so I went for a low key trail run along the river for a few miles. The footing was not very good because of some uneven rotten ice and frozen foot-printed mud, so the lower legs did a lot of work to maintain balance. Still, it was a fun run, and afterwards I felt great. Sure, the usual tightness in the hips and sore quads, but no big deal.

That night my wife, daughter and I went to the Deschutes Brewery for dinner. I'd just finished a tasty Obsidian Stout and shifted slightly on my seat, lifting and bending my left leg. Suddenly there was a shot of pain in the left hamstring as Cramp #2 struck. I groaned,winced, and clutched my leg. My wife, seated to the left, gasped and asked what was happening, likely fearing a heart attack. My daughter, a nurse and Crossfitter, watched to see where this was going because she could tell the pain was intense.

I slumped down in the booth, trying to straighten my leg, and the cramp eased back. I noticed a young girl with a concerned look at the next table elbow her mom and point in my direction. Then the cramp returned (still count it as Cramp #2 because it was in the same place), even more intense, two more times separated by a couple of minutes. When the muscle spasmed the third time, I started to sweat and feel a little nauseous. I dug my fingers into the back of my leg and massaged it as hard as I could. Finally, the pain started to subside permanently, and the little girl at the next table was finally able to take her eyes off the old guy who she feared might be dying right before her eyes.

We speculated about what had just happened. My daughter suggested it was dehydration, and that I should drink bone broth or more water, knowing I drank coffee (a diuretic) all day long. My wife thought alcohol might be a factor. Both of these were probably right. Plus I didn't stretch at all during the past three days, which probably further set the pre-conditions up for trouble.

Actually, the experts don't really know what causes cramps. They guess that cramps are due to either causing electrolyte imbalances, over-stressed, i.e., under-rested, damaged tissue, or loss of neuromuscular control in the motor units.

Here's the take away lesson of this comic/pathetic tale: If you make a substantial change to your exercise habits, then anticipate increasing vulnerability until your body adjusts. To give yourself the  best chance to avoid painful cramps or real injury: a) stay hydrated, b) cool down and stretch after strenuous exercise, and c) allow ample time between new exercise routines for your body to recover.

I got it. Pain has a way of making a lesson unforgettable. This TOJ vows to be a better listener. Better late than never.

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