What Your Exercise Cramps Are Trying to Tell You About Your Body

The five most common workout aches, explained

You’re running, cycling, or burpee-ing along, just minding your own business, when all of the sudden—BAM—a cramp hits you square in your muscles and makes you curse the fact that you put on your gym shoes in the first place.

When one hits, pay attention! That’s your body screaming that something’s wrong. Here are five of the most common types of cramps and what those bad boys are trying to tell you.

1. Side-Stitches

The cause of these cramps isn’t 100-percent known, but getting more air into your system often helps relieve the side-winding pain, says Marsella. “Stop, and raise your arms above your head to allow more oxygen to get to the muscle of the thoracic cavity, or apply pressure with your hands to the location of pain and inhale and exhale slowly and deeply.”

RELATED: 5 Ways to Use Breathing Techniques to Get a Better Workout

2. Stomach Cramps

No wonder mom said to wait 30 minutes before hopping in the pool: When you eat too close to exercising, your gastrointentinal tract and muscles get in a bidding war for blood flow, says Eugene Yim, M.D., a sports medicine physician with Newport Orthopedic Institute. If your muscles win out, you’ll likely have stomach cramps. Meanwhile, if your stomach wins, your muscles won’t get the oxygen they need and can easily spaz out. Most people can consume liquids, gels, and energy bars up to 15 to 30 minutes before a workout without cramping, but that’s because they don’t need to be broken down in your gut as much as solid foods, says Marsella. Give yourself 1.5 to two hours after eating a substantial meal to digest everything before you hit the gym.

RELATED: Why Does Running Sometimes Give You the Runs?

3. Calf, Quad, and Hamstring Cramps

When you’re sweating out more water, sodium, and potassium than you’re taking in, those losses can make the nerves that signal your muscles to contract or relax extra sensitive, he says. The smallest thing can set them off, and in return, those nerves can make your muscles spasm or cramp, says Marsella. While dehydration cramps can occur in any muscle, they typically strike in the calves, quads, and hamstrings, he says. If you get one of these, it’s best to stop exercise immediately, stretch it out, and rehydrate. And if your urine isn’t clear before heading into your workout, you are already running on low, says Yim.

RELATED: 3 Signs You’re Dehydrated

4. Sharp Pains in the Muscle You Just Worked Out

When you work a given muscle to its max, it may not be able to replenish its nutrients as fast as it needs to, which can cause it to cramp up, says Marsella. While these cramps don’t usually feel any different than dehydration cramps, they most often hit when that muscle is being held in the same position without moving (isometric much?) for a good chunk of time. Put your workout on pause, and give the muscle a few seconds to a few minutes to relax. If it’s sore later in the day, do some light activity like walking to help loosen the muscle, he recommends. You may even need to take it easy on that muscle for a few days.

RELATED: Study Looks at How Dangerous It Is to Exercise Too Hard

5. Other Unexplained Cramps

This could mean you didn’t spend enough time warming up. “During activity, we are constantly contracting and relaxing our skeletal muscles, depleting our nutrient reserves—particularly sodium—and increasing our body temperature,” says certified athletic trainer and weightlifting coach, Angelo Marsella, director of sports medicine and athletic training services at Professional Physical Therapy. When you don’t warm up well enough, or if you skip it all together, you miss out on the opportunity to slowly raise your body temperature, gradually increase your muscle elasticity, and get the needed blood, oxygen, and other nutrients to your muscles before you start hitting it hard.

RELATED: The Amazing 3-Minute Warm-Up

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