Cramp is a common problem that will happen to every hiker at some point. While it is generally harmless and normally shouldn't cause any long term damage, it certainly isn't a pleasant experience as anyone who experiences it will attest to.
It will of course vary in severity depending on many factors so there is no expectation you can set with regards to it.
What is Cramp?
A cramp is where you experience a very sudden and intense pain in one of your muscles. It happens due to a muscle contracting or over-shortening. This process is not voluntary and so you have no control over it when it happens.
Cramp can be experienced in skeletal muscle, a muscle connected to the skeleton, or smooth muscle, muscle in organs, blood vessel walls and so on. The duration of cramp varies greatly and it can last anything from a few seconds to a few hours. It really depends where you get the cramp.
As a hiker, typically the cramp that is probably most often experienced is skeletal although smooth is common enough too, thing of having a ‘stitch', that stabbing pain you can sometimes get in your rib cage as a result of exercising.
The most common area to experience skeletal cramp hiking is the legs in the calves and thighs but personally I also find that my lower and upper back can be quite prone to cramp too, probably from carrying a very full day pack.
What Causes Cramp?
There are a myriad of things that can cause cramp. Everything from hydration to hypoxia, a lessening of oxygen in the blood, from big changes in temperature to low levels of salt in your blood. There are a lot of possible reasons why you may get cramp.
Generally speaking, similar as mentioned above, from my experience, when hiking cramp is most likely to be skeletal and occur either at the start of a hike or after I have been hiking for a long time. This of course is indicative of two specific states your skeletal muscles are likely to be in.
With the first, when starting your hike, your muscles are likely to be colder and not as supple as they haven't been stretched out. Normally hikes start early in the morning so you have probably just got out of bed and got into your car to drive to your hike. Therefore, your muscles may not have had as much time to stretch themselves out and get loosened up.
The second, after hiking for a longer period of time, comes due to the muscles getting tired. Tiredness means simply that the muscle is tired and wants to stop being used. Generating a cramp is a quick, efficient and very effective way for your body to tell you to STOP 🙂
How do you Treat Cramp?
Generally speaking, it's a case of stretching and massaging the muscle when treating a skeletal cramp. Stopping what is causing it obviously helps too but sometimes you need to keep pushing on so some rest and good stretching should give you enough to be able to keep moving till you finish your hike. For really bad skeletal cramps, some heat application may also help but that is probably not very practical on the trail.
For both skeletal and smooth muscle cramps, good hydration should help as well as keeping your sodium, salt, at decent levels. So drink plenty of water and have the odd salty snack as you hike.
Some medications for cramp are available but I think in most cases you should be OK with a good stretch and muscle massage. For some internal cramps, say indigestion as an example, it may be better to treat them with a suitable pain killer or muscle relaxant. Vitamin B complex can also help with cramps and are generally good for helping your body run well overall so could be an option to take if you experience cramps regularly, that's for preventative as well as for treatment purposes.
How do you Prevent Cramp?
Prevention is always better than cure 🙂
Broadly speaking, prevention is the same as the treatments listed above. Stretch your muscles well before you start out and every now and then during your hike, especially if you feel your legs or muscles tensing up as you hike. Take 5 and have a quick stretching session, this could easily prevent a cramp from developing.
While you may think you are being a real trooper by plowing on regardless, it will have the opposite effect and encourage the symptoms to increase more than likely leading to a nasty and sudden cramp which will stop you whether you want to or not, that I can guarantee 🙂
As above with treatment, stay well hydrated and try and optimize your sodium to help ensure there are suitable electrolyte levels that are balanced in your blood.
A really common one that people often under estimate is good physical preparation. Your body needs to be conditioned to be able to take on the hike your are planing to do. If you're not adequately prepared, you're opening up your body to cramp central and you will be miserable and sore at some point.
This is easily avoided by knowing your levels of fitness and only taking on hikes that are suitable for your fitness level. So even if you're fit in another activity, that fitness may not carry over immediately to hiking if it's a different type of fitness. Hiking will involve specific muscle groups that you may not normally use to the level you need to for hiking. So if you're new to hiking, start small and build up distance and height slowly over time.
I hope you found this short post on how to prevent and treat cramp useful. Most people have experienced cramp at some point so it shouldn't be an entirely new concept to most. What might be new is the way you get it, if you're new to hiking in particular. Your legs will be taking more of a hit when you start out on the trail so you should pay a bit more attention to them if you take up hiking regularly.
A simple series of stretches before you start your hike, during your hike, should you feel a muscle tensing up, as well as after a hike should go a long way to keeping cramp at bay.
What do you think? Do you have any other tips on how to prevent cramp while hiking? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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