Bay Area Parkour

Train Hard - Stay Humble

During a training session the other week a fellow traceur started getting leg cramps in his calves. I imagine that this is a common thing to happen, in the calf, in the back of the leg, maybe in the feet? Cramping is quite an ordinary thing, mostly brought on by confusion between the brain and body. A thorough warm-up, healthy diet and proper hydration can be very helpful in warding off cramps, making sure that the nervous system is firing well. But even then, cramps can happen. Particularly if your pushing yourself in difficult or new ways. When I'm not climbing around roofs and playgrounds, I work as a somatic educator and bodyworker; helping people let go of inefficient patterns/postures in their body. So, cramping is something I'm quite familiar with and I was able to help get my friend back into the swing of things. And if you follow these instructions, you will be able to do this as well.

1 recognize a cramp for what it is; 100% contraction of a muscle. When a muscle's fatigued, overstretched, moved suddenly, or held tight for too long it's at risk of cramping, completely seizing up. As you all know, this can be quite painful.

2 Don't react. This is not something mysterious or aweful, it's just a natural response of your body, so remember step one and stay calm.

3 Think it through. There's a trick to getting out of a cramp and that is using something called Reciprocal Inhibition. Simply put your body is designed so that the muscles on either side of a joint do not operate at once. If your biceps and triceps were both equally contracted, you'd never be able to bend your arm. So, we have this automatic process whereby if you actively contract one muscle, the other side of your joint releases. Ex. If your tricep(back of your arm) is cramping, by actively contracting your bicep(front of the arm) the tricep will relax.

4 Apply step 3. So here's what I did. First, I determined what muscle was tight. This was a bit tricky because one, this person was not fluent on English and two, they were in a lot of pain and justifiably nervous about some stranger approaching them offering to help out. But I noticed that he was holding the back of his leg and through various hand gestures was able to determine that the calf muscle was spasming. There are two main calf muscles and they do slightly different things, but one thing that they both do is point the foot(plantar flex). So when the calf is cramping, it's involuntarily and rather violently pointing the foot.

So, I applied the reciprocal inhibition rule. If the cramp is forcing the foot into a point(plantar flexion) then to get out of it, you need to bring the foot voluntarily into dorsal flexion and bring the toes towards the knee.

Important, this must be done by the person suffering the cramp, don't simply try to stretch the muscle. What I did was put my hand on top of his foot and had him contract into ("against") my hand. If the cramp is severe, and this one was, you will need to hold your hand there and keep coaching them to draw their toes up towards their knee, into your hand, until the cramp has passed. This could take 10-30 seconds and can be followed up by a little massage and a bunch of water.

This same thing works if the bottom of the foot is cramping.

If the hamstring is cramping, actively straightening the leg should help.

So, don't be afraid to take charge of the situation. If you're by yourself this can work as well, just follow the rule of actively contracting the opposite side of the joint.

Hope this helps!

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Comment by SafeNSure on April 3, 2010 at 9:48am
..."proper hydration" most definitely!

Having been burdened by calf cramps throughout my adult sport life (basically since "pushing myself in difficult -or strenuous- or new ways"), I've noticed the following:

- while kickboxing (peeps drink all the time, during breaks in between sets and rounds, it's just what people do... it belongs to the imaginary of the sport); I would never get cramps during, but would get them hours after because "proper" hydration throughout the day (for performance athletes) wasn't known as we know it today.
- while dancing (lower impact and less strenuous effort, distracted by concentration and by watching others...); most peeps forget to drink resulting in big time seizuring cramps, often suffering contracted muscles for days after.
- while mountain biking (again: plenty of breaks for drinking, also a more conscious effort on the legs); fatigue but no cramps.
- while windsurfing (low impact, high resistance effort over extended period of time, often in cold environment, NO hydration during effort); devastating (lol!), even paralyzing cramps, to the point that people learn how to "spot them coming"... and sail back to shore, since in certain, rough wave or extreme cold conditions leg cramps may be life-threatening;
With endurance sports where you need to keep a certain, prolonged posture (windsurfing, rock-climbing, etc.), a relaxed/conscious hyper-ventilation phase of about a minute helps postponing the cramps manifestation, but without hydration they'll come back, and harder!

Aside hydration, and all the tricks/measures that you suggested, many instructors/coaches have recommended also raising the limb above heart level: i.e. laying on the ground and leaning the leg against a wall or tree, or for a surfer, floating in the water while relaxing the leg on the board.

Good stuff!
Comment by Seng on April 3, 2010 at 3:24am
Thanks, that's really helpful. I was particularly wondering what the opposing motion for a calf cramp is. When I've had a cramp (usually in the calf, quads or hamstring), I've relaxed the muscles by a combination of mental will and deep breathing, but this makes a lot more sense, especially when helping someone else who may be freaking out a bit.

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