That tingly sensation creeping through your feet or legs or a certain numbness in your calves or thighs accompanied by heaviness and throbbing pain are the hallmarks of a muscle cramp.

A cramp can come without warning or reason; it also can be the result of bad physical form, like hiking with improper foot placement, or due to nutritional deficiencies, like running out of minerals from excessive sweating or dehydration, for example. Among hikers, it typically develops in the legs, especially in the calf muscles.

Trekking for hours and in certain weather conditions can bring on a cramp. A lack of physical preparation (no proper warm up or no physical exercises done weeks prior to the hike) can also make you more likely to develop a cramp. To avoid ruining your lovely outdoor adventure out in the Swiss Alps or some other majestic, mountainous landscape, you should understand the hows and the whys of cramps.

How Your Leg Muscles Work While Hiking

Photo taken at Glacier de Moiry

Basically, your leg muscles contract when you step on the ground, hike uphill, lift weights, and even cycle. They then stretch out when you finish a leg movement or even when you’re trying to reduce your speed as you’re walking down an incline. The leg muscles go through this contraction and lengthening cycle constantly during hiking.

Cramp Cause #1

According to research, most of the cramps experienced in the legs are developed from the downhill walking motion. That’s because there’s much contraction involved, especially in the knees and hips. And when you haven’t trained your muscles for this kind of exertion because downhill walking isn’t exactly something you normally do every day, you’re a very likely candidate for leg cramps.

From experience, leg cramps also are likely to occur when there’s a lot of steep uphill climbing as this motion also involves stronger contractions in the hip and knee muscles. As mentioned, if you haven’t prepared your legs by doing leg strengthening exercises that mimic these motions, you’re likely to cramp during your hike.

Cramp Cause #2

You probably notice some hikers bringing along salt packets or salty food. That’s to help them top up the electrolyte reserves in their bodies to avoid cramping. Muscle spasms do occur when your sodium, as well as potassium, magnesium, and calcium levels, are low.

If you sweat a lot, you would need a bit more salt than the average person. However, be careful not to over-consume salt as doing so will prevent you from urinating or sweating, which is not good. To prevent electrolyte deficiency, you can take electrolyte drinks or take in a variety of snacks that has potassium, magnesium, and calcium, aside from sodium.

Cramp Cause #3

One sign you’re dehydrated is when you feel cramps invading certain parts of your body. Inadequate fluid intake deprives the cells of the water molecules needed to keep them hydrated and keep the nerve endings from getting hyper stimulated and erratically discharging, which results to muscle spasms.

That being said, make sure that you’re adequately hydrated, which means taking in water even before you feel thirsty. You can time your hydration to a 15-20 minute interval to ensure you avoid drying out your body. Don’t drink too much water to avoid creating an electrolyte imbalance.

How to Avoid Cramps

Photo taken at Forcletta and Meidpass

Some solutions have already been mentioned in the previous paragraphs, although it is worth mentioning that climbing up and down stairs or steep inclines in your neighborhood with a weighted backpack or even ankle weights can help your body get accustomed to the movements you use in hiking.

Other ways to keep those muscle spasms at bay is taking vitamin B complex supplements a week or so before your hike. You should also stretch a bit and warm up before starting your climb to prep your muscles.

What to Do When You’re Cramping Already

First solution is stretching. Find an elevated place or steps with your heels positioned beyond the edge. Slowly allow your heels to go below the edge so you feel the stretch at the back of your legs, especially in the calves. Hold this position for about 10-15 counts, and return to your original position. Repeat this until the cramp is lessened or relieved.

If you’re on terrain that don’t allow the aforementioned solution, you can stand next to a tree or some stabilizer and put the affected foot a couple of inches forward while holding on to the tree, person, or pole. Slowly lift the upper half of the foot upward toward your shin while your heel is still in the same position on the ground so you feel the stretch in your calf. Hold this position for a couple of seconds before releasing. Repeat until the cramp subsides.

Have you experienced cramping while on a hike? Tell us about it in the comments!


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