Twitching and cramping in the legs is a common problem, especially after intense training. A little twitch here and there can just be an annoyance. However, cramping, or “Charlie horses” in the quadriceps or calves can be extremely painful and wake us up from sleep. The anxiety and anticipation of having these types of cramps can be worse than the actual pain they cause.
There are many different etiologies for muscle twitching and cramping. The most common cause is an electrolyte imbalance. Most commonly these electrolytes include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Electrolyte gradients are what charge nerve firing and muscle contraction just like in a battery. When these electrolytes are out of balance the control of the nerve and muscle discharge becomes out of sync. Thus, muscles fire without the nerve and nerves fire without being told by your brain.
Electrolytes can become imbalanced by intense training. This includes training that results in significant sweating leading to dehydration and excessive loss electrolytes. Training in excessive heat exacerbates the fluid and electrolyte loss. Electrolyte and fluid replacement with a sports drink, a banana, and supplementation may be needed. If you get cramps regularly consider supplementing with a potassium and magnesium supplement. Salt your food as needed and get your daily dose of calcium and vitamin D.
In some cases, the electrolyte loss can be due to medications like diuretics for blood pressure (or prep) or beta-blockers for asthma (or clenbuterol). Some cholesterol medications (statins) can also cause leg cramps that especially manifest at night. Ask your doctor if medications you are taking may be contributing to your twitchy or cramping muscles. There may be alternative medications or adjunctive medications that they can prescribe like potassium pills or Coenzyme Q10. If you are using such meds inappropriately for prep you should re-think your prep.
Another cause of twitching or cramping may be over-training. Overtraining a muscle either by too much volume or intensity in too short a time or lack of adequate recovery from day to day can lead to neuromuscular fatigue. This fatigue of the muscle or nerves supply that muscle can lead to increased excitability of those muscles leading to twitching and cramping. Change up your training to let fatigued muscle groups rest and work on getting better sleep and whole food nutrition. Eat more green leafy veggies rich in free radical quenching anti-oxidants and phytonutrients.
If you get a bad cramp in the middle of the night, take some deep breaths, massage it out, and gently stretch the muscle. Sometimes, the muscle can be quite sore afterwards and this may persist for a few days. Avoid training that body part until the soreness subsides and do some regular stretching, massage, warm and cold packs, and return to activity slowly.