Muscle cramps are really common in football and they can get pretty annoying, too! We’ve all experienced them, especially in the last 10 to 20 minutes of a really competitive football match. It is in your control to prevent and/or minimize them. In this article, we are going to break down everything muscle cramp and football-related, in order to keep you “bullet-proof”.
MUSCLE CRAMPS IN FOOTBALL
Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps (EAMC) are sudden, involuntary, and painful muscle contractions that usually go away within seconds or minutes. They usually occur during high-intensity and long-lasting sporting activities, such as football.  There are many hypotheses in regards to the causes of muscle cramps, however, two are standing out. One says that muscle cramps are a result of an electrolytic imbalance in muscle cells and the other that they are caused by fatigue of the neuromuscular system. 
To prevent muscle cramps in football, you basically have to avoid hot and humid environments, stay adequately hydrated, follow a healthy nutrition with appropriate amounts of vitamins and minerals, get match-fit, and optimize your game-day nutrition. Treatment can and should be immediate with the application of passive stretches and/or massage of the affected muscle group.
WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE CRAMPS IN FOOTBALL?
Over the last decades, there has been so much controversy in the scientific field about the cause of muscle cramps. Currently, there are two main hypotheses in regards to this topic.
#1 Electrolytic Imbalance
First off, we have the electrolytic imbalance hypothesis which is directly associated with dehydration. Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, are minerals with an electric charge that are important for muscle contraction.
An imbalance between certain minerals aka electrolytes inside of muscle cells (and to be more specific/scientific, inside their extracurricular fluid) can stimulate “random” muscle contractions that are usually painful and sudden. This hypothesis, however, seems to be losing the scientific battle over the last few years.
#2 Neuromuscular Fatigue
The one that is increasingly “popular” and more evidence-based is the hypothesis of neuromuscular fatigue. Let me make this simple for you.
You are in the 75th minute of a really intense match, both physically and mentally. You are EXHAUSTED. Your decision-making starts to increase in time and decrease in “quality”. The combination of that physical and mental fatigue can lead to involuntary and sudden muscle contractions which are described as exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC).
Your neuromuscular system experiences a drop in its performance the closer you get to the end of the game. As a result, your motor neurons, which are basically receiving signals and commanding muscle contraction, are getting hypersensitive to those signals.
Due to that neuromuscular fatigue, any signal (important or not) can lead to an “excitement” of motor neurons, causing involuntary muscle contractions aka muscle cramps. 
LOWERING THE RISK OF/”PREVENTING” MUSCLE CRAMPS IN FOOTBALL
Now that we’ve got the two hypotheses/causes of muscle cramping out of the way, we can properly approach the topic of “prevention”.
As with any injury or exercise-related physiological issue, we need to take a holistic approach. Injuries are multifactorial, therefore, we need to pay attention to every detail. According to the two hypotheses we analyzed above, muscle cramps are primarily a result of fluid and mineral depletion as well as neuromuscular fatigue. Here is a handful of ways you can prevent muscle cramps in football.
THE “FGM” HALF-TIME STRATEGY TO REDUCE MUSCLE CRAMPS…
- Hydrate adequately
- Follow a healthy nutrition high in vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and proteins
- Supplementation (electrolyte tabs, sports drinks, mineral supplements)
- Optimize match-day nutrition (in and around matches)
- Limit/Regulate beverages with a diuretic/dehydrating effect (coffee, tea, carbonated beverages)
- Avoid hot and humid training environments
- Follow a well-programmed exercise regimen to achieve a good level of conditioning
- Prioritize recovery in your training week
- Warm-up and cool-down appropriately
- Energy management during training and matches
One of the believed causes of cramping is directly associated with your nutrition. That is why you should take care of it, not only on game-day and pre-season (which usually are the most intense events of the season) but throughout the whole week.
Make sure you’re hydrating adequately throughout the day as well as during and around training and matches. As a rule of thumb, athletes should drink 40-60ml of water per kilogram of body weight (i.e. if you’re weighing 70kg you should be drinking somewhere between 2.8 to 4.2 liters of water per day).
On game-day or periods of more intense training (i.e. pre-season), we suggest you weigh yourself before and after physical activity. For every kilogram you lost during exercise, you should replenish that with a liter of water.
You might as well add an electrolyte or mineral supplement to your water, an alternative that is really useful on game-days. However, sports drinks are also a solid option. Click here to find out how you can make yours!
To limit muscle cramps, it would be wise of you to consume foods that are high in minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, and proteins. All of these nutrients play a significant role in muscle contraction, health, and endurance. Therefore, following a daily diet that is rich in these nutrients is a key aspect of muscle cramp prevention.
You also need to come down with a nutritional strategy with the aim of maximizing performance and preventing such minor injuries. Carb-loading is one aspect that can help minimize neuromuscular fatigue. Your meals and snacks in and around game-day need to be high in carbohydrates and minerals. You shall also pay great attention to half-time nutrition. Simple carbs, water, and mineral replenishment are key here. Click here to learn more about that.
Training errors can lead to increases in neuromuscular fatigue, one of the two primary causes of muscle cramps. How you and your team layout your training regimen in relation to your competitive obligations and career goals is really important for your battle against muscle cramps.
A periodized approach needs to be taken with adequate amounts of recovery and rest in between training and matches. Progressive overload needs to be applied to prevent doing too much too soon. Volume and intensity need to be regulated accordingly, to fit the teams’ and individuals’ match schedule.
In other words, stop training hard, start training smart. The closer you get to game-day, taper off by increasing intensity and lowering volume.
Also, do not forget to always warm-up and cool-down properly. These two are getting heavily neglected by players and coaches, however, they are proven to be very effective when it comes to battling fatigue and soreness. More info on warming-up properly here.
What To Avoid
Lastly, we also mentioned two things you should try and avoid in an attempt to minimize muscle cramps. These were hot and humid training environments and beverages that have a diuretic effect, such as coffee, tea, carbonated beverages, etc.
Both of these aid dehydration of the body. Avoid training in hot climates and try to schedule your training sessions and matches earlier or later during the day. If this is not possible, opt for an acclimatization period to gradually prepare your body for those hot conditions. Start off with a lower training load and maybe even have some sauna sessions. Multiple water breaks and rest periods are a must!
Of course, you should also prioritize water and mineral-rich beverages above all. Regulate your coffee, tea, or carbonated beverage intake so it doesn’t exceed the recommended daily dosage.
TREATING MUSCLE CRAMPS IN FOOTBALL
The treatment process of muscle cramps isn’t something too complicated and time-consuming. Muscle cramps usually go away on their own after a few seconds or minutes (at worst). However, there are some actions you can take to get rid of them faster.
Something that is really commonly used is passive stretching. This can be done by yourself or with the help of a teammate. Apply some passive stretches to the muscle without getting too deep into the stretch.
If there’s a medical/physio team available, treatment can also involve some massage. Having said that, this would be usually done either in more severe/repetitive cases of muscle cramping or after a game or training session.
Muscle cramps are not something you should worry about, at least in most cases. If you’re experiencing muscle cramps quite often and/or their more severe, you should definitely get in touch with a doctor or physio to further address the issue. Other than that, you should definitely do everything in your control to prevent and/or minimize them, in order to maximize your performance.
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 Kantorowski et al., 1990, P.G. Kantorowski, W.D.B. Hiller, W.E. Garrett, P.S. Douglas, R.O.M. Smith, Cramping studies in 2600 endurance athletes, Med. Sci. Sport. Exerc., 22 (2) (1990), p. s104
 Gaia Giuriato, Anna Pedrinolla, Federico Schena, Massimo Venturelli, Muscle cramps: A comparison of the two-leading hypothesis, Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, Volume 41, 2018, Pages 89-95, ISSN 1050-6411, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jelekin.2018.05.006. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1050641118300919)