Suffer from quad cramps? Here’s how to fix the problem—and keep it from coming back.
A quad cramp can be triggered by several things. The most common cause is nutritional: You’re dehydrated or don’t have enough sodium (salt) in your body. Fatigue and working a muscle when it’s “short”—not fully extended—are less common causes. The triggering factor, whatever it is, makes the muscle edgy and it anticipates contraction, which can lead it to simply contract on its own. This is why muscle cramps are more common at the end of a race.
Of the four quad muscles, the rectus femoris is most prone to cramping because it attaches above the hip and below the knee, crossing both joints. The other three muscles—the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius—connect only at the top of the femur and at the knee. This simply means that the rectus femoris has more opportunity to contract when it’s short because two things can shorten it—knee extension and hip flexion (imagine yourself sitting with your leg out straight and lifting it while keeping it straight—that’s how you shorten the rectus femoris). This muscle works harder than its quad buddies.
Break the cramp. The fastest way to break a cramp is to stretch the contracted muscle, i.e., slowly extend it from its contracted state. In the quads’ case, pull your foot back toward your butt to stretch out the muscle. Don’t yank it. Gently and gradually stretch it.
Watch the hammie. If one muscle cramps, another one might as well, and when you stretch the quad, you shorten the hamstring. To prevent a reciprocal hammie cramp, be mindful not to contract or fire the muscle as you stretch out the quad. This may sound difficult, but just concentrate on relaxing your leg as you stretch.
Hydrate and get salty. Drink enough fluids and up your salt intake—pretzels and pickle juice are fast sources. This strategy will also help prevent other cramps.
Get in better shape. Train a muscle so it’s stronger and less prone to fatigue, and you’ll prevent cramping. In the case of quads, explosive bodyweight exercises like squats and lunges are musts. If you’re a cyclist prone to having cramps, increase your training to put more distance between the mileage you need to complete and your fatigue threshold.
Stretch. Regular quad stretching can help keep the muscles loose and your legs limber.
New York City sports medicine specialist Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. is a 33-time marathon finisher and 13-time Ironman. His book, The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, has more than 1,000 tips to fix all types of injuries and medical conditions.
From The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies by Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. with Mike Zimmerman. Copyright 2012 by Rodale Inc. Published by arrangement with Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.