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3 Tips to Prevent Muscle Cramps in Growing Athletes

Heat, dehydration and improper stretching or warmups can increase a growing athlete’s chance of getting muscle cramps. These tips from the sports medicine team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta can help your kid or teen stop that muscle cramp before it starts.

Muscle cramps in a growing athlete are often the result of dehydration and improper stretching or warmups.

“Muscle cramps are involuntary contractions of the muscles that can occur at any time, interrupting a workout or game in the blink of an eye,” says Lindsey Ream, MEd, LAT, ATC, Athletic Training Manager in the Children’s Sports Medicine Program. “They may also be caused by extended periods of exercise, general overuse or fatigue, dehydration or muscle strain.”

Muscle cramps can occur anywhere on the body but typically target the lower extremities like calves or feet.

Teen girl runner grabbing leg because of muscle cramp
  1. Drink plenty of water.
    • Pre-hydrate: Thirty minutes before any sports activity, kids should drink water until they are no longer thirsty and then drink another 8 ounces.
    • During practices or games, make sure kids have the right amount of water to drink for their weight:
      • 5 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of activity for kids and teens weighing less than 90 pounds
      • 8 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of activity for kids and teens weighing more than 90 pounds
    • For activities that last longer than an hour, children can drink a fluid with carbohydrates and electrolytes. Beverages like Gatorade and Powerade were designed specifically for rehydration during exercise and contain the right amount of carbohydrates (about 6-8%). These are also good recovery drinks for kids when their games or practices end.
    • We do not recommend drinking fruit juice or soda, as it contains too much sugar for effective hydration and can actually cause cramping.
  2. Stretch those muscles every day and before every activity.
    • We know it’s hard to get kids to stretch and warm up before they hit the field for practice or a game, but a proper warmup is an important key to muscle health. Whether it’s a dynamic warmup or activity-specific stretching, growing athletes should do some kind of warmup before and after any sports activity to prevent muscle cramps. “And while kids are still growing,” says Lindsey, “we also recommend stretching before bedtime, which can reduce incidences of night cramps.”
  3. Don’t suddenly increase activity or the amount of exercise.
    • Increase any activity over time. Encourage children to take their time as they learn a new sport. Growing athletes should gradually start an activity they have never tried before or haven’t done in a while. We recommend slowly getting into (or back into) the activity over a few weeks’ time to give your child’s body time to adjust.

If your child or teen does get a muscle cramp, stretching and massaging the area can help alleviate pain. Most cramps subside within a few seconds, if not a minute. If a muscle cramp gets too painful, the athlete can take an over-the-counter medication, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen. Be sure to follow the dosage instructions for the athlete’s age and weight.

If the muscle cramp doesn’t go away, we recommend following up with your child’s pediatrician. Typically, muscle cramps are not an emergency, but if they persist, it wouldn’t hurt to check with your child’s doctor to make sure there’s not an underlying issue.

We are exclusively dedicated to kids and teen athletes.

The Sports Medicine Program at Children’s is one of the only programs in the country dedicated exclusively to caring for growing athletes. Our team is specially trained to care for teen athletes with sports-related injuries and illnesses.

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Lindsey Ream, MEd, LAT, ATC, is the Athletic Training Manager for the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Sports Medicine Program. Lindsey’s clinical interests include sports-specific injuries and concussion management. She’s been a certified athletic trainer for more than 15 years and is a member of the National Athletic Trainers Association, Southeastern Athletic Trainers Association and Georgia Athletic Trainers Association.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.