Foot cramps

HeelLiftOuch! I am used to recognising the distress in someone’s face when a muscle cramp strikes during Pilates class.

These involuntary spasms of muscles are very uncomfortable and will stop you in your tracks. The more intense cramps can take a few days to recover from, but they are generally short-lived.

They mostly happen in the arch of the foot, but people also get toe cramps and calf muscle cramps.

What causes these intense, involuntary spasms of muscles?

There are many possible reasons why you get cramps; it could well be a combination of several. The main things to consider in your quest to reduce your foot cramps are:

● Dehydration?
● Lack of certain minerals, eg, magnesium, potassium or calcium?
● Lack of electrolytes? You lose these when you sweat in hot conditions, either during a hot summer or in an overheated room.
● Tightness in the ankle or foot? This could be due to flat foot syndrome or generally immobility in the feet due to excessive standing or walking in the same pattern.

Let’s face it, few of us think about our feet very much …. until they cause discomfort! Perhaps an ache from high heels, maybe blisters from new shoes or until they cramp painfully when doing Pilates.

Understanding how muscles work can help you understand what causes toe, foot and calf muscle cramps. Most muscles work in pairs – an agonist and antagonist. As one muscle (agonist) contracts, the other (antagonist) relaxes so that you get a smooth, controlled movement. If the antagonist muscle does not relax properly, a cramp develops. Conversely, if a muscle contracts suddenly and then doesn’t relax, a cramp can follow.

During your Pilates class, you are asking your feet to go into a range of different positions that you are unlikely to ask of them during your average daily activity. There is a good reason for this – having mobile, strong feet and ankles is essential for good movement patterns further up the chain, in your knees, pelvis and low back. Stiff feet are common in some elderly people, who have lost the ability to roll through the foot while walking and thus develop a solid ‘plodding’ gait: a recipe for instability and falls.

Working the instrinsic muscles of the foot is what you do during a Pilates class from a variety of positions in order to keep the foot working as nature designed it to work. When you point the toes and lift the arches of your feet, you are lengthening the muscles at front of the leg and foot; when you dorsi-flex (reach through the heel), you are lengthening the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and so on.

From my experience teaching pilates for seven years, immobile feet and ankles are the most common cause of foot cramps while doing pilates. But if immobility is addressed by the movement that causes you cramps, what should you do?

Steps to reduce likelihood of foot cramps

Massaging the fascia on the sole of the foot before class (and on a regular basis) can release tension. You can do this yourself using a small, sturdy ball, such as a tennis ball (or spiky balls designed for the purpose). Sitting on a chair, you lightly place the weight of your leg and foot down onto the ball. Roll the ball in a linear motion, back and forth, to massage the bottom of the foot.

Self-massage and focused movement of the toes and feet in your own time and own environment will also help. There are lots of foot movements you can do while relaxing by the TV or by the fire! Simple ankle rotation is invaluable –circling one way then the other about eight times each way ( or try writing the letters of the alphabet in the air with your toes!).

You could also try spreading the toes by interlocking them with your fingers, for example; or scrunching the toes to pick up a light cloth off the floor.

Try lifting and lowering the heels up to 15/20 times, while holding onto a kitchen worktop until a kettle boils or holding on a mantlepiece during an ad break?

Another exercise is simply trying to move the toes separately – so from standing and with weight on the heels, you’d lift the big toe first, then the second, then the third and so it…. it gets easier with practice!

Certainly, making sure you are drinking plenty of water encourages healthy muscle (and joint) function; try drinking more water than you currently do and also take a good long drink of water about one hour before class starts.

Also, make sure you are not short of vital minerals!

Bananas have both potassium and magnesium (not the highest magnesium score but they have it); I almost always eat a banana while driving into town to teach my classes!
Other sources of magnesium include dried figs, cashew or almond nuts, pumpkin seeds, wholewheat flour. Dried fruits such as raisins, dates or apricots have potassium.

Sources of calcium include dairy products, green vegetables, nuts, flax seeds.

Finally, if and when a cramp does strike during class, stop doing what caused it, rest out and gently massage the muscle, firmly pressing the tendons at the end of the muscles. If it’s really bad, use a warm compress later on to help the muscle to relax.