Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: Foot Cramps

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

Friday Q&A: Foot Cramps

Feet of a Kneeling Man by Albrect Durer

Q: I'm having this ongoing cramping of the feet, mostly the arch during yoga classes. The cramping I experience happens is not flex, such as in seal or cobra or even in a kneeling pose where the top of my foot is on the mat. It's then I get the cramp in the upper arch of my foot. Each foot will cramp and sometimes both cramp at the same time. I've read about electrolyte balance and eating bananas and I have a pretty healthy diet and I practice yoga in a studio 5 days a week. I've been cramping almost from the beginning of doing yoga, about 2 years ago.
A: This is a common experience for most yoga practitioners, certainly when they first begin doing yoga asana but even over time. I know that both Nina and I have experienced this first hand, so we are empathetic to your plight! That said, before I make some recommendations for this reader, it might be nice for all of us to have a better understanding of what I jokingly refer to as “the deadly yoga foot cramp” (of course, no one has actually died from foot cramps, but, boy do they hurt!).
Basically, a cramp is a sudden and involuntary (you can say that again!) contraction of one or more of your muscles. In the case of your foot, the cramp is most likely in the smaller muscles that reside solely in your foot—the “intrinsic" muscles of the foot—but may also involve those that originate near the knee and end on one of the foot bones—the “extrinsic” muscles of the foot. 
Although not all of us experience foot cramps, most of us probably have experienced a muscle cramp elsewhere in our body, quite commonly at night in the calf (a charley horse). This can very painful until the cramp subsides. However, if weren’t for the pain and the muscle going offline temporarily, we wouldn’t likely even talk about muscle cramps! And, although when you are in the midst of a sudden foot cramp in class or at home, it seems like it may last forever, it usually resolves in seconds or minutes, especially if you come out of the pose you’re doing and do a little self-care to help things along. 
Although the foot cramps themselves are harmless, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the cause might be, because in some cases, they may indicate a more serious underlying problem. 
Even though in many cases the exact cause of muscle cramps is unknown, for those who have them often there are certain typical causes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) website has a pretty exhaustive list of possible causes, including some pretty serious underlying health issues, such as Parkinson’s disease, chronic kidney disease, and nerve damage. But for the average yoga practitioner, the most common causes include heavy exercise that results in overuse of muscles, dehydration, low levels of calcium and magnesium, hyperventilation, and pregnancy, especially in the last trimester.
How should you decide if persistent foot cramps need to be further evaluated by your doctor? According to the Mayo Clinic, you may want to have a more thorough evaluation with your physician if you have any of the following: 
  • Severe discomfort 
  • Swelling, redness, or skin changes in the leg or foot with the foot cramp 
  • Muscle weakness in the leg or foot with the foot cramp
  • Frequent occurrences of cramping
  • Cramps that do not improve with your self-care 
  • You can’t associate the cramps with an obvious cause, such as heavy exercise

Now we’ll briefly discuss some self-care techniques you can use when you are experiencing a foot cramp. This will be followed by information about what you can do to prevent future foot cramps.
Self-Care for Foot Cramps 
During an acute foot cramp, I have always found that coming out of the pose that is triggering it, and stretching and massaging the part of my foot that’s cramping seems to speed up the release of the cramp and my return to my practice. I often do the stretch described as number 3 below under warm-up practices or a High Lunge pose with the cramping foot as the back foot. 
Medical sources suggest the use of ice or heat, but I always find that the foot cramps resolve long before I am able to get to anything like that, so that suggestion would be for the more unusual and persistent forms of cramping.
Preventing Future Foot Cramps 
There are certain factors that put you at more risk of getting muscle cramps in the first place. They include advancing age, pregnancy, certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, and dehydration (which is also a cause of cramps!). Although the only one of these factors you can actually eliminate is dehydration (hydrate yourself!), if you have any of those conditions, stretching your muscles in sensitive areas before and after your yoga practice may help prevent future foot cramps. 
But, hey, wait a minute! Aren’t I already stretching my muscles simply by virtue of doing yoga poses? Well, a beginner might think such a thing, but experienced yoga practitioners know that many poses involve the contraction and strengthening of muscles to enter, maintain, and exit a pose. And, in some traditions, the poses are held for several minutes, probably enough time for a sensitive muscle to cramp and spasm. 
So, if you suffer from frequent foot cramps during your practice, you might want to develop a foot warm-up sequence to do before or/and after your regular class or home practice. A few ideas for a foot warm-up sequence:
  1. Massage your foot by hand for a minute or so before activity.
  2. In a seated or standing position, roll a tennis ball systematically between the sole of your foot and the floor to massage and release tension in the muscles of the foot.
  3. From a kneeling position, turn your toes under and sit back on your heels with your hands on the floor in front of your knees or on your thighs to stretch the muscles and fascia on soles of the feet.
  4. In Reclined Leg Stretch pose, place the strap on the arch of your foot and rock it side to side to massage the muscles on the sole.
  5. Stand facing a wall, about a foot away, with your hands on the wall at chest level. Step one foot back about three feet into Warrior 1 position, and then bend the front knee toward wall to get a good calf stretch for your back leg.
  6. When practicing standing poses, imagine your toes relaxing and releasing away from the balls of the feet, instead of clawing the floor.
  7. For our reader and others who are experiencing cramps in a more unusual location of the feet, poses that stretch the tops of the feet, such as Hero pose (Virasana) and Thunderbolt pose (Vajrasana), or if it’s comfortable for you, Reclined Hero pose (Supta Virasana), might be helpful.
  8. A note from Nina, who finds that in Cobra pose, if she activates her hamstrings, her feet don’t cramp! Thanks, Nina, and good to know! 

For most practitioners, foot cramps tend to become fewer and farther between with more consistent time spent out of shoes and doing yoga on a more regular basis. That said, I still get them on occasion, too, and have to actually take my own advice. Hope this information helps!
—Baxter
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