I’m sure you’ve experienced this before:
You’re running along, enjoying the nice weather and the good workout you’re having when a sudden pain leaves you stranded by the side of the track, clutching your leg in agony.
What you’ve experienced is a muscle cramp. And they suck. Not only are the first few very painful and take up to a day or two to shake off, but they can also ruin your run and leave you frustrated.
Today, you’ll learn what cramps are, why they happen and how to prevent them from occurring while running.
What are Muscle Cramps and What are the Most Common Causes?
A muscle cramp is a sudden tightening (or contracting) of a muscle that can last from just a few seconds to several minutes. It can occur while you’re sleeping, sitting, walking, and, as you’ve experienced, running.
A cramp can occur in any muscle, but runners usually experience them in the calves, quads, or hamstrings.
For the majority of people, muscle cramps often occur because of dehydration, certain mineral deficiencies, muscle tightness, and a sedentary lifestyle. According to Jamieisrunning.com, the main cause is the lack of minerals.
But, as a runner, these likely don’t apply to you at all. You understand the importance of proper nutrition, hydration, stretching, and active living much better than the average Joe.
Let’s move on to some practical ways to prevent cramps when running.
What You Can do to Prevent Cramps When Running
From the moment you get to the track, park or sidewalk for a nice run, there are several things you need to ‘check off’ to ensure that you don’t get a painful muscle cramp during your workout.
1) Be well hydrated. As we discussed above, dehydration can cause cramps, and you need to be proactive to prevent that from happening to you. Make sure that you start your run properly hydrated and drink some fluids during your workouts, especially if they pass the hour mark.
Research suggests that a 2% loss in body weight through sweat can significantly impact our athletic performance and increase our risk of cramping. There’s no one specific rule for all, but a good way to minimize dehydration is to weigh yourself before and after running to see how much fluid you’ve lost.
Of course, the temperature, humidity, run length, your body weight and predisposition to sweating all play a role here.
2) Warm up well. A good warm-up is very important for optimal performance, decreased risk of injury, and the prevention of muscle cramps. Stretching out your calves, hamstrings, and quads before and after running is a great way to ensure that tension doesn’t build up that would eventually result in cramping.
3) Practice good form throughout your run. Yes, running seems like a very simple and straightforward activity, but certain minutiae can be the difference between a pain-free workout and the unpleasant feeling of cramping up.
And not only does good form result in a more efficient movement pattern, making it easier for you to run longer distances, but it also ensures that your leg muscles work evenly and your poor calves don’t pick up all the slack.
Now, good running technique includes:
- Head and chest up, shoulders back, and back neutral. Rounding of your upper body while running can make your hamstrings and glutes cramp up. Actively engaging your ab muscles can help you maintain good posture while running.
- Avoiding hyperextension of your lower back while running because it can lead to an injury and cramping of your hamstrings. And on that note:
- Breathe consistently. As we get tired, we tend to start taking more shallow breaths, but this can directly impact form. Instead, actively engage your diaphragm muscle by taking in 8-12 deep breaths through the nose once every 20-30 minutes, or when you start feeling like your breaths start getting too shallow. A well-engaged diaphragm allows hip support which helps us maintain consistent from throughout the run.
- Proper and consistent foot strike. Avoid landing each step on your toes or heels because you are unevenly distributing the impact force, you are slowing down your forward momentum, and you are overworking some muscles while ignoring others. A surefire way to get cramps when running.
Instead, try to land each strike with your mid-foot where most of your foot strikes the ground at once. This distributes the impact force more evenly, engages your calves, quads, and hamstrings in a more balanced manner and allows you to run longer distances without over-fatiguing a certain muscle group.
4) Include short periods of walking to rest a bit and avoid form breakdown. If you are relatively new to running and haven’t yet built up the endurance, start at a smaller scale.
You see, the more fatigued we become, the more our body looks for ways to overcompensate and keep us going. This results in poor form, overuse of certain muscles, injuries, and cramps.
If you start feeling like you are getting too fatigued to maintain good form, take a short break and walk for a minute or two before resuming your run. Over time, as you build your aerobic capacity, you’ll be able to cover longer and longer distances with proper form.
Other Effective Ways to Prevent Cramps
While away from the track, there are three main ways to ensure that muscle cramps don’t occur.
Have a well-balanced diet
The typical western diet lacks many essential nutrients that our body needs. Three important players for the prevention of muscle cramps are magnesium and calcium.
Low levels of calcium or magnesium in the blood can also contribute to muscle cramps. Foods such as dairy, spinach, almonds, and bananas are great sources for both minerals and should be a regular part of your diet.
Take a few days off to dissipate some of the muscle fatigue
Accumulated muscle fatigue can also cause muscle cramps, especially in hard-working muscles like the calves. Taking a few days of recovery from regular running every so often can help you reduce the muscle fatigue and experience fewer muscle cramps over the long run.
Strengthen your leg muscles
We often think of running when our goal is to become better runners. But, a stronger muscle can produce the same amount of force by contracting fewer muscle fibers. This means that, over the duration of a given run, you exhaust your muscles less and decrease the chance of them cramping up.
Because of that, having a strength routine for your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes is a great way to become a more efficient runner and avoid cramps.