Muscle cramps while running may be common, but they’re definitely not necessary.
As a running coach, my main aim is to make sure our runners work towards achieve their goals, while keeping it enjoyable. And muscle cramps definitely don’t fit into that equation.
For roughly 3 years of my running life, I found myself battling calf cramps constantly. Waking from a dead sleep in agony, finishing a marathon then finding myself unable to walk to the hotel, tapping my toe to a great song, and then yelping clearly off-key.
Notice I said that only happened for 3 of the over 20 years I’ve been hitting the pavement.
This was early in my distance running days and before I so excited to research solutions. But then I did and now you get the benefit of my many miles as a runner and running coach.
Let’s talk about what causes muscle cramps and the 7 things runners can do to prevent them from ever occurring in the future. I’ve also mentioned what you need to do if your muscle cramps don’t seem to resolve.
What Exactly are Cramps?
Cramps are painful, involuntary muscle contractions. In runners, muscle cramps often happen in the calf muscles (both the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle), the hamstrings, and quads. Yes, this means all the main big muscles.
Cramping can occur before, during, or after a run. Many people have cramps several hours later, sometimes while sleeping. Involuntary calf muscle contraction causes excruciating pain and may even cause the ankle to flex.
Cramps force the muscle to spasm, preventing blood flow to the area. The decreased blood flow makes it difficult to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscle. This is why you may experience tingling or cold sensations in the problem area at times.
The exact cause of leg cramps has not been determined, but there are numerous plausible causes.
What are the Symptoms of Muscle Cramps?
As runners, we’ve all experienced cramps at one point or another. The main symptoms of muscle cramps are:
- It usually starts in the more active muscle groups, such as the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles
- Gradual onset that often begins with small muscle contractions or twitches that are barely visible beneath the skin
- Cramps are usually sporadic and intermittent, rather than constant
- Cramping is usually bilateral and spreads or moves around
What Causes Cramps?
The first thing you should know about running cramps is what causes them. As I mentioned earlier, the exact cause of muscle and leg cramps has not been determined, but there are a lot of runner experiences which give us an idea.
Focusing on these causes can help us not only find the treatment for them but also help us learn how to prevent them from occurring in the future.
One of the main causes of muscle cramps during or after a run is overuse.
This includes pushing your body, especially your muscles, beyond their limits. This causes even more issues, when you’re skipping your warm up, running in hot weather and sweating excessively.
Muscle cramps are specifically induced by repetitive or sustained stress of a specific muscle group in a shortened position.
That’s why muscles like the calf muscles, which stay in a shortened position when running, are the most susceptible to cramping.
The only thing that alleviates the pain is to resolve the spasm by lengthening the affected muscle. Focusing on recovery, the right nutrition, and targeting the specific reason why you’re experiencing cramps is essential.
Other reasons why you may have cramps include:
- Running harder than you’ve trained or adapted for
- Lack of oxygen in the cells, which may happen due to sharp shallow breathing
- Being dehydrated
- Deficiency in electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, and sodium
How to Soothe a Muscle Cramp as It’s Happening
Address the issue
The most important thing to do when experiencing a muscle cramp is to slow down, pause for a while, and address the muscle cramp first.
Do a calf stretch
If you start cramping while running, gradually slow down your pace and stop running. Now, stretch the affected leg by doing a calf stretch.
To do this, start by holding on to anything such as a tree, chair, or wall with your heels flat on the floor. Keep one leg back with your knee straight. Start leaning into whatever you’re holding on to by slowly bending your elbows and front knee. Move your hips forward until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle.
Lie on your back
If a calf stretch doesn’t help, see if you can lay on your back and straighten the leg that’s cramping in the arm. While you’re straightening your leg, point your toes towards your head Ensure that the leg is higher than your head while you try this move.
Consider massaging the affected area as this will increase blood flow and resolve the spasm.
What To Do If the Cramp and Tightness Persist?
If the muscle tightness persists for days after the start of the initial cramp, then it’s best to consult your doctor.
Your doctor will check to see if the spasms are caused by any underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, or if it’s due to something else such as vitamin deficiencies, medication side effects, etc.
There is a ton you can do to prevent a leg cramp from happening in the first place. Let’s look at what they are in the following section.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
Following are the tips that have worked for me and the athletes I coach, whether you need to get rid of cramps while running or have them sneak up on you later in the day. A few key changes to your routine could be all it takes.
#1 Get Adequate Hydration
Dehydration tends to be the first thing that most doctors will point to because it’s the easiest thing to resolve. Ensuring that you are taking in enough fluids to stay hydrated is key to keeping muscle supple.
If you’re prone to leg cramps when running, the first thing you should do is to make sure you’re staying hydrated. This is especially important in hot weather when you’re sweating more, so bring water if you’re going for a long run or doing a hard workout.
Here are a few tips to get started:
- Make sure that you drank at least 8 ounces of water 30-45 minutes before running
- Try sipping every mile
- Start carrying water on every run (Here are the best hydration packs or running belts you should check out)
Read more about keys to running hydration>>
#2 Replace Lost Electrolytes
If water doesn’t seem to be helping, the issue might be an electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, chloride, sodium, and magnesium aid in muscle function and the transmission of muscle impulses.
I learned that I was actually sweating and drinking so much water that I was washing electrolytes from my body! I needed to start adding them back in, which I’ve talked about in-depth in Electrolytes for runners.
Consider eating a well balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods to help keep your electrolytes balanced. Some great sources of electrolytes from foods include bananas, potatoes, raisins, and spinach.
But if you’re going for a long run on a hot day, you might want to bring salt pills or an electrolyte drink with you because you lose a lot of sodium through sweat.
Remember if you use a standard sports drink they have a high level of sugar, so don’t guzzle or you’ll create side stitches while running and other gut issues.
#3 Do Pre-Run and Post-Run Stretches
In order to run properly without any cramps, stretching before and even after a run is critical.
Pre-run warm-up stretches ensure that you get the blood flowing to your muscles, which allows for proper muscle function. Here we are talking about adding dynamic stretches in your warm up routine. NEVER STATIC before the run.
Post-run stretches help the muscles lengthen and relax which increases flexibility, improves range of motion, and assists with muscle soreness. Now is the time you can use some great static post run stretches.
#4 Consider Compression Therapy
“As you get tired, your muscle’s reflex control becomes dysfunctional. Instead of contracting and relaxing like they’re supposed to, they keep firing. Basically, your muscles become “twitchy” and can’t stop contracting.”
It’s no surprise that cramps happen towards the end of a race or after you’ve stopped that intense workout due to muscle fatigue. Using compression socks or tights seems to help keep the blood/oxygen flowing to the area to prevent cramps.
Read all about compression pants for runners >>
This has been a consistent practice of mine for many years after long runs or races. The constriction of the muscles helps that blood flow and makes my legs feel so much better.
#5 Strengthen Ankles and Feet
If you have weak feet or ankles that are forcing your calves to take on a larger workload, then you’re pushing towards that overuse result even faster.
Your entire chain of muscles is connected. So when one area is weak, another must compensate. When a muscle begins to compensate then it’s going to be used more than it should, which leads to those painful cramps later.
Checkout this video from Physical Therapist Stuart Wilson for some moves to work on that foundational strength in your feet.
This is part of our Prime Your Body program because we both have the goal of making running pain free!! Use code stopmycramps to get $15 off!
#7 Get Sports Massages
This goes back to improving muscle flow and releasing tension from an overworked muscle. While you’re having a cramp, attempting to massage the area is painful, but helpful in getting it to subside.
Consistent massages during training can help to ward off lots of injuries by keeping muscles aligned and working to their maximum ability.
Deep tissue or sports massages are not quite as relaxing, but they do work. Areas that you simply cannot work through with the foam roller are able to be released. This is key because your muscles simply get tighter and tighter through all of the miles and need consistent care to help them relax and repair.
#8 Restore Depleted Magnesium
Beyond electrolytes one of the minerals most useful in preventing muscle cramps is magnesium. See below for my new favorite way to keep magnesium levels up since the body does not produce it!!
Magnesium is an essential mineral that demands attention when it comes to health assessment.
It is required by virtually every cell, and it’s vital in more than 300 chemical processes that sustain basic human health and function, including muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve function, cardiac activity, blood pressure regulation, hormonal interactions, immunity, bone health and synthesis of proteins, fats and nucleic acids.
Magnesium is also crucial for energy metabolism by the activation of enzymes known as ATPases, which are needed to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate). – Pip Taylor
Post Run Slushie
Because it’s summer time, I wanted to share with you a great post run option to replenish your magnesium and prevent those muscle cramps! It’s a super easy, zero calorie, treat to cool down!
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 cups ice
- 1 scoop electrolyte powder which has magnesium – or I like to make a serving of CALM at night which is 2 scoops and only drink half. That leaves the rest for my slushie the next day, just eliminate the water.
Directions: Mmmm….blend for a few seconds, slurp for longer to prevent brain freeze.
#9 Consider Your Foot Strike
Two other factors to consider are your shoes and your form.
If you’re continuing to wear running shoes long past their replacement date, then you might have found the culprit of your muscle spams while running! Shoes breakdown over time, which then changes your form and of course means you aren’t getting the support or cushion it was designed to provide.
Secondary is running up on your toes. I talk a lot about this in preventing tight calves from running, but it’s another big cause of calf cramps because you are over working the muscle.
It’s important to spend some time thinking about your running form and foot strike to keep everything working well.
I hope all of this helped you point point what might be causing your muscle cramps from running!
Looking for more running tips?
- Beginner marathon training tips
- Learning How to Pace Yourself While Running
- Hip Strength Workouts to Help Muscle Imbalances
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