Every runner has been there. One moment you feel strong and fast but a split-second later you stop dead in your tracks due to sudden muscle cramps. When the rapid onset of pain happens during a race, your goal can quickly switch from running a personal best time to simply finishing the distance.
We caught up with Anna Weber, an elite runner and Olympic trials qualifier, to find out why we get muscle cramps and what we can do to prevent them.
What is a Muscle Cramp & Why Do Runners Get Them?
Firstly, you should not confuse a muscle cramp with muscle soreness. General muscle soreness occurs gradually, is symmetrically observed in both sides of the body, and typically appears after exercise.
In contrast, a muscle cramp appears suddenly in a single localized area (usually a large muscle group). It may then move around e.g. by migrating from hamstring to calf. In addition, a muscle cramp sometimes feels like a large “knot” in the affected area.
Although runners can experience muscle cramps in any part of their body, the most typical locations include:
In each instance a combination of factors cause the sudden pain including muscle fatigue, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes, particularly potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium, are important for regulating the contraction and relaxation of muscles. When these minerals are not in the proper balance (typically due to mineral loss via sweat), muscles may no longer function properly. This can cause painful abrupt muscle constriction.
How Can Runners Avoid Muscle Cramps?
My top tip for avoiding muscle cramps is to maintain proper hydration, particularly during long or hard workouts. You should consume electrolyte replenishing sources, such as sports drinks or electrolyte sprays, during and after exercise. This is important for any run lasting longer than 60 minutes.
A runner should understand his or her individual sweat rate (i.e. the amount of sweat loss per hour of exercise). Once this is known, you can plan your fluid intake during workouts and long runs in order to avoid dehydration.
Runners should also be vigilant to avoid overworking their muscles. This can be achieved by not attempting a workout until prepared to handle the volume or intensity.
How Can I Make a Cramp Go Away?
Once a runner begins to experience a cramp, the best course of action is to stretch the muscle. If you catch the cramp immediately, stretching can reduce the painful symptoms.
While no runner wants to take a stretch break during a race, doing so can prevent injury later in the competition. This is particularly important if stride pattern changes due to a persistent painful cramp.
A second option is to lightly massage the cramp. This technique is useful for side stitches, where a runner can physically grab the painful area to ease the tension without breaking stride.
About the Author
Anna Weber is an elite runner from Indianapolis, USA. In July 2015 she made the brave decision to put her PhD in Analytical Chemistry on hold so that she could follow her true passion – running. Since then she has worked harder than ever before and in October 2015 she qualified for the Olympic Trials at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in a time of 2:38:39.
Anna’s huge success is recognized by the running apparel company Oiselle, whose mission is to provide inspiration and support to women of all running levels. Oiselle have made Anna a member of their Haute Volée team which is their Elite Team.
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