Cramp And Running

Why runners get cramp, and how to avoid and treat it
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Cramp When Running

By Coach Tim, We Run Coach for Cardiff and the We Run Online Running Clubcoach tim circle

Let’s talk about cramp and running. Pushing yourself towards a running goal can be painful enough on the legs without a shot with a bullet from the cramp-gun. The feeling of part of your leg(s) being gripped in a vice can derail a PB attempt and add agonising minutes onto your race time. It’s impossible to completely eliminate the chance of running cramp occurring but, by understanding why runners get cramp, you can take steps to reduce the risk.

Avoid Cramp Whilst Running – Practise

Running cramp occurs when your body does something it’s not used to – excessively. Unfortunately, training for a tough running goal is often pretty intense! However, you can get your legs accustomed to what they’ll be doing in your target race or event by practising. For example, during marathon training, you could try doing some of your longer runs at marathon pace, and doing some of your training runs on similar terrain – if it’s a hilly course then do some hilly long runs, if it’s a trail marathon then do some long runs on trails. Practising whatever it is you’re training for reduces the risk that you ask something of your body that it’s not used to – reducing the risk of developing cramp whilst running.

Work On Your Form

People tend to look worse at the end of a tough race than at the start – this obvious observation leads to another cause of running cramps. When a runner’s form starts to slip they run in a different manner – in similar reasoning to my previous point, their bodies aren’t used to running in this way. This can lead to cramps. To remove this cause of cramp you need to remove the loss of running form. There are a few ways to do this:

– Practise strides (runs at around 70% effort) at the end of some of your training runs. When striding, focus on your form. Are your hips high? Are you plodding? Are your shoulders slouched?
– Work on your core: A strong core helps keep you upright. Further information can be found in this post about the importance of core strength in running
– Take a regular check of your form towards the end of training runs and during the race itself
– If you’re worried your form is generally quite poor, consider doing some running drills before you run

Make Sure You’re Ready To Complete Your Target Event (And Complete It In Your Goal Time)

People who undertrain are the most likely to suffer from cramps whilst running. When training for a marathon, for example, your longest training run should ideally be 20 miles or more, but make sure you’ve done 18 miles in practise at the very least. Your best option is to follow a running training plan, which will get your body where it needs to be, safely.

In addition to this, make sure your goal time is realistic. A training plan to a specific goal time can help here. If keeping up with the plan is too hard, then you probably need to lower your expectations.

Running & Cramp; The Salt/Electrolyte Deficiency Question

According to scientific research, this isn’t a cause of cramps. Timothy Noakes, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc. an Exercise Scientist from the University of Cape Town, calls it ‘bogus science’ making the point that if cramps were purely caused from dehydration, people would cramp in hot baths or by walking around on a hot day. That isn’t to say you should neglect electrolyte intake. You can reduce your chances of cramping by staying hydrated (see this blog post discussing how to fuel for a marathon for some general advice on this.)

How To Treat Running Cramps

If you do all of the above and still succumb to cramps; stop running, gently stretch and massage the afflicted muscle(s), try and get some fluid on board and resume running slowly.

what you need to do
  • Use a training plan to make sure your goal is realistic and your body is ready to take on whatever target you’re training towards

  • Practise for race day – make sure you’ve practised running at your target race pace, and on similar terrain to your race course

  • Pay attention to your form when you are fatigued

  • Make sure you are sufficiently hydrated

  • If all else fails, treat cramps by gently stretching and massage and by resuming running slowly