There can be nothing worse than going out for a much anticipated enjoyable run, but only to be plagued with cramp during the session. There are some runners sufficiently fortunate in not suffering from cramps, while for others it seems to be a constant source of irritation. Running cramps can basically be categorised into two main areas, muscle cramps in the leg and the ‘stitch’ or stomach cramp in the upper body. Both are painful and preventable, but can be cured and avoided by different means.
Sportsman of various disciplines can be affected by leg cramps, whether they are professional footballers or runners. How often have footballers been seen to collapse to the floor seeking the assistance of a team member to help alleviate a problem. Runners often do not have the luxury of a grassed area to fall onto, but they can have cramps in the same areas of the leg, usually the hamstring or calf.
But what causes leg cramps and how can they be avoided.
Causes and remedies
Muscle cramps in the leg usually involve a sudden pain in the affected muscle with associated tightening and it will tend to become unusable. The affliction can be caused by…
Drinking fluid is an essential act of life and the body needs a constant source of it just to maintain normal activity. Running normally causes the body to sweat and lose body fluid, especially in warmer conditions. Unless the fluid is replaced, the leg muscles will lose their functionality and cease to operate resulting in cramp. Drinking sufficient amounts of water (avoid drinking gallons) before a training run should prevent an attack of leg cramp.
If a long training run in warmer weather is planned, a small hand water carrier can be a useful purchase, or plan ahead and leave some water in a concealed place. Excessive alcohol drinking can also cause dehydration.
Walking or running extreme distances can cause the leg muscles to tire and eventually cramp. For example, an athlete attempting a marathon should have practised running long distances several weeks before attempting the race. This enables the muscles to become accustomed to long distance running. Any attempt to suddenly increase training distances from 3 miles to approximately 20 will lead to the leg muscles rebelling.
3. A lack of salt, electrolytes or minerals.
This can be similar to the dehydration problem above, where the body needs regular replenishment of these vital ingredients. There may be dietary problems associated with these cramp related issues and extra may need to be taken. Isotonic drinks, available in many shops, are a good source of electrolytes, while studies have shown that a good intake of magnesium can prevent leg cramps. Magnesium is available in leafy green vegetables and whole grain foods.
Anybody sufficiently unlucky to experience a leg cramp will want swift and decisive action to remedy the action. Running with cramps is just not possible.
Stretching the affected muscle is perhaps the only immediate cure. For a calf muscle cramp, extend your good leg and with you’re the foot of the cramped leg flat on the ground, place maximum weight on the good leg for twenty to thirty seconds. For hamstrings, the affected leg should be stretched out with the foot pointing backwards for the same length of time.
Any attempt to run long distances with cramped legs could result in a more serious running injury.
Upper Body Cramps
These are cramps where the ‘stitch’ gradually appears at the side of the body, or the stomach itself is affected by cramp. Quite often these are caused by eating habits and it is usually a case of learning about your own body as you are running. Some people are never affected, while others suffer incessantly and are constantly trying to adopt new eating patterns.
Causes and Remedies.
1. Too much food/drink intake.
It might be stating the obvious but do not attempt any running shortly after a big meal and certainly not after a large breakfast of bacon and sausages. The stomach muscles just cannot cope with digesting food and the bouncing effect of running at the same time. Similarly, drinking copious amounts of water has the same effect.
2. Too Little food.
For some people, some food at least two hours before a training session or race is essential. Otherwise the ‘stitch’ occurs. A banana often helps as these also provide a good source of energy.
3. Shallow breathing.
When out for a training session, research has shown that long deep breaths are often better exercise than shallow breaths. The muscles expand much more freely. Short breaths have been attributed to mild cases of stomach cramps.
The ‘stitch’ and the stomach cramps do not prevent the legs working and so running is still possible, but each stride is sometimes agonising, and the pained expression on an athlete’s face is often a sign of running with cramp in the upper body.
There are ways and means of alleviating the problem as it occurs. One theory is that bending and touching toes several times instantly rectifies a stitch, while Jeff Galloway, a coach for many years and who competed in the 1972 Olympic Games, advocates pressing both sides of the body and breathing deeply. He has also suggested that starting too fast can often lead to stomach cramps.
Another preventative cure devised by army marines involves pre-stretching with side body twists and abdominal exercises, but with upper body running cramps it is a case of what works for some people does not work for others.
With any form of running cramp, listen to your and try to think of what might have induced the problem. Every human body and metabolism rate is different and each runner will learn through experience a way of avoiding cramp. Generally, if runners eat, drink and train sensibly then cramp can easily be avoided and with it, the prospect of exacerbating it further by risking a more serious running injury.