Muscle cramps can derail even the most seasoned runners’ races. One of the most common reasons for failure in the marathon is suffering from muscle cramping. There can be several causes for cramps during long races. Hence, it is necessary to deal with several factors to avoid them. The key factors are early race pace, hydration, minerals, electrolytes, weather, being adequately trained and a sufficient taper.
Pace is a major factor, probably the primary one that can lead to cramps. Running just 10-20 seconds per km faster in the first half will extract a big price in the second half in the form of a debilitating cramp. Instead, try to pace yourself. Begin slowly and speed up later.
Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can be a big factor as well. You may think you are well-hydrated, but if you are drinking mostly water, your cramps may be the result of sodium and potassium depletion. Instead, use beverages with electrolytes (like sports drinks) to rehydrate during races. The American Running Association’s Editorial Board suggests carrying a salty snack to eat about every half-hour during a race. Important to remember is to pre-load on the electrolytes instead of waiting till the cramp occurs. Use the sports drinks offered during a marathon at every opportunity to supplement and replenish mineral and electrolyte stores. Don’t wait until midway through the race to use them. Using the drink as early as you can delay the depletion of your body’s stores. If you wait until your electrolyte stores are partially diminished before using the drink, it’s too late.
With the growing research on cramps, the current theory on what causes them is muscle fatigue and failures in the neural communication pathways. Basically, you train a muscle to contract and the muscle fatigues. It, then, miscommunicates and stays contracted when it shouldn’t cause a cramp. The mechanism for muscle fatigue and muscle damage causing cramping is best explained through an imbalance that develops in the nervous system control of the muscle. Muscles tend to become very twitchy when they become fatigued or are injured. You’re more likely to get cramps, then, when your muscles are working harder and are fatiguing, such when you’re out of shape or racing hard.
Solution: Once a cramp strikes, you really only can do one thing: Take a deep breath, stop, and stretch. Static stretching has been shown to stop cramps because it inhibits muscle contraction. Then, start slow and build your speed up. If you back off early enough, you can usually prevent it. Once a cramp comes on, it can be debilitating and impossible to continue; then the only choice is to back off and do a gentle static calf stretch. Remember to hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds and do not bounce.
Precaution: One key point to remember is that a calf strain (muscle tear) can mimic a cramp. It is important that you know to distinguish the two because if you have a calf strain and you stretch it and keep running, the muscle will tear further and you will be unable to run for months depending on the severity of the damage done. Here’s how to recognize a calf strain: A grade one calf strain will be a sensation of cramping/ tightness/pain in the calf. A grade two strain will be similar to a grade one along with soreness in the calf. A grade three calf strain is very serious and is marked by an immediate burning or stabbing pain that renders the athlete unable to walk without feeling pain.
Remember: If the static stretches make the calf feel better and allow you to continue running, it is a cramp. However, if after stretching the tightness and pain does not relent or increases, it could be a strain. In this case, it is best to discontinue running to prevent further muscle tears.
Let’s hope for a cramp-free run!