Whether you’re an avid runner with a marathon experience under your belt or a beginner, be aware that cramps are common. Cramping up can be a serious issue that can ruin your running experience and performance.
On top of that, cramps usually come out of nowhere. That said, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the type of cramps and how to prevent them. You should also learn what to do when you cramp up while running so that you can act on it quickly. Equipped with this knowledge, you’re more likely to enjoy running.
How Often Do Athletes Cramp up While Running?
You might be surprised, but cramps are more common than you’d think and it’s not only beginner runners who tend to cramp up. Experienced runners are susceptible to them as well, and everyone dreads them and wants to steer clear of them.
The chances of cramping up increase as the running distance gets longer. That’s the reason most marathon runners experience them just as they’re finishing the last mile.
Now you know you shouldn’t worry too much if you get a cramp the next time you go on a run. After all, even the best athletes can’t always prevent cramps. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t neglect this issue altogether.
Types of Cramps
Some runners have cramps in their stomach – others get charlie horse in a calf. Perhaps you have experienced cramps in other parts of your body. Unfortunately, as you can see, there are different types of cramps. Let’s explore them in detail.
A stitch or a side cramp is a sharp pain runners feel on either side of the abdomen, mostly below the ribcage. While the studies on side cramps aren’t still quite clear, the cause could be shallow breathing. Namely, the diaphragm tends to cramp up if the breath is shallow, causing cramps in the side abdomen.
It’s also the reason beginner runners experience a side cramp more often than experienced runners. However, elite athletes aren’t always immune to them. In fact, sometimes, the cause of the side cramp is the electrolyte imbalance.
Shoulder pain can also accompany a side cramp. Since the abdomen is irritated, the pain can appear in other parts of the body as well.
Stomach cramps, otherwise known as a runner’s stomach or a runner’s belly, are never fun. Stomach cramps can be excruciating, but that’s not all. The common symptoms that follow stomach cramps are diarrhea and nausea.
Several things can cause stomach cramps – improper diet, hormone imbalance, and running itself. When you run for an extended period, the digestive system doesn’t get enough blood flow. As a result, your stomach is irritated, causing pain, nausea, or diarrhea.
There isn’t a runner that hasn’t experienced muscle cramps at least once on their run. Muscle cramps, or charlie horse in the legs and calves, are pesky and often seem as if they will never go away.
Generally speaking, muscle cramps are likely to happen when athletes are finishing a run because their legs are more tired. Like with other types of cramps, these can affect both beginners and elite runners.
Although it might be tempting to keep running if you’re near the end of a race, this might not be a good idea. If you power through, you could tear your leg muscle.
As you see, all athletes need to be aware that cramps are common. They affect beginners, but also pro runners. No one is immune to this painful and annoying issue, but what is the cause of cramps? Is it running itself, the hormonal imbalance, or something else?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one reason why cramps happen. That’s why runners should get informed about different causes. We’re not saying you should become an expert. However, if you know the reasons behind your cramps, you could prevent them in the future.
One of the common causes is shallow breathing. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts causing your lungs to expand. But when you’re short of breath while running, this can overwork the diaphragm. Because of that, it tends to cramp up, thus causing cramps in one’s body. Think of it as your body telling you that you’re not breathing properly.
Poor Blood Flow
Another reason could also be poor blood flow. While running, blood gets to the cardiovascular system instead of going to the digestive system. Since the digestive system isn’t getting enough blood, it alerts you by cramping up.
Everybody knows the importance of warming up before running. Doing so enables your body to prepare for the activity and ensures there’s enough oxygen in muscles. Unfortunately, not everybody takes the time to warm up properly.
Sometimes you’re too excited to start the marathon. Other times you could have walked to the trail, thinking that you’re already all warmed up.
To avoid unpleasant cramps, make sure to stretch and warm up your muscles before every run. That way, you lessen the chance of losing energy while running, resulting in a cramp somewhere in your body.
Improper hydration is another common cause of cramps. While drinking too much water before running isn’t advisable, dehydration is also problematic. When you’re dehydrated, your body will let you know this by causing cramps.
Those who tend to run in high temperatures should be especially cautious.
Lack of sleep can ruin your runs. Not only will you feel tired and lethargic, but sleep deprivation can also set you up for cramps. When your body is tired, it tends to cramp more. So if you notice you’re cramping up more when you haven’t had enough sleep, lack of sleep could be the cause.
Any electrolyte imbalance can affect a runner’s performance. In addition, a lack of potassium and sodium also tends to cause cramps.
When you run, your body sweats, thus losing sodium. Combine it with a diet low in potassium, and you’re setting yourself up for cramps. In most cases, electrolyte imbalance contributes to leg or calf cramps. These muscles tend to cramp up when they lack potassium, thus causing spasms.
Eating Before Running
Having a nutritious snack before running is good for increasing energy levels and improving performance. However, eating too close to a run isn’t a good idea. Large meals require more energy to digest. When you consume a hearty meal before a run, your blood flow is directed to the stomach and other internal organs, which speeds the digestive processes.
Other large muscles, such as legs and arms, aren’t getting enough blood. Therefore, these muscles tend to contract, causing those uncomfortable and painful cramps.
Unfortunately, cramps can be a side-effect of some medications as well. Do you take some drugs? Then check the list of medications that can produce muscle spasms.
When you’re exhausted from a run, the muscles are also tired, and tired or weak muscles tend to cramp up more. That often happens because they aren’t able to contract properly anymore.
How to Prevent Cramps While Running?
Although an annoying and painful problem, it’s possible to prevent cramps. However, there are some things you should incorporate into your daily routine.
Try Breathing Techniques
As improper or shallow breathing can cause cramps, the key is to learn how to breathe properly. If you’re a beginner, it will help improve your performance and reduce the chance of cramping up.
Explore different breathing techniques and make sure to practice them even on your rest days. For example, you could breathe in for a count of five and breathe out for a count of five. Remember this technique on your next run and try to use it. You won’t be out of breath, and you’ll less likely experience cramping.
Don’t Skip Warming Up
No matter how boring warming up and stretching may be, don’t skip on it! Spending a couple of minutes stretching before running warms up your muscles and gives your body time to get ready for the activity.
What’s more, a couple of stretching exercises ensure your muscles don’t cramp up while running. Plus, it reduces the chance of injuries.
Do you avoid drinking water before a run thinking it’ll make you sluggish and cause sloshing? It’s time to change that. Staying hydrated might not prevent cramps altogether, but it can decrease the chance of your body giving up on you and cramping. Moreover, when you’re hydrated, the cramps are much less painful.
Note: If you often forget to drink water and don’t always notice the thirst signals, set an alarm. That way, you won’t dehydrate.
Get Enough Electrolytes
Replenishing electrolytes is another method that can help with cramps. The easiest way to do so is to eat food rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, or sodium before physical activity, including running.
For instance, eat a banana or drink yogurt before your next run. These foods are rich in nutrients you need to boost your electrolyte levels.
Runners could also add drinks with electrolytes, such as coconut water, milk, smoothies with bananas and kale, and electrolyte-infused water.
Maintain the Pace
Starting the run too fast can cause cramps because you suddenly expose your body to too much activity. That’s why you should take things slowly. Increase the speed when you’re warmed up a bit.
If you’re still a beginner, don’t push yourself too much. Maintain the pace that works for you until you get used to breathing and moving.
See a Physician
If cramping is a common issue, then you might see a physician. Perhaps there’s a medical reason your muscles tend to cramp. They might even change the medications you’re taking to reduce the cramps.
How Your Diet Impacts Cramps
Getting familiar with factors that can contribute to cramps and solutions is vital in reducing the chance of muscle spasms. But diet matters equally.
A healthy diet rich in different nutrients can increase your energy levels, improve your running performance, and help the post-recovery. Furthermore, it can have a significant impact on cramps. In general, food containing sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium can help with muscle contraction.
That’s why it’s a good idea to eat bananas, melons, avocados, sweet pumpkin, and fish. You can also include leafy greens in your diet and nuts and seeds, as these are rich in calcium. Finally, consuming foods containing magnesium, such as legumes, dark chocolate, and brown rice, can help relax your muscles. When muscles are rested, they’re less likely to cramp.
Check the Ingredients
Particular ingredients tend to cause cramps much more than others. For instance, too much sugar is often responsible for those painful stomach cramps. That’s why you should avoid foods with high sugar levels. These tend to mess up with your digestive tract when you exercise, often resulting in diarrhea.
If you have a sweet tooth, it’s OK to eat a piece of cake, chocolate, or cookies moderately. Just don’t eat such food before running if you want to avoid cramps.
Cut Down on Caffeine
If you’ve got a sensitive stomach, a cup of coffee could cause stomach issues and cramps. That said, cut down on caffeine, especially before running. On the other hand, if coffee doesn’t cause you any issues, you can drink a warm cup of this beverage an hour before running.
Track Which Food Causes Cramps
If you notice cramps are more common after you’ve eaten particular food, listen to your body. Perhaps it’s time to remove this food from your diet, or at least decrease its intake.
It might be a good idea to write a journal and write down what you eat before running. That way, you can pinpoint the exact food that bothers your stomach or causes muscle spasms.
Don’t Eat Right Before Running
Although the choice of food in your diet can decrease cramps when you eat matters, Eating right before running isn’t a good idea. It particularly applies to full meals. When you eat just before running, your body uses energy to digest this food. In turn, blood tends to flow to the stomach, causing digestive issues, such as stomach cramps.
If your run is between meals, grab a snack 30 minutes before running. But if you need to eat, wait for at least two hours before running.
What to Do When You Cramp While Running?
Changing your diet, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and warming up before a run can reduce the chance of cramping while running. However, cramps can still happen. T|he worst of all is that you can’t predict when you’ll cramp up. It could be a few minutes into your run or just as you’re finishing the race.
Besides being painful, cramps can ruin your running experience. Fortunately, there are a few things you could do if they still happen while you’re running. The key with cramps is to pull off to the side and do a few tricks.
Dealing With the Side Stitch and Stomach Cramps
If the side stitch or stomach cramps happen mid-run, you should stand as straight as possible. Try to take a few deep, belly breaths and apply slight pressure to the area that hurts. Hold like that for several moments or until the pain is less intense.
You could also try raising the opposite arm and gently stretching. For example, if there’s a pain in the left side of the abdomen, raise the right arm.
Walk slowly and take a few deep breaths. If the pain stops, you can continue running, but don’t push yourself.
Dealing With the Calf and Leg Cramps
If you experience calf cramps, sink into a lunge. If the cramp is in the right calf, then step the left leg forward. Stretch gently until the pain subsides. You can also do a couple of walking lunges for a more deep stretch.
If there’s a wall nearby, use it to hold onto while stretching the leg with the cramp. Press the heel against the floor and point your toes forward. Do this for around 30 seconds and repeat if you’re still feeling a cramp.
If you have a charlie horse in your quads, you can relieve cramps by grabbing the back of the foot of the cramped leg. Make sure to hold against a wall for balance. The knee of the leg should be pointed towards the floor so that you can feel the stretch.
Although cramps are painful, unpleasant, and can hamper the run, athletes should be aware that cramps are common. They affect beginner runners but elite athletes as well. The good news is that you can do some things to prevent the cramps from happening. Pay attention to your diet, don’t eat right before running, and make sure to stretch.
Listening to the signs your body is giving, you can also help prevent cramps. If you do experience them while running, follow our tips to relieve the pain quickly. Enjoy running!