By Susan S. Paul, MS, TSF Training Program Director
The original theory on muscle cramping was developed in the 1930’s and dehydration was cited as the primary cause. While dehydration is still commonly thought to be the number one cause of muscle cramping by many, recent research raises doubt about this assumption. In fact, results of several recent studies found no evidence at all that dehydration or electrolyte imbalance played a role. Rather, these studies found that age, a high body mass index, a lack of stretching, muscle fatigue, and a family history of cramping were the primary culprits of muscle cramping.
Muscle fatigue is suspected as being the primary cause of muscle cramping because it appears that fatigue creates a breakdown in communication between the Central Nervous System and the Muscular System. Good communication between these two systems is critical for proper muscle control and movement. Muscle cramping is suspected to be the end result of miscommunication between these two body systems when fatigue sets in.
Studies have also shown that muscles crossing two joints are more prone to cramping than muscles that cross only one joint due to the increased workload on the muscle. The gastrocnemius, one of the calf muscles, crosses both the knee and ankle joint. It assists knee flexion and ankle extension, and happens to be the most commonly reported muscle that cramps during activity.
So what’s a runner to do? Summer has arrived and it’s time to train for the Fall Marathons! The good news is that some of the factors cited by these studies as responsible for muscle cramping are within our control. Our weight, muscular strength, and stretching habits are up to us. We can minimize the risk of cramping by losing the extra pounds, stretching frequently, and adding strength training to our routine.
Muscle Cramping Prevention Tips
Follow the three basic training principles of Frequency, Intensity, and Duration. For proper duration, add mileage incrementally by increasing total weekly mileage volume by 10 to 20 percent a week. Next, vary the pace of your training runs. For long runs, stay comfortable. This means you should be able to carry on a conversation while running. On shorter runs, pick up the pace. Running every other day is adequate frequency for most; but, for those running 5 or 6 days a week, alternate hard days with easy days. Always allow at least one day a week completely off for rest and recovery.
SPECIFICITY OF TRAINING
Your training should replicate the demands of your targeted race. Research the course, road surfaces, elevation and altitude changes, the weather, start time, etc. and simulate these conditions as best you can during training.
Stretching improves circulation. An increase in circulation provides muscles with oxygen and nutrients which facilitate recovery. Stretch after activity when muscles and connective tissue are warm and pliable.
Muscle weakness leads to muscle imbalances, injuries, and inefficient movement patterns. Muscles that are on overload are much more likely to fatigue and cramp. Strengthen weak areas to improve your running form and reduce your fatigue level.
Consume a balanced diet of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and some fat to stabilize blood sugar levels and control appetite. Eating before, during, and after runs is important for performance, as well as, for recovery. Avoid overeating; it’s all too easy to ‘out eat’ your running even when marathon training.
Stay hydrated. Drink at least 64 ounces of water daily. Plan water stops during your runs.
Runners risk flushing out electrolytes and may need to add them back in to their diet in supplement form. Many sports drinks contain electrolytes or take them in capsule form.
Regular massage treatments may also help prevent cramping by promoting good circulation. Circulation is essential for healthy muscles.
What To Do If You Cramp
• Stop running and apply direct pressure to the affected muscle with your hand, finger, or thumb. Hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat as needed.
• Gently stretch the affected area, if possible. Move slowly because movement can cause the opposing muscle to cramp.
• Once the cramp subsides, begin with a slow walk and gradually increase the pace.
• Ice the affected area when you complete your run.
• Take an ice bath after your run.