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Cramp in races

Do you suffer from cramp in races? Or even in training?  I used to. My first few marathons were complete cramp fests, and it was obvious to me that if I could stop the cramps from happening, I would be able to improve my time by at least 20 minutes, so I started researching and experimenting on myself, and this is what I found…

What is cramp?

Cramp is a very strong muscle contraction that doesn’t let up. It can be quite painful, and it can stop you being able to use the muscle in the way its supposed to be used.  For example if you get a cramp in your calf, it will often cause your foot to point, which means running normally is impossible.  Even if the cramp does release quite quickly, it often leaves you with a lingering pain, either because not all fibres have returned to their lengthened position, or the cramping has caused some tearing of muscle fibres.  Think if your calf cramps mid-stride and you put your foot down as you continue your running stride, forcing the calf to stretch, some of those tightened muscle fibres are going to rip.

Why do we get cramp?

There doesn’t seem to be any particularly positive reason for getting cramp.  Often it happens in high stress situations, like running a race, so it doesn’t tally with being a useful part of the fight or flight response.  Instead it seems to be a deficiency.  The truth is, there is no definitive one cause of cramp but it seems to be a reaction to the muscle not getting all it needs to operate.  So, a deficiency in water, a deficiency in electrolytes, and muscle fatigue – which can be a result of a deficiency in appropriate training or tapering prior to the race.

How can we prevent it?

Simply, fix the deficiencies.  If its due to undertraining, fix that – when you’re doing a race, respect the distance and make sure you’re adequately trained, and appropriately tapered to handle the race.  Your first marathon when your longest run was 12 miles 2 months ago isn’t going to end well, for example.

Hydrate – and I don’t mean just water.  This is where hydration using those specialised hydration tablets to restore your electrolytes comes in.  You don’t just sweat out water, but you sweat out salts too. By drinking this electrolyte drink during your race, you are actually preventing dehydration much better, as the body is better able to absorb water with added electrolytes when you’re in a race situation with the added stress to your body that brings.

Training

As well as doing adequate run training, another element of training that can really help with cramps prevention is resistance training aka strength training/ weights.  By challenging your body to move muscles through full range of motion with weights repeatedly until they are screaming for you to stop, you are getting all your muscles much more capable of coping with fatigue.  When you do stop, and then start again, you are working slightly tired muscles, but by doing this, you are also teaching them to get a whole lot quicker at recovery.

So, in summary, the specific cause of cramp is unknown, but it is thought, and experience tells us that it is due to a combination of dehydration, depleted electrolytes and under training.  It can be avoided by reversing these things.  To learn more about how you can use nutrition to prevent cramps, check out my marathon nutrition guide here.

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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