Whether you are new to running or an experienced athlete training for a marathon, you’ve probably wondered how to prevent cramps while running. Running cramps can be a minor annoyance or leave you doubled over in pain. Either way, cramps during a run are frustrating. We will explain why running cramps occur, and what you can do to avoid them for a smooth and enjoyable workout.
A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of the skeletal muscles that happens in different situations. A muscle spasm interferes with the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrition muscles need to function properly. Although muscle cramps are temporary, they can be very painful and may sideline you from running for the time being.
Cramps may affect all or part of a single muscle or a larger muscle group. Anyone can experience cramps while running. Muscle cramps happen to individuals of all genders, ages, calves, stomach, and sides.
As common as muscle cramps are, their exact cause is still unknown. Muscle cramps during exercise are unpredictable and theories on causation are solely based on anecdotal and observational research at this time.
With that said, there are several factors that contribute to exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMCs):
• Cold conditions
• Dehydration and/or electrolyte depletion
• Excess caffeine and/or alcohol
• Not enough or poor quality sleep
• Poor muscle strength and conditioning
• Previous history of muscle cramps/injuries
• Prolonged training/muscle fatigue
Some muscle cramps are related to other underlying health conditions. For that reason, you should always discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
A few simple steps can help you avoid muscle cramps while running.
Water is the primary component of the human body; approximately three-quarters of muscle mass is water. When you lose more fluids than you gain, your body’s water level becomes imbalanced. Even small amounts of lost fluids can cause muscle cramps and other symptoms.
It’s not always easy to determine how much water to drink to prevent dehydration. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends an ideal water intake of around 3.7 liters of water per day for men, and 2.7 liters for women. Dark-colored urine is usually a sign that you need more water. Light-yellow urine indicates good hydration.
Be sure to spread that fluid intake out throughout your day, drinking at least 16 ounces of water or other non-caffeinated liquids about two hours before a run. While running, drink ad libitum or to the dictates of your thirst, but no more than around 13-27 ounces of water per hour. (Keep in mind, fluid recommendations vary by age, sex, pregnancy, fitness levels, and other factors. Ask your healthcare provider what is right for you.) Rehydrate after your run by drinking at least 16 ounces of water.
Electrolytes for Hydration and Muscle Function
Dehydration also occurs when the body loses more electrolytes than it takes in. Electrolytes are the essential minerals in the body’s blood and other fluids that carry an electric charge. Among other important processes in the body, electrolytes play a big part in healthy muscle function.
A study published last year in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming liquids enhanced with electrolytes was more effective than just water alone for the prevention of muscle cramps. A wide range of drinks, powders, and tablets are available to increase electrolytes and improve hydration.
Stretching is equally important before physical activity to reduce muscle cramps. Dynamic stretches are sport-specific, controlled movements that increase flexibility and range of motion before exertion. Dynamic stretches also increase blood flow and raise body temperature which may help reduce cramping.
A walking lunge is ideal for anyone who power walks, jogs, or runs. For this stretch, stand tall with your arms at your waist. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and look forward. From this starting position, take a step forward and slowly bend down until the front leg is at a 90-degree angle.
Bend the back leg and hold it for a few seconds. Step forward with the back leg and return to the starting position. Keep your core engaged and avoid collapsing your knees. Repeat 5-10 times on both sides.
Dynamic stretching is part of the warm-up process. After completing dynamic stretches, continue your warmup with jumping jacks, high-knee raises, and butt kicks. Start out with a slow jog for around 10 minutes before amping up your pace and completing your run.
We have already touched on the most effective ways to prevent muscle cramps: hydrate and stretch. If you tend to experience muscle spasms and cramps in your legs, there are some additional factors to consider.
Your footwear is incredibly important for providing adequate support, reducing undue stress on the muscles and tendons, and preventing injuries. Poorly-fitting running sneakers can lead to foot and leg cramps. You can visit a running or sporting goods store to have your feet measured and your gait and running style assessed to determine the best-fitting running shoes for your needs.
Unless you are running a competitive sprint, it’s generally not ideal to give it the gas right out of the gate. As mentioned above, a slow jog is a good way to warm the muscles and prepare the body for more intense activity.
Running too fast too soon also hinders breathing, which can lead to abdominal cramps and side stitches. Take your time and find the pace that allows you to breathe comfortably, keep a steady heart rate, and gradually increase your endurance.
Spasms or cramps in the calves are painful for runners and can significantly impede your training. Stretches that target these leg muscles can help reduce calf pain or a “charley horse” on a run.
Sit on the floor with both legs stretched out in front of you. While holding both ends of a hand towel, loop it around the ball of one foot. Keep your legs straight and pull the towel gently toward your body. Hold for 30 seconds and relax. Do this three times and repeat on the other leg.
2. Calf Raise
Begin in a standing position with your hands resting on the back of a chair for balance. Bend the left knee and lift the left foot. Your body weight will not rest on your right foot. Keep your right leg straight and lift the heel as high as you can. Lower your leg and repeat this motion 10 times. Change legs and repeat 10 more times.
3. Calf Muscle Stretch
Stand arm’s length away from the wall. Place your left leg in front of the right. Now, reach both arms up to the wall. Press the heel of the right let onto the floor and bend the front leg. Hold this position for 15-20 seconds. Repeat this stretch with the opposite leg.
One-third of long-distance runners experience abdominal pain. Stomach cramps are a common complaint for both inexperienced runners and endurance athletes alike.
Too much liquid or food in the stomach during activity can cause abdominal cramping. Be sure to stay within the recommendations for water intake mentioned above. A large meal or stomach full of water will push the stomach against the abdominal wall and make it difficult to take a deep breath, causing what are known as “side stitches.” Stick to a small, light meal no less than an hour before you run to allow for adequate digestion.
Certain foods and drinks are also known to cause stomach cramps during exercise. Avoid sugar-free gum and snacks, high-fiber foods like beans, bran, and chia seeds, and high-fat foods that weigh you down and tax your digestive system.
Breathing Technique to Stop or Prevent Side Stitches
Side stitches are muscle cramps of the diaphragm. While they do not technically occur in the stomach, they cause pain just below the ribs, which may feel as if it is in the abdomen. Poor breathing techniques are the main cause of side cramps.
As the name suggests, diaphragmatic breathing, or core breathing occurs down in the diaphragm (as opposed to the chest.) Start out in a seated position. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your diaphragm which is just below the rib cage.
Take a deep breath. As you inhale through the mouth, focus on keeping your chest flat. Watch as your stomach begins to expand. Next, tighten your stomach muscles before releasing them with an exhalation. Continue to keep one hand flat against the upper chest.
Breathing through the mouth is recommended for runners because it allows more oxygen intake than breathing solely through the nose. Counting your breaths can help you stay focused on deep breathing. Inhale for two counts and exhale for three. Before you know it, you’ll be in a good rhythm without even trying.
Proper breathing technique for running takes some practice, but it’s surely worth it. Steady, deep breathing not only helps prevent pain—but it can also improve your endurance and performance too!
If you have a muscle cramp while running, slow down and focus on deep breathing. Put your hands on your head to create more space in your airway. For more severe cramps, stop and massage the muscle to relieve the spasm. After the muscle has relaxed, stretch it for a minute or so before easing back into activity.
Yes. Physical therapy is beneficial for runners seeking to prevent muscle cramps and painful injuries through improved form and mobility. During an initial physical therapy screening, you will discuss your health concerns and goals. Your physical therapist assesses your gait and how your muscles and joints perform with each step. They evaluate your posture, spine, and core stability and show proper breathing techniques to release and relax your diaphragm and abdomen.
Your physical therapist helps with exercises for stretching your neck and back muscles and strengthening your core to provide better support for your upper body. A personalized physical therapy training plan can improve your form, help you gain progress, and reduce muscle cramps and running injuries. Find a physical therapy clinic near you.