Posted by: Russell | 2010-05-28

Cramp when running

I am a keen runner but struggle horribly with cramps in my legs when I run distances longer than a standard marathon. I have tried the usual cures (stretching before the run, cramp block, proper hydration). The only thing that makes any difference is to train a LOT harder (to the point of injury) and even then I struggle.

I find that on the shorter distances (up to 32km) I can push really hard if I am properly trained, but anything from the marathon distance on and cramps invariably set in, forcing me to walk (in great pain).

The cramps always start in my calves but once I start cramping, all the muscles in my legs seem to cramp in sympathy. This year on the Two Oceans I even had my ankle cramping at the end.

Is there anything else you can recommend? I am thinking that some people are better suited to shorter distances and that I am just one of those people! It would be really good to try the Comrades one day, but the way I seize up, until I find something that works I would just be stupid to even attempt it :-(

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Our expert says:
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HI Russell

Your testimony is a classic example that illustrates the new understanding of cramp, actually.

There are so many myths about cramping that a lot of what I have to say may come as a surprise to you. To start with, the bottom line is that cramping is not caused by mineral deficiency and so supplements do not help prevent them (at least not directly, although they may contribute indirectly, as I'll explain). A few years ago, a big study on 2 Oceans and Comrades runners found that when you compare the magnesium, sodium and calcium levels of runners with cramp with runners without cramp, there's no difference - that means that people cramp even though their mineral levels are exactly the same. So, this myth has come about based on very early studies in mines etc. and a lot of it has been driven by sports drink companies who want to market the products as a cure for cramp.The bottom line is that you are cramping even though your vitamins and mineral levels are normal.

So, then, what causes cramp? Without getting too technical, cramping is caused by a reflex stimulation of the muscle by the central nervous system - the muscle is constantly controlled by nerves and reflexes, and there's good evidence to show that a cramp occurs when the reflex control of muscle breaks down and the muscle is stimulated excessively. Exactly what causes this is unknown although it is known that fatigue is a major contributor - that's why people cramp late in races, more often they also cramp in the heat (it causes more fatigue), or when it's windy, a hilly course, or a tough race. It also explains why you cramp in the muscles you use only for running and not in the arms, for example - the muscles become fatigues, and this somehow interferes with the nervous system and the control of the muscle, causing them to cramp.

So, the immediate treatment for a cramp is to stop and stretch the muscle very well - tests have shown that as soon as you do this, the reflex control of the muscle is restored, and this stops the cramp immediately. In terms of prevention, stretching regularly to improve your overall flexibility may help, stretching before the run may also help, and then stretching during the run is also a good idea - you can do this at water points. I know you're stretching before, but maybe stretching regularly once you've started will help.

Then the other factor that helps prevent cramp is muscle strength. It's not a co-incidence that the people who cramp are often racing hard, or pushing harder than their training has allowed them. So, the training is very important, and getting to maximum fitness is vital. You've experienced it already when you've recognized that training more helps, but the key may be to get stronger by doing gym training and improving the strength of those muscles. Doing speed work may help, instead of doing more distance.

I know the problem here is that you're walking that fine line between injury and optimal training, but that may be where your answer lies.

Good luck

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

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