Isn’t it annoying how muscle cramps hit you when you least expect or want them to? I’m forced to deal with severe hamstring lockdowns, and sometimes misfiring shin muscle movements, in almost every longer or high-tempo race.
Sometimes cramps even wake me up in the middle of the night – usually in my calf. This one’s predictably occurring due to a magnesium deficiency but does this solve every case of muscle cramps? Unfortunately not. The electrolyte imbalances are just a piece of a much bigger picture.
The main causes of muscle cramps
The main causes of muscle cramps I face myself as an athlete, and ones I help my clients deal with include (in order of most common to least common):
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This usually starts as a lack of magnesium, potassium or calcium, but as the athlete starts running and sweating, the remainder of electrolytes are depleted as well.
- Unusual movement patterns and muscle fatigue. These cramps occur when you’re pushing your body and your CNS (central nervous system) past previous limits. I used to suffer these cramps a lot back when I’d just started obstacle racing and I had strong but unconditioned legs. Whenever I’d do sudden lateral movements (e.g. running sideways around an obstacle like a tree), my calves would spasm.
- Nerve compression aka lumbar spinal stenosis. This one isn’t as common in obstacle racers. It’s usually seen in people whose bodies are in prolonged static poses or move with decreased mobility – ultra run racers for example. The cramp manifests as a tingling, weakness or a sensation of numbness spreading from the lower back into legs.
How to prevent muscle cramps?
There are five key things you should be doing before every training session and before every race to prevent muscle cramps occurring. For maximum benefit, you can even do these on outside of your training:
- Take electrolyte tabs which dissolve in water before every active session. Those battery-acid drinks like Gatorade, Vitamin Water or Lucozade do not count. A good electrolyte drink will do two amazing things for you: 1) it’ll keep you from losing bodily fluids thus allowing you to run for longer without getting super thirsty or losing motor skills; and 2) it will prevent cramps. Check out this older post to find out how electrolyte tabs like Nuun can transform your performance in a longer race.
- Take magnesium supplements every day. Any other mineral essential for your body is relatively easily acquired from various food sources, except magnesium. So no wonder that magnesium tends to be the most frequently occurring deficiency in athletes. You need a lot more of magnesium than you might think. Every night before sleep I consume ZMA (a compound of Zinc, Magnesium and Vit B6). Missing just one night’s dose would result in nighttime awakenings with my calves cramping. Highly unpleasant plus it leaves painful spots to deal with for hours after waking up too.
- Prepare your body for the unexpected. Train in the woods, run on trails – at higher altitudes and on uneven surfaces – run around objects to practice sudden lateral movements, run in wet shoes, and so on. Train for anything that could impact your body’s mechanics and cause greater muscle fatigue than you’re used to.
- Prepare your legs to run longer. Too often I see people being overconfident and signing up for a half-marathon when they’ve never run even a 10k in one go. It’s suicide which will definitely manifest in cramps, blown out knees and possibly worse injuries. As an athlete you should be able to not only walk your target mileage but to also run it without issues. This is the least you can do in preparing for an obstacle race where you’ll also be confronted with hills, swims, climbs, crawls and so on – much more than just running the target distance.
- Spend more time standing. The last of your five key things, yet just as important, is to stand. Walk, move and stand for longer than today’s sedentary lives would expect of you. The idea is to expose your body to the strain of being upright and moving for extended amounts of time. Although those cramps caused by nerve compression are typically occurring in older, sedentary populations, they are becoming more prominent in chair-bound, office folk. If you spend most of your day sitting, you’re letting your core atrophy to the point where extensive runs could cause those spinal issues which lead to unpleasant cramping.
How to stop a cramp mid-race?
As we’ve already covered, the most common reason for a cramp occurring mid-race is electrolyte imbalance, unusual movement patterns and muscle fatigue.
To get rid of this cramp, we need to identify the most probable of the above causes. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do you feel extremely thirsty and have you been sweating for quite some time, even though you might have drank a lot of water up to this point?
If your answer is yes, then your cause of cramping is mineral imbalance, which is in turn caused by sweating-induced dehydration. Regardless of how much water you drink, if there are no electrolytes to be replenished, your body will just flush that water out without retaining any of it.
Your quick solutions:
Consume an electrolyte-rich gel or use a mineral tab dissolved in some water to restore the mineral balance and rehydrate properly.
2. Did you expose your body to sudden or prolonged stress it never experienced before? This could be for example running on trails, running sideways (laterally), vertical jumps (plyometrics), etc.
If your answer is yes, then your muscles are probably fatigued from dehydration and prolonged stress (most common in longer races). This fatigue can be caused either by unpreparedness (lack of adequate training) or by piggy backing on top of dehydration discussed in the previous question.
The muscle fatigue causes a complete or partial shutdown of muscle group(s) affected as well as numbness and tingling sensations (usually a foreshadowing of pending bigger cramps).
Your quick solution:
Carry a mustard packet, a small container of pickle juice or anything containing vinegar.
This solution might sound funny, but experienced athletes swear by these methods. These condiments contain acetic acid, which forces the body to produce more acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter which then pushes muscles to exert power and start working to the max.
This trick is a game changer that’s saved my neck from unpleasant situations mid-race.
And here you have it…