Avoiding Cramp in a Race

When cramp strikes, it’s impossible to ignore. Indeed, severe cases will bring your run to a screeching halt and can leave you rolling in agony. If that doesn’t sound appealing, knowing how to avoid cramps when running is essential. Whether you’re in training for an upcoming marathon or racing in a 10K, it’s important to understand why cramp happens and what you can do to avoid it.

What is cramp?

A leg cramp is a kind of spasm where a muscle involuntarily shortens and becomes tight – and this is normally combined with pain and discomfort in the affected area. Leg cramps most often occur in the calf muscle, although they can also affect feet and thigh muscles too. Leg cramps are often associated with exercise, although they may also happen during sleep, as you get older, if you are pregnant, are dehydrated or are on medication. In most cases, cramps are harmless and will pass in a few seconds. Stretching the affected muscle is usually an effective way to release the spasm.

Why does cramp happen when running?

There is no consensus yet as to why cramp happens – the reasons are still not completely clear. The traditional theory goes that as you run, your body heats up, perspires, and salt is expelled, and this means there is less sodium remaining in your body. Sodium plays an important role in muscle contraction when doing exercise, and so losing too much through sweat could be a cause of cramp. The general advice until recently was that you should stay hydrated throughout your run and choose drinks which contain electrolytes to replace that lost sodium.

However, there’s growing scepticism about this theory – some studies have found that runners who do get cramp don’t necessarily have lower sodium levels than those runners who don’t. Instead, a newer theory suggests that cramp is a neuromuscular problem that arises from over-use. This would seem to make sense – most long-distance runners experience the condition towards the end of their races, when their legs have been working away for hours.

How to avoid cramps when running in races?

If you’ve set yourself a target for your next 10K, half-marathon, triathlon or other endurance race, you don’t want to lose a couple of minutes – or more – dealing with a painful cramp. Here’s how to avoid cramps when running in the first place:

  • Stick to your race plan: When running in a big race, you’re likely to feel a rush of adrenaline in the first few miles and decide to go faster than planned. This is risky, however, as assuming you’ve been training at a specific race pace, your body isn’t used to going much faster and this may trigger cramps. So, try and avoid the temptation to push yourself out of your body’s comfort zone.
  • Stretch and warm up properly: If you are prone to cramps, you might benefit from making a special effort to stretch out your body – and your legs in particular – to combat the risk of spasms.
  • Get accustomed to the climate: If you’re used to running in the UK but have, for instance, signed up to a marathon in a more humid, warm Mediterranean city for example, the change in conditions will see you perspire more and work harder. There may therefore be higher risk of experiencing cramp – so give yourself some time to acclimatise to the different humidity.
  • Stay hydrated with an electrolyte drink: As noted above, there is some doubt about the definitive link between sodium levels and cramp. Nonetheless, this theory is far from being definitively debunked, and there’s no harm in drinking a sports drink that contains electrolytes.

What to do if cramp strikes when you’re racing?

While cramp often strikes quickly and painfully, without warning, sometimes you can feel it coming. The best advice is to not ‘run through the pain’. Ultimately this is only going to cause you more discomfort down the line. Instead, respond immediately with some of the following techniques:

  • Stretch the cramping muscle: This is far and away the most effective way of dealing with cramp in a race. While it’s annoying to see time shaved off your target, dealing with the problem straight away is smart:
    • For a cramped calf muscle, try a standing calf stretch. If your left leg is cramping, step your right leg forward and bend it at the knee. This will elongate the left calf muscle for a deep stretch.
    • For a cramped hamstring, try a seated hamstring stretch. Sit on the pavement (out of the way of other runners!) and extend your legs in front of you, then reach to your toes with your hands to stretch the hamstring
  • Slow down: While you might be tempted to try and make up for lost time after dealing with cramp, it’s best to gradually ease off the speed for a while and listen to your body – you will eventually be able to return to your intended speed. Immediately sprinting away after a cramp stops may, in fact, bring the cramp back fast, only slowing you down further.
  • Try drinking an electrolyte sports drink: As noted above, while the evidence is uncertain, there’s definitely no harm in topping up your sodium levels during a race.

Knowing how to avoid cramps when running can help you beat your PB and run your best race – by following these tips, you’ll limit the chances of it happening, and know what to do, should cramp strike.