Leg Cramps: The Final Word (Really?!)

I recently noticed that when people find my blog through an internet search, it is almost invariably for three reasons: they are searching for cramp remedies, they have heard some bad stuff about running and ibuprofen, or they want to get the 411 on kinesiology tape.  When I started writing this blog, I promised to return to various topics and offer some updates based on my being an experiment of one.

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps...

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps…

I’ll start with the issue of leg cramps. As I pointed out exactly a year ago, experts don’t agree on the causes of leg cramps. A fairly comprehensive piece by Gina Kolata in The New York Times, “A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/health/nutrition/14BEST.html?_r=0) gave a good rundown of the main suspects, including dehydration, sodium deficiency, and, finally, muscle fatigue. These are the big three, but I pointed out that regardless of the cause we needed some effective preventative, as well as ameliorative measures. I decided that I would experiment with ingesting mustard before races. The theory supporting mustard consumption is that that cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work and mustard contains acetic acid, which helps the body produce more acetylcholine. It is possibly the vinegar common in both pickle juice (a traditional anti-cramp remedy) and mustard that stimulates the necessary neurotransmitter. You may remember that I started having several tablespoons of mustard before races and that I ingested packets of mustard when I subsequently cramped during races. I wasn’t all that impressed with the results. I ran a series of longer races during the winter where I cramped during the later miles, ate some mustard from a packet, and continued to cramp. There also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of correspondence between dehydration and cramping. When I ran the New Year’s Day half-marathon – The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s very popular “Hang-Over Half,” I was fully hydrated and made sure that I hit every water stop and slowed down enough to actually drink. Nonetheless, I experienced painful calf cramps beginning around nine miles.  Nothing was really helping and cramping during races was becoming increasingly frustrating.

I now return to this topic, because I think I have an answer.  It’s probably not the one anyone will want to hear. I don’t think there is any magic elixir of pickle and mustard juice that can be consumed, nor do I believe that hydration levels need to be obsessed over. Instead, I think that leg cramps are due to muscle fatigue and that increasing muscle strength and endurance over time is the surefire way to combat this problem. The magic is more running. It might be that simple.  In my own experience, it was telling that my first major problem with cramps occurred when I raced my first half marathon. The HMRRC course is flat and fast and I managed to run most of my splits up to eight miles faster than any previous races at those distances. So, I was running PR pace for everything and going longer than I had ever before raced.  In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that my legs were not used to both racing long and faster: my legs got very tired and I started to cramp. This also explains several weeks later when I cramped even earlier during a 10K race. The distance wasn’t a problem, but – even with the cramping – I took more than a minute off of my PR. I was running everything faster and it is now clear that my overall muscle fitness had not caught up with my new racing pace. Since increasing my long runs at the beginning of this fall, I have had fewer problems with leg cramps. At this year’s Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon, I only experienced calf cramps during the final four hundred meters. Likewise, at my first time running the 15K Stockad-athon several weeks ago, I only started cramping during the final half mile. In both of these races, cramps occurred when I tried picking up the pace at the end. The good news, however, is that despite faster running – the first half of the Stockad-athon is very fast – my leg muscles appear to by acclimatizing to increased speed and distance. I am convinced that much of this leg strengthening is due to the miles that I have put in over the years, as well as the recent increase in my long runs.  The solution, then, appears to be a long-term one – more running – rather than any type of quick fix.

One of the questions that emerge from this revelation is “what about well-trained, professional athletes, who experience debilitating cramping episodes?” In these cases, I would suspect that athletes doing a whole lot of mileage and speed work might be going into races with tired legs susceptible to muscle fatigue despite doing all the things necessary to build muscle strength and endurance. Thus, if you experience an isolated incident of cramping during a race, it might just mean that you did not taper adequately for a race and your leg muscles were still stressed from previous hard workouts. I think the key to avoiding leg cramps is to have the necessary muscle strength and endurance for your chosen race distance.  This, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we are always striving to go faster and longer and it is difficult to be prepared for every distance and speed, especially if you have never before tackled a specific distance. My final piece of advice: don’t get freaked out if you experience leg cramps while pushing the limits of your speed and endurance. It merely means you are pushing your limits; but, luckily, with additional training you can successfully push back those limits. Cramps, therefore, might be a sign that you are on the way to getting faster, a painful indicator; but, ultimately, a positive sign of improvement.

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An Experiment Paid Off (Or, Mustard is Only for Hot Dogs)

I promised to report on the results of my “speedy taper” plan this week.  Despite several workouts that were shorter than the time it took to change my clothes and shower, I stuck to the plan.  On Monday, I did 5 x ¼ at 6:11 minute-per-mile pace (my optimistic 5K race pace) followed by ¼ mile of walking at 20 minute-per-mile pace. I started out with an easy half to warm-up – 9:15 minute-per-mile pace. All of this was done on the treadmill, so I was able to stick to the pace. For the rest of the week, I continued with the same pace and recovery while cutting out a quarter a day. On Friday, I finished up with one quarter and on Saturday, I rested completely – no running. My total mileage for the week, including the walking between intervals, was ten miles. Needless to say, I kept reassuring myself that the hay was in the barn.

I woke up about three hours before today’s race and immediately had twelve ounces of coconut water and breakfast about an hour later, which consisted of coffee, a banana, one slice of cinnamon raisin bread with half a side covered in peanut butter and the other half in Nutella. I also had a tablespoon of yellow mustard.  After arriving at the SUNY campus for the race, I warmed up for a mile at 9:00 minute-per-mile pace about 40 minutes before the race. Twenty minutes before the start, I had a handful of gummy bears and about 3 ounces of Gatorade. At start time, it was about 22 degrees Fahrenheit. One of my goals was not to go out too fast, this was a ten-mile race and I realized that there would be some time to get into it.

I’m happy to report that the “speedy taper” seems to have helped. I felt strong throughout the race, and my endurance was completely unaffected by the lack of quantity last week. My only problem was the onset of severe calf cramps starting at mile 8, which I had reached in a new PR. Oddly, despite feeling like I was totally hobbled during the last two miles, my speed didn’t really decline all that much. I basically ran through the cramps – pain – and maintained a 7:00 minute-per-mile pace for the entire race. My finishing time was 1:10:53. This was a certified course, so was slightly long. My GPS had me at exactly seven minutes-per-mile. I think I may have also gotten under my five mile PR as a split.  I still need to figure out the cramping problems, but I am very confident that the speedy taper is going to have some fantastic results for shorter distances. Aside from the cramps, I felt great. My next race is the Runnin’ of the Green (Island) Four Miler on March 16.

I am about to give up on mustard as a leg cramp solution. I consumed my mustard packet around eight miles and didn’t experience a whole lot of relief. It might be that the mustard with breakfast is delaying the cramping until the later miles, but I’m not all that convinced. I was told by one of my running compatriots at today’s race that I should try beet juice. That might be next. I’m also supposed to be looking into Chia seeds and my daughter insists that cacao nibs are the way to go, although I suspect that she merely wants to try them herself. When she suggests that kettle chips might be the key to cramp prevention, I’ll get suspicious. Although, vinegar-flavored chips might be a good idea. I’ll keep everyone posted on my continuing battle against leg cramps.

Finally, it struck me that after only doing ten miles last week, it might be a good idea not to immediately go back to 45-mile weeks. I don’t think that will be too much of a problem this week, since my legs are extremely stiff and sore from today’s race. Odd, since I felt great when I got home, but over the course of the afternoon –– yikes!  I might have to take tomorrow off.

The Hangover Half and More Calf Cramps

I started the New Year out with a bang.  During the latter stages of our all-day drive from Kentucky, where I had spent Christmas vacation, I decided around 7:30 PM that I was going to run in the January 1 edition of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s Winter Series Race.  I hadn’t really given the possibility of racing on New Year’s Day much thought earlier in the week, because I didn’t know how the driving would proceed and whether I would even be home to do it.  I had a choice of the “Hangover” Half Marathon or a 3.5 miler. I decided to do the half, start out slowly, and treat it as a tempo run. This would also be a good opportunity to test out whether mustard might be a good way to avoid leg cramps.  I hadn’t done any tapering for the race, and I had run 11 miles in the cold on Sunday. I also stayed up to watch the ball fall – luckily the race started at noon. I was able to get up late and have a leisurely morning.  I drank some water when I first got up, several cups of coffee, ate half of a chocolate chip muffin, a banana, and a piece of cinnamon raisin bread with some Nuttela.  I also, of course, had a spoon of yellow mustard.  It was 28 degrees Fahrenheit when I left the house. The hallway in the SUNY-Athletic building where we registered was packed – this is a popular way to start the New Year.  By the time I had signed up and gone to the bathroom, I didn’t have a lot of time for a warm-up. I wasn’t too worried, since I planned to start out around eight minute pace and warm-up for the first six miles. I almost, however, didn’t even get to the starting line, because my left calf cramped almost with the first step of my warm-up. Not a good sign. I decided to give it a try. I didn’t have enough time to take one of my mustard packets, but I put two in my pocket and managed to have a handful of gummy bears as I was heading off to the starting line.

It will eventually get warmer.

It will eventually get warmer. Spring 2010 in Upstate New York.

I was about six deep on the line and started out slowly. My legs were feeling good. It felt colder than 28 and I was glad that I was wearing my spiffy new CW-X compression tights that my wife had given me for Christmas.  I looked at my Garmin and realized that I was running too quickly. I got caught up in a pack of runners from the Kinderhook Running Club, looked down at my watch and realized that we were doing some racing at 6:20 minute-per-mile pace.  It was cold and windy – typical winter series weather on the SUNY-Albany campus. The course, itself, has some very gradual up and downhills and is fairly easy, aside from the wind, which, as the race proceeded, started to get a bit ridiculous. I took water at every opportunity. I went through 10K in 45:40 and was feeling good.  At 9 miles, however, my left calf started cramping. I consumed one of my mustard packets and watched some of the people I was running with leave me behind.  For the rest of the race, I tried to run in a very measured fashion and consumed an additional mustard packet at around 11 miles. During the last mile, I managed to catch up and pass some people who had gone by me earlier, but I had pretty much shifted to survival mode and was extremely glad to finish in 1:40:36. I was happy to crack the top 100 with an 83rd place finish. It was good to get in out of the cold.  Once I stopped, my legs didn’t feel all that bad and I wasn’t totally exhausted.  I had several pieces of pizza (I love the HMRRC) walked around for a bit and then headed home. It was a very motivational way to start the New Year.

Did the mustard work?  It sure didn’t offer the immediate relief for cramping that I was after.  It may, however, have delayed my cramping.  The last time I experienced leg cramping in a race was 4 miles into a 10K.  It is, of course, also possible that my compression tights helped. This is one of my problems, I often change several things, and so I am unsure what actually worked.  I haven’t yet given up on the mustard cure (If anything, it is fun to see people freak out when you suck down a packet on the run, or when you have a spoonful for breakfast.), but I suspect that my calf problems might necessitate some strengthening exercises – oh, snap!