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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Running and Resentment: A Deeper View

I’ve been reading over the comments on New York Times health columnist Gina Kolata’s article from December 17, 2012 – “Recipe for Resentment: Claims of Running Prowess” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/a-running-bias-against-runners/) – to try to do some initial thinking about the place of running in U.S. culture.  Kolata wrote her piece in response to the recent dust up over the Wall Street Journal’s diatribe against running too much.  The experts quickly weighed in about why we should take the WSJ’s handwringing with several tablespoons of salt – faulty study, ridiculous assumptions, etc.; but, like Kolata, I was even more interested in why various media outlets were so quick to give credence to the report, as well as why the Wall Street Journal has been publishing a variation of the “running will kill you” article for years.  How many times have you run across an article, or talked to someone, who couldn’t quite suppress their glee that Jim Fixx, one of the prime movers of the late 1970s running boom, had died of a heart attack while running.  Kolata tackles this resentment head-on and asks, “Why does running arouse such passions?”

This is a tricky question, because the meaning of running in the United States has changed throughout the years.  During the late-1970s and even the early-1980s, I think there was a large proportion of the U.S. population that viewed road running as a cultural threat.  Runners unattached to college and high school programs were out there on the pavement, pursuing individual satisfaction by doing something rather arduous at the very time that the terms of technological, cultural, and social progress were couched in the latest labor saving advancements and recreation was the realm of the spectator.  Runners wanted to be within sport, rather than outside of it.  The threat of participatory action in a consumer-capitalist economy should not be underestimated.  Ultimately, people were finding new meaning in their lives not through work, economic, or social status, but through the simple, exhausting activity of running.  The only reason that there hasn’t been more pushback to the potential rebelliousness and radicalism that running holds is that corporations were quick to recognize the consumer possibilities of the growth and expansion of a participatory, people’s sport.  The running shoe companies became large and powerful when they realized that a vast new market was opening up.  By the mid-1980s, running shoes were ubiquitous on people’s feet (even non-runners) and the idea that one should run had entered the cultural mainstream.  They even broadcast the New York City marathon on network television, as the big city races rapidly expanded and everyone thought that they should run a marathon.  I think this might also mark the approximate time when the running boom started to diverge, branched out, and ultimately entered a new phase.

It wasn’t my intention to give a history of the running boom, so I’ll stop here, merely to point out that the 1980s’ split saw the emergence of the exercise boom as Yuppies, fueled by aerobics and Reebok, began to see being fit as yet another way to distinguish themselves as part of the economic and cultural elite.  Fitness was yet another thing that could be consumed and could reflect one’s status in society.  True believers probably retreated to their running clubs and winter series races and wondered if they remained special if everyone ran.  (I imagine that ultra marathoning may have experienced a boost at this point.)  If we are looking for a source of resentment, this might be it.  To distinguish themselves within the running culture, some people needed to make running, in all of its aspects, more a part of their lives.  What I am talking about here, is the tendency during recent times of economic uncertainty and stagnation for people to derive meaning in their lives not through their jobs, but through the challenge of changing themselves, both physically and psychologically, through running.  I’m going to refine this argument at more length in the future; but, it is hard to discount the fact that the first running boom peaked during the Reagan recession, popular interest in running flattened out during the sustained economic growth of the mid-1990s, and we are currently living through a new running boom during very uncertain economic times.

The source of resentment towards runners is deep and it has a history.  It is not based on the idea that runners can’t shut up about running.  Going on about stuff is merely part of the human condition. We talk about things in which we are interested.  Toy train buffs talk incessantly about their layouts, new parents tend to go on about child rearing, cat owners have problems talking about anything else.  Resentment because we discuss what we are passionate about is hardly unique to running.  At this point, it is probably legitimate to argue that runners experience resentment as much as anyone else in our society.  It’s one of those less attractive human emotions spawned by jealousy: hardly the province solely of runners.  I do, however, think there is something to this resentment and that it goes deeper than a frustration that runners just won’t shut up, or that they are unhealthily obsessed with their sport.  It is a frustration that runners have found a source of meaning in their lives that is almost entirely internal; it doesn’t depend on one’s economic or social status. It doesn’t depend on an occupation.  Running allows one’s success and contentment to be internally generated and individually assessed. Even the race, a place where commercialism and external assessment interact, is judged on the runner’s own terms. A good race might be finishing, setting a personal best, winning an age-group medal, running negative splits, or meeting some friends.  The measures of success are really up to the race participant. I wouldn’t argue that this is the only activity that meaning and success is almost solely scripted by the participant, but it might be one of the most accessible activities in which this is the case.  This is where the resentment and jealousy lies. Runners have found a straightforward, readily accessible way to derive meaning in their lives independent of the social and power disparities that are necessary for industrial capitalism to function.  The act of running in a western capitalist society is, at its very base, a radical (and for some) and a threatening act.

This was what academic historians like to refer to as a “think piece”: a lot of thinking aloud and writing without the hand of the editor.  Some of my arguments need further examples and I think it might take a grant and some graduate students to quantify what is meant by “running boom.”  I do, however, think that there is something more essential about running that explains the resentment that writers such as Gina Kolata identify that goes beyond the idea that runners are just insufferable when they won’t shut up about it.  What do you think?