Spring Resolutions: More Mileage

It’s the first day of spring and a week after my birthday, so I thought to myself, “What a great day to recommit to my blog.”  My few followers may have noticed that I haven’t actually posted anything since the end of November – urk. This is probably not the best way to gain a following. I realized during the last several days that my blogs often become completely unwieldy and as a result they get delayed in the editing process and remain unpublished. So, I am going to try to write briefly and frequently. I have to admit that graduate school is probably to blame. I always feel that I need several citations – at least – to support my opinions and I start writing like I need to fulfill the demands of outside readers. My inner critic and editor make it almost impossible to write at times. I am really trying to kick the critic to the curb; because, in the final analysis this is supposed to be fun.

Although my writing has been just about nonexistent for the last several months, my running has actually been going well.  Many runners appear to visit my site for updates on the mystery of leg cramps, so I will – yet again – offer an update. My last post indicated that it would be the final word on the topic, but I can’t resist an update. I got back from Christmas vacation and decided that I would run in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s January first Hangover Half Marathon. I felt that I had enough long runs in during the previous several weeks, and my training had been going fairly well. On the day of the race I woke up feeling good. The temperature was in the low 20s with a ten mile-per-hour wind. I seem to recall that it was sunny. For a winter race in the New York Capital Region the conditions were excellent. I told myself that I was going to take it fairly easy at the start and see what happened.  Of course, I got drawn into a very fast early pace, felt good, and about five miles in noticed that I was well-under personal-record pace for the half marathon distance and I was feeling good. I really wasn’t expecting to be in this position, so I started pressing. At nine miles the wheels fell off – I started cramping like I have never cramped before – not just calves, but hamstrings, as well. I slowed down quite a bit, but was still able to continue running between the leg spasms. The final four miles were not fun, although I did finish up several minutes better than last year’s time.  Still, I was a bit disappointed that I had missed an opportunity to get under 1:30 for the half. The leg cramping was also a surprise. I had convinced myself that I was now running enough and had acclimatized enough to longer distances that the cramps were a thing of the past – not so much.

I still believed, however, that muscle weakness was the problem, so I upped my mileage during the winter – something I was planning on doing anyway. For the last two months, I have consistently run over fifty miles a week, topping out at sixty-nine during the middle of February. Much of this was done on a treadmill.  Yes, I will write a post about treadmill training in the near future. Here’s the good news: the increase in mileage has had great results. Several weeks after the half, I ran in the HMRRC’s winter series 10 miler and managed to take more than a minute and a half off of my 10-mile PR with not even a hint of leg cramps.  The benefits of increased mileage also appear to have continued with a minute PR for four miles at last weekend’s unofficial start of the spring racing season – The Runnin’ of the Green. This is a race I have always had trouble with and it was great to finally run a time that I thought I was capable of: 25:46.  So, after an initial cramping incident at the beginning of the year, I haven’t had any cramping problems and the one change that I made was upping my mileage. I am hoping that this might be the final word – from me, at least – on the mystery of leg cramps during the later stages of a race. The solution seems to be running more – something I can get behind.

That’s where I’m going to end it for today. I also received an awesome pair of Nike Lunarspider R4 racing flats for Christmas, which I will review in the near future. They’re a pair of shoes that you don’t wear in inclement weather conditions, so I have only managed to wear them twice, so far. Both runs were memorably fast.

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.

A Quick Introduction and an Initial Question about Leg Cramps

Warming up for my first road race, the Fourth of July Five Miler in Irondequoit, New York, 1980.

If you are reading this, you have stumbled upon yet another blog about running.  Before you go back to playing Words With Friends or laughing at the mishaps of anthropomorphized felines, let me win you over by briefly explaining why I am doing this.  This is a blog for masters runners who run for reasons that go beyond merely getting fit.  We like running fast and figuring out how to get faster.  We’re competitive – but usually more so with ourselves than with other runners.  Although we do throw in surges, kick to the finish, and stay around to receive our age group awards, we are usually more thrilled with a new PR.  I run because I like to run.  This has gotten me in trouble in the past during my scheduled rest days… I like to think that we make local road races more honest, so that the young guys can look at the results and realize that winning was not just a matter of showing up.  I’ll blog more about the intersection of the meaning of competition and the meaning of running in the months ahead.

I’m not going to claim that you should read this blog because the subject matter will be unique, or that I will have a completely new approach to the topic – there are, after all, many running blogs out there.  My intention is to write about running from the perspective of the mid-forties, mid-level runner, who is doing his utmost to get faster as he gets older.  One of the services that I intend to provide is to sift through the many technical running blogs out there to arrive at some practical information that is useful to the masters runner.  I also intend to start discussions about training and racing issues to hear directly from masters runners about how they have approached various problems. Look down. I’m starting this approach with some stories and requests for advice about leg cramping during races – not fun.

I have been meaning to write a running blog for months, but have had trouble getting started.  I think that part of problem was the ill-conceived idea that I thought I needed to write a blog that would fill a very precise niche in the running community and that to facilitate this I would need to start by issuing some sort of running manifesto. You know the drill: what does running mean to me, what are our foundational assumptions, what does this blog intend to contribute to the dizzying amount of writing on running that already exists.  Not only was creating a manifesto far too much pressure, but I think it also threatened the reason to blog in the first place: to explore a variety of topics and ideas about running to help contribute to a more enjoyable pursuit for the mid-level masters runner.  (OK, so that sounds a little bit like a manifesto…)  So, this might be the way to start.  I’m writing a blog that will take my individual running experiences as a way to explore larger running concerns in what will ultimately be a collaborative attempt to facilitate better running experiences for the readers of this blog.  One of the critical touchstones for my thinking about running is Dr. George Sheehan’s oft-repeated quote, “You are an experiment-of-one.” True, but we can also add up our experiences or experiments to arrive at some best practices.

You are an experiment of one; but you also need to realize that this is a community endeavor – the successful runner is surrounded by support and seeks out competition, friendship, and advice.

I’m going to get right to it, because this preamble stuff is beginning to sap my desire to write.  I’ll leave the introductions to subsequent blogs – you can get to know me as I write.

On October 7, 2012, I ran in the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon in Albany, New York.  Through nine miles I was on pace for an 1:30 half marathon.  This was my first half, so I had given myself a goal of getting under 1:40.  I probably started a bit too quickly and noticed when glancing at my Garmin that my splits up to 15K starting at four miles were under my previous PRs.  I was running well.  The perfect weather for me – mid-50s, as well as a flat course made it difficult to run conservatively.  There was also some racing going on.  I was back and forth with a group of guys around six miles and was passed by one of the top women’s masters runners in the region at around seven miles.  I could not keep up, but was still running well.  We really started to string out after eight miles and I found myself running alone, unable to attach to anyone in front of me and unwilling to slow down to run with the people behind me.  This is how things went for the next several miles. I was, however, gradually inching up on runners in front of me, and I was gaining confidence that I was going to be able to do some catching and passing during the last several miles.  I also felt that 1:30 was still within my grasp. I felt strong and was gaining confidence.  Then, I felt a slight twinge in my left calf.  I had to slow down.  Next, I felt more than a twinge in my left hamstring. I was forced to slow down.  Yes, for the final three miles of the race I experienced intermittent cramps in my calves and hamstrings that brought me to abrupt slowdowns and made it difficult to maintain any type of pace.  I lost several places and was forced into an odd heel-first sprint during the final meters to avoid being passed.  Ultimately, however, I was happy with my final time of just under 1:34. I really can’t complain about my first half marathon experience, but the final miles were painful and frustrating. Around eleven miles I was telling myself that I probably didn’t need to do this again.  Maybe 5K was really my distance.  After a massage and some chocolate milk, however, I soon realized that I wanted another crack at the half and was thinking that my next goal should be a sub 1:30.  Obviously, I will need to address the cramping problems and here is where the collaborative part of this blog comes into play.

Let’s talk about leg cramps. This has happened to me previously only twice before.  The first time was at the very end of a 5K in hot, notably humid, weather. I was kicking during the last two hundred meters and felt a crampy twinge in my hamstring. I had to back off, but managed to make it to the finish line without anything popping. I didn’t even feel any soreness after the race. The second time was at the Bill Robinson Masters 10K just after the halfway mark when the course goes up a very long gradual hill. As a started up the hill, I felt my hamstrings start to cramp and I had to slow down, which was frustrating because I wasn’t going all that fast to begin with. I chalked these cramps up to having gone down the hill (it is an out and back course) at a ridiculously fast pace (I was flying – this is how the pros feel!) and my legs were now trashed.  Luckily, I was able to gradually get back to speed. A good thing, too, because it was cold and I sure didn’t want to limp three miles back to the finish.

So, here’s the discussion topic: When have you experienced leg cramps, how did you deal with them at the time, and how have you tried to prevent them?

Additional: After I got most of this blog written, I raced in the Albany Running Exchange’s FRUN 10K last weekend (November 4) and again experienced hamstring cramps that started even earlier (around four miles) and were very frustrating, because I was running very well, but couldn’t maintain the pace when my hamstrings kept feeling like they were about to pop. It is now clear that this is a problem that I need to get under control. Any advice would be appreciated.