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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