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.

2013 New York City Marathon Predictions

All I know for sure about tomorrow’s New York City Marathon is that it is going to be a classic race. The World Marathon Majors championship series is still up for grabs, which injects some serious additional motivation for Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede and London Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda who both toe the starting line on Sunday with $500,000 on the line. If Kebede is in the top three, the money is his, due to his London Marathon victory in April and his fourth place finish at the World Championship in Moscow. If Kiprotich wins Sunday’s race or comes in second with Kebede out of the top three, the Olympic and World Champion will take home the World Marathon Majors’ $500,000 purse. Kebede and Kiprotich’s race within the race should provide some additional – to put it mildly – drama. In pre-race interviews, Kebede has been straightforward in saying that the only person he is racing is Kiprotich. It’s difficult to say who has the advantage. Letsrun’s analysis of the upcoming race comes down strongly on Kebede’s side, citing his spectacular consistency, his motivation after the disappointment of finishing seconds short of the jackpot in 2010, indications that his training has been going very well after his disappointing fourth place finish at Moscow this summer, and the fact that he is familiar with the New York City course, having finished third in 2011. Kebede also comes across as being supremely confident.

In the World Marathon Majors competition I’m betting against Kebede’s experience and confidence and going, instead, with Olympic and World Champion Stephen Kiprotich who has a knack – obviously – for winning high stakes championship races with no pacers. Although he hasn’t previously run New York, the hills and turns and relative difficulty of the course should help to balance out the fact that his personal best is minutes slower than some of the other elites. It also sounds like he has been training well. This might be the race when we find out that Kebede – 15 marathons since 2008 – is on the downside of his career, whereas Kiprotich, unbeatable when it really matters, is on the upswing. Of course, there’s also the chance that in solely focusing on their competition with one another, neither Kebede nor Kiprotich will win the main event — $100,000 for first place. Running journalist and racing commentator Toni Reavis has argued that Kebede and Kiprotich “don’t have a prayer,” and that Geoffrey Mutai “is your winner of the ING New York City Marathon for 2013 right now.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/11/01/geoffrey-mutai-winner-new-york-city-marathon-2013/#more-8745) Mutai is as much of a sure thing, Reavis claims, as Alberto Salazar was in 1981. Reavis argues that Kebede and Kiprotich are out of the running because they will be concentrating too much on one another and won’t be willing to match Mutai if he goes out very fast. Mutai is also very motivated by the recent successes of his training partners Wilson Kipsang – the new world record holder – and Dennis Kimetto, who just bested the Chicago course record. He is, to put it mildly, very fit. Don’t forget that he also won the 2011 New York City Marathon in a crazy course record 2:05:05. Reavis has said he usually doesn’t make predictions, but you can essentially take this one to the bank. I don’t know, but I get the feeling that this might be the marathon in which Mutai finds out that you really do need to respect the distance.

Aside from Mutai, Kebede, and Kiprotich, are there any other possible winners? One of the exciting things about the marathon is, of course, its unpredictability. Many of the additional contenders are sentimental favorites. It would be great for the sport if they won, but it’s going to be tough. Wesley Korir, the surprise 2011 Boston Marathon victor has been splitting his time between serving in the Kenyan Parliament and training for the marathon. Korir is a charismatic and very likeable athlete who is great for the sport. It would be fantastic if he won. Next, we have Martin Lel, who won at New York in 2003 and 2007 (and who actually has a 100% success rate on the course) and has successfully overcome recent injury issues to make another run at it. His last marathon was a second place finish in 2:06:51 at the London Marathon – not too shabby and definitely a major contender if Kebede, Kiprotich, or Mutai falter. The guy that I really want to win is Meb Keflezighi. Underestimated during the last several years, Meb won New York in 2009, the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 and finished fourth in the London Olympics. His PB doesn’t compare with the top guys, but his experience in races without pacesetters should not be underestimated. Should the top elites beat up on each other too much, you can count on Meb to pick up the pieces. The very likeable Meb winning NYC on live national television would also be a serious boost to the sport of distance running in the United States.

Barring any last-minute injuries, the women’s race at this year’s New York City Marathon is easy to predict. Kenyan elites Edna Kipligat and Priscah Jeptoo are both vying for the World Marathon Majors prize purse of $500,000 and will also come away with $100,000 for winning Sunday’s marathon. Priscah Jeptoo wins the $500,000 if she prevails in tomorrow’s marathon, while Edna Kiplagat needs to come in first or second (second only works if Jeptoo doesn’t win). Head to head Kipligat and Jeptoo have each bettered the other twice, and while Edna has a slightly better personal best, Jeptoo’s last race was a sensational 65:45 half marathon in September at the Bupa Great North Run. She is fit. I would be surprised if the race doesn’t come down to Kipligat and Jeptoo trading surges during the last several miles. If Kiplagat and Jeptoo are both having off days, look for Kim Smith, running for New Zealand, but based in Providence, Rhode Island to finally show her true potential (2:22) in the marathon. Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia, who won the New York City Marathon in 2011 probably, feels a bit overlooked in the media whirlwind that accompanies New York. It’s not often that a defending champion is a dark horse, but Dado qualifies. If the favorites falter, she’ll win her second consecutive New York City Marathon. If I was forced to make a choice, I would bet on Priscah Jeptoo to win on Sunday, pick up $600,000, and continue her high quality racing. If there’s one thing I am confident of, it is that the first New York City Marathon after the 2012 cancellation is going to go down in running history as a classic.

Next weekend I’m running my first Stockade-athon 15K – oldest major 15k in the United States. Since the Adirondack Cross Country Championships I have been running long slow distance, emphasis on the slow. I think I have finally managed to convince myself that I have been running my long runs and recovery runs too quickly. This has been a problem since I started running in the early 1980s. Slowing down has really helped with being able to increase mileage. I think it might be too early for the results to show next weekend, but I definitely feel like I am on the right track.