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Why Do Cramps Happen While Running and How to Prevent Cramps

What's the Deal With: Muscle Cramps

Believe it or not, no one can definitively explain the cause of muscle cramps. Unfortunately many endurance athletes are eager to know why cramps occur and how to prevent them. There are several plausible theories on what causes these debilitating involuntary spasms of muscles including: excessive heat, dehydration, and the loss of electrolytes, to muscle fatigue, insufficient training, and poor stretching habits. A new theory points the blame to the interplay between muscles and nerves.

Since the cause of cramps is not understood, the folks at suggest you take a blanket approach and cover all your bases for cramp prevention. They suggest the following strategies:

  • Stretching: Pay extra attention to the muscles that cramp. Stretch them gently but thoroughly. Experiment with PNF stretching, where you contract the muscle prior to stretching; you might find it more effective.
  • Train appropriately: Being under trained, especially for marathons, can overwhelm your muscles making you susceptible to cramps.
  • Sip a sports drink: Even though the jury is still out on the connection between dehydration and cramping, you should stay well hydrated while running. Plus, regular sips of a sports drink can likely decrease the severity of your cramp should one occur. Make sure your fluid of choice contains electrolytes since these salts may help prevent cramps.
  • Try some plyo: Plyometrics training, full of leaping, hopping, or skipping drills, can improve muscle-nerve coordination, strength, and help loosen tight muscles.

If you are planning on racing in the near future, plan ahead and train to avoid cramping!


Join The Conversation
johnhardey johnhardey 9 years
Dunno why this article did not mention anything about bananas. I get leg cramps at night that wake me up, if I go for a week w/o eating bananas. Also I feel the fruit also helps me when I work out, because my muscles tire less easily (also related to lactic acid build up). Also surprised this article did not mention lactic acid...
yog yog 9 years
I had calf muscles cramp and some times small foot muscles also get cramps at the middle of the night or even while driving a car. I suffered this for many years. But since I started practicing Yoga and Pranayama(Breathing exercise) which include contraction of muscles followed by relaxation or stretching these muscles, my cramps have gone totally. I did not change my normal diet or added any type of magnesium or potassium in my food. I did Yoga for 15 minuted and Pranayama for same period in the morning. cause of this condition is not known but remedies are known by experience and all the remedies seems to be worth trying.
mark2812 mark2812 9 years
I was happy to see this topic on Yahoo. I do a lot of mountain climbing and I have had problems with Cramping while climbing and also descending. I usually get the cramps in my quads, which is really really painful. I have done a lot of research and mostly amazed about how little the medical community really understands about muscle cramps. Most doctors tell you to drink Gatorade. There are a lot of good ideas on the topic posted here...I do a lot of stretching and also now take electrolyte tablets when I hike in hot weather and I always make sure I drink loads of water the night before a big hike. This has helped. Also, I learned about massage therapy, there is a book called "The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook" Author Clair Davies, which discusses trigger points and how that can lead to cramps etc. This has helped a lot. I also found a book called the "Pain Free Triathlete" by Julie Donnelly. She has some great suggestions for endurance athletes and also discusses trigger points. Interestingly, the book does not recommend that you stretch during a calf cramp, rather, you push the muscles together to facilitate the cramp, then once it is over, do some stretching. She writes: " Instead of stretching and pulling the cramp muscle, hasten the completion of the cramp by assisting the fibers in their contraction, and then stretch the muscle." Most people suggest to stretch during the cramp. The book suggests that stretching during the cramp "may tear the muscle fibers." I think diet, stretching, and proper training for the particular excercise have help alleviate my cramping issues, though I still get them on long climbs.
mmiljour mmiljour 9 years
regarding muscle cramps ; most muscle cramps are totally preventable if a few simple biological rules are understood. It takes a certain set of chemicals to contract a muscle and a completely different set of chemicals to relax a muscle. And for some unknown reason a human body will run out of the chemicals it takes to relax a muscle before we run out of the chemicals it takes to contract muscle. Therefore if our bodies are low on the minerals that are essential to muscle contraction and relaxation during times of stress, fatigue, or overworking of the muscles - we will run out of the minerals that it takes to relax the muscle before we run out of the minerals it takes to contract the muscle. A muscle will then have the ability to contract but not the ability to relax i.e. a cramp. The source of the minerals necessary for muscle contraction and relaxation are well-known, fruits and vegetables etc. The problem comes in the quantity of mineral that is needed to replenish those minerals that are lost due to sweat, urination, muscle contraction etc. etc. it is very hard for the average person to eat an extremely large quantity of fruits and vegetables. Therefor one must look for a source of minerals that is extremely nutrient dense. This source of minerals in the highest concentration is available in sea vegetables-kelp powder. In other words to prevent cramps, restless leg etc. a person should be taking daily approximately half a teaspoon of kelp powder. If you're getting cramps a person should take a heaping teaspoon of kelp powder for one to two days and then a maintenance dose after that. The kelp powder is not a very good tasting food source therefor it should be mixed into something that buries the flavor such as tomato juice or V-8 juice or another juice. Or it could be taken in capsule form or tablet form to the equivalent amount. Over the years we have treated hundreds of people with restless leg syndrome and cramps with 100% success using this concept along with improved nutrition. Respectfully Dr. Mike
sugarsugarsalt sugarsugarsalt 9 years
ok, i have had muscle cramps in every muscle in my body! i have been suffering with them for 15 years,i have had to get quick shots from the doctor to come out of the total body cramp. all my electrolites are normal, and i do not get them from exercising. if i sit too long i get them in my legs. if i stand too long i get them when i go to bed. the only thing that helps me is an iron supplement called cromagen.
Viperman Viperman 9 years
This is really simple. I used to ride my bike 35 miles a day, and got terrible cramps in the middle of the night. If you are de-hydrated, and especially if you drink alcohol at night, before bed, I take a big glass of water and gulp down half of it and then fill it back up, and drink the rest through the night, and I "never" have cramps in the middle of the night. It all has to do with the muscles staying lubricated, so they can slide, rather than sticking, and then jumping into a cramp situation. At night in bed after a hard day or a long workout, you are a sleep, and one minute your muscles are totally relaxed, and then either sudden movement or a dream can set them in motion. Just try this simple method. It costs nothing, except maybe now having to get up once in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
K-Town_Raiders K-Town_Raiders 9 years
Most of the time to prevent muscle cramps you stretch and keep moving. If you ever take a break stretch again. Last week I was practicing in shorts and got a cramp in the calf, all I had to do is stretch 5 minutes and it went away. Most of the time I can feel a cramp before it gets bad.
bodyworker08 bodyworker08 9 years
Danny76- It sounds like you could have periformis syndrome, and TFL lock up. A good massage therapist can help with that. Try doing some periformis stretching by lying flat on your back, take a couple of deep breaths, start to slowly move your leg across your body, and hold, but, go only til you feel pain then pull back a bit. hold stretch for a count of 15 secs. Do both sides so you maintain balance of ypur pelvis and hips. A nice hot bath helps before the stretch too. Hope this helps you!!!!!:)
bodyworker08 bodyworker08 9 years
Although magnisium & potassium are usually the culprets, you must remember that they are part of the electrolyte system and too much of either could do heart damage and most likely kidney damage. It is important to know that when your having cramping issues, there is a much bigger problem. Before you go all out on these things, you may need blood tests to make sure your levels are too low. Pickle juice does work because it is high in potassium, but very bad on the stomach lining. Use caution with this method.
stpaulmom stpaulmom 9 years
TAKE MAGNESIUM!! Like many other of the posters have said, it works! I have worked with a nutrition company for two years now. I used to have chronic muscle spasms in the middle of the night ever since pregnancy. I learned later that my pregnancy caused a deficiency in magnesium. I still take 3 magnesium citrate before bed every night an no cramps ever since. I forgot to take them a few nights ago: GUESS WHAT HAPPENED?? Major muscle spasm in the middle of the night! Added bonus: Magnesium helps you sleep too. Go out and buy a high quality magnesium citrate or glycinate at your local co-op - they will help you determine which kind is right for you.
bodyworker08 bodyworker08 9 years
One thing that we forget too is that when you are de-hydrated your muscle fibers can not pull apart to stretch or move. You will do good to remember to drink adequate amounts of water, the recommended is 8 glasses a day. Not every body can get down that much water in a day, so it's best to play it by ear how much you need as the day progresses. Heat does an awesome job along with stretching the cramping area at the same time. Yes, your diet has a lot to do with it. Magnesium, potassium are the big players here, but never start a workout with out proper stretching.
Jennifer5252 Jennifer5252 9 years
My daughter was a very active athlete as a child and young adult. Her Club Soccer Team Doctor recommended Tonic Water with Quinine (add lime for taste). Works amazingly fast. We purchased quinine tablets from the pharmacist (behind the counter) as her problem was ongoing for several years. I have tried the tonic water for night time leg cramps and get quick relief.
Shane-52 Shane-52 9 years
Try drinking pickle juice. It works for me in less that 1 minute everytime. I used to play football and would get cramps in the middle of the game. As soon as the team stated dinking the pickle juice no one suffered from cramps anymore.
kenv47 kenv47 9 years
For cramps in bed, place a bar of soap under the bottom sheet. Any brand will work with the exception of Dove. No one knows why a bar of soap works but it does.
Ke3ps Ke3ps 9 years
I used to be a dancer and would get cramps ALLLL of the time. Get a wash cloth and make it as hot as u can possibly take, put it on the crampy area and it'll let up right away. . . at least it does for me. Works for ladies on their monthly roller coaster too. . .
DANNY76 DANNY76 9 years
Pelekekona, Your suggested method must not work too well if you have to keep doing it everytime you get a cramp.:-) Ive been experiencing a lot of pain in my hip area. The pain tends to spread down to my knee. I am not too sure that it is a muscle cramp. But it seems to hurt more when I am sitting down or even driving in my car. Anyone have any ideas what it could be?
stevetara stevetara 9 years
I have had cramps in my calves for a very long time, even while sleeping. I started taking Magnesium Phosphate once a day and have not had cramps since starting this regimen. You can buy the tablets at any health food store. They melt on your tongue and do not taste bad at all. TRY IT. IT WORKS.
Jengraf Jengraf 9 years
This sounds crazy, but my friend's grandmother swears by it for leg cramps at night: put an opened bar of soap between your sheet and matress, down by your feet. It might be a kooky old wives tale, but what does it hurt to try it? Everyone has a spare bar of soap hanging around.
Darkaraphel Darkaraphel 9 years
there is another cause for muscle cramps and is the loss of Potassium. A regular blood work should let you know you current potassium levels. Hope this will help someone.
hawgnutz hawgnutz 9 years
Cramps are due to an increase of calcium over magnesium, at the molecular level in the muscles. I have used CITRATE OF MAGNESIUM, found in the laxative section of your local store, or walgreens. Just use a capful when you are susceptible to them. I used to have terrible cramps in my calves, but when they start, i just take a capful of the citrate of magnesium and they abate after awhile. Try it. It really works!
Pelekekona Pelekekona 9 years
I have had cramps for years and I usually use cold packs or something cold like a piece of marble or metal or porcelin nearby and when I apply the cold to the area of the cramps, it subsides very quickly. I have been doing this for years and it always works for me. I believe most times that the cramps are because of low potassium and eating bananas before going to bed helps minimize the cramps.
sinaiticus sinaiticus 9 years
I often got terrible spasming cramps in my calves while pregnant. The worst ones happened when my muscles spontaneously flexed while I was sleeping. I'd wake up with my muscles in such painful, terrible knots, it made me scream. Worse yet, the bigger my belly got, the harder it was to reach them!
bluecanary bluecanary 9 years
I was having random muscle cramps (not always while exercising) and found out it was a dietary problem. Not a lack of potassium, but magnesium in my case. Ate more greens and almonds, problem solved!
Lovely_1 Lovely_1 9 years
I rarely get them...guess I am one of the lucky few *knock on wood*...
Liss1 Liss1 9 years
My husband gets really bad legs cramps in the middle of the night. They are awful and he wakes up in a lot of pain :(
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