Hate to break it to you runners, but there's no magic cure for cramps. That annoying tight-muscle feeling is a result of a combination of things, and it can happen to everyone at some point. To help those of us who refuse to hang up our favorite running sneakers (looking at you, UA HOVR™ Machina Running Shoes ($150)) and call it a day, I tapped Marni Wasserman, VDOT, RRCA, and kettlebell-certified run coach at Mile High Run Club to get the lowdown on stretching out cramps and what we can do to minimize their impact on our runs.
But as it turns out, she explained most of the cramping people experience during running can't really be "stretched out" — with the exception of a side stitch that can be helped by standing, breathing, and pressing into it. But other leg and body cramps? Not so simple.
"Cramps in feet, calves, and hamstrings are usually a result of dehydration, or electrolyte imbalance, or muscle fatigue," said Wasserman. What's more, she added that while the muscles are actually cramping, it might be counterproductive to try to force them into a stretch.
Although your best bet during a mid-run cramp is to simply rest, hydrate, and catch your breath, there are a few things you can do before your run to help minimize cramping. Beyond proper hydration, Wasserman urges runners to incorporate strength training and form exercises into their program as well. "For well-trained runners, fatigue cramps are most likely to happen as form breaks down over longer distances and other muscles have to compensate," she explained. Continually building and working muscles, as well as maintaining good running form, is beneficial not only to avoid cramping, but also to minimize the possibility of injury. Lastly, if you're not trained for a long run, don't do it! Just because you've mastered four miles doesn't mean you should suddenly jump up to 15.
But that's not all Wasserman said runners can do. She shared four post-run stretches to ease tightness and target the four major areas where runners see cramps.
Overhead Reach With a Lean
Helps with: side stitches (aka diaphragm cramps)
Begin by standing tall, breathing deeply and slowly. Interlace your hands overhead and lean away from the affected side. For more stubborn cramps, use two fingers from the opposite hand to apply pressure to the side stitch as you continue leaning away. Hold for 15 seconds or until the area releases.
Standing Toe Reach and Quad Contraction
Helps with: hamstrings
Step your cramping leg slightly forward with your toes pointed up. Reach down for your toes, bending your front knee as needed to change the intensity of the stretch. Hold for 15 seconds or until the cramp passes. If stretching your hamstring is too painful at first, try to relax the muscle by contracting your quadricep instead. The hamstring and quadricep work opposite one another, so forcing one to contract will encourage the other to release. Hold for up to 10 seconds or until the cramp eases.
Standing Lunge and Standing Knee Bend
Helps with: calves
Lunge forward on the unaffected side, dropping your front knee to 90 degrees (i.e., if your right foot is cramped, step forward with the left foot). Your front foot should be firmly planted and your back heel should be lifted. Hold for a deep breath before stepping the feet together. Repeat until the area releases. If the cramp is very intense, it may be easier to start with a standing knee bend. Once you can bear weight on the affected leg, keep your foot flat and bend the knee until you feel the stretch. Hold for 10-to-15 seconds, release, and repeat as needed until the spasm subsides.
Upper Back Opener
Helps with: shoulders and upper back
Standing tall, drop the shoulders away from the ears and roll them out. Shake out your arms as well. If the cramp persists, lift your elbows in line with your shoulders and bend them 90 degrees with your hands up and palms facing forward (Wasserman said you should look like a cactus here). Then, bring your arms together in front of you so the edges of both palms and forearms are touching, and your palms are facing you. Make sure to keep your elbows lifted so you feel the stretch between the shoulder blades. Hold for 10 seconds, open your arms, and repeat as needed.