Cramps While Running: Causes & How to Avoid Them

Oh, the dreaded cramp.  Runners of all experience and talent level have more than likely experienced a cramp while running.  Whether it is a side stich or a nasty calf cramp, it is no fun.  These cramps can occur during or after your run, both of which being bothersome.

Have you ever wondered why you get these cramps, and if there is any way to try to prevent them?  There is no one size fits all regarding cramps while running, but there are some suggestions that can help you prevent and treat cramps.

This article will review what the causes of your cramps may be, ways to prevent cramps from occurring, and treatment.

Causes of cramps while running

The causes of cramps while running is a highly researched and debated topic.  While hydration is the most wildly recognized cause there are some additional theories that have been gaining traction.

Some of these theories behind cramping in runners include overuse of muscles, lack of sleep, excessive caffeine intake, and poor breathing while running.

Also, more specifically for side stiches, the timing of when you consume your meal may be a factor.  Some runners need to wait longer (up to 2 hours) after they consume a meal to eat to avoid the dreaded side stich or stomach cramp.

Hydration

The most researched cause of cramps is dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.  Hydration is super important for runners, for many reasons, and one of these reasons is to avoid cramps.

As a runner, you should be hydrating consistently throughout your day.  If you plan on running for greater than an hour, you should be hydrating on the run as well.  If you are running on a particularly hot or humid day, hydration becomes even more important on the run.

Begin hydrating early and often.

When you run you may sweat.  Your sweat is composed of water and electrolytes (mainly sodium and chloride).  You want to replace this fluid and electrolyte loss as soon as possible.

If when you sweat you notice a white residue on your clothing or accessories you may be a “salty sweater”, which means that your body loses more electrolytes during your run.  In this case you may want to consume extra salt throughout the day.

Other causes of cramps

As mentioned above there are some additional potential causes of cramps that should be discussed.  

  • Overuse of muscles: as runners there is a chance that overuse of your leg muscles can occur.  Try to vary up your runs, and be sure to take rest and easy days.  Also, never underestimate the importance of stretching!
  • Lack of sleep: not getting enough sleep can be a cause of cramps.  Be sure to get at least the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night, if not more!
  • Excessive caffeine: caffeine may influence cramps in runners.  Especially if you are someone who does not usually consume caffeine and may be sensitive to its effects.
  • Poor breathing while running: be sure to deeply inhale while you are running to ensure enough oxygen to support your run. Shallow breathing may be more likely to cause cramps such as side stiches.

How to prevent cramps while running

Begin hydrating early and often.  Hydration is key to avoid cramps.  If you are a salty sweater, you are running for extended periods of time, or you are running on a hot and humid day electrolytes become key.

Bananas are often thought of as a good way to replenish electrolytes, and while they are high in potassium and a good nutrition choice, they are not the best option to replace your electrolytes.

Try consuming an electrolyte drink or gel with water.  Many electrolyte drinks that are specifically made for athletes have appropriate concentrations of electrolytes and water to properly hydrate an athlete.

Some additional ways to prevent muscle cramps while running include taking care of yourself.  Ways to do this include stretching, running at a slower pace some days, allowing adequate time for rest and recovery, and getting a good night’s sleep as often as possible.

Cramps are unfortunately a part of being a runner, but these steps should help prevent them!

Treatment for cramps

So, you followed all the steps above, but you still got a cramp, how can you treat the cramp?  If you feel a cramp coming on, you should slow down and try to focus on breathing.

If the cramp is too painful to continue running, you should stop and try to massage out the area the cramp is occurring.  If you can massage the cramp away, start back up with running, but take it slow at first and gradually speed up the pace.

Hydration may also be necessary.  Try to drink some fluid with electrolytes.

Overview

Cramps can unfortunately be a part of running.  They are annoying, but often do not cause any long-term damage.

The main area of focus regarding cramps should be hydration.  As a runner, hydration should be an important part of your training and nutrition plan.  Be sure to mix in some electrolyte drinks throughout the day.

You should hydrate early, and hydrate often.  For longer, or hot/humid runs you should consider hydrating while you are running.

If you do get a cramp while running, there are some steps you can take to alleviate the pain.  You can try to take some deep breaths and slow the pace, stop and stretch, and hydrate.

As always, there is no one size fits all, so you may need to do some trial and error to find out what works for you.  If you have any specific questions, you should reach out to a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition to learn more!

Happy running 😊

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