Has anyone experienced chronic calf cramping during long (10+ mile) runs and how did you defeat them? If you did.
They tend to strike after a hill climb during cool weather but neither of those are always necessary for them to happen. They do seem to happen more, the faster I am getting, but they've always been a problem (all the way back to soccer in 8th grade).
- increasing my potassium intake with bananas and sweet potatoes and that doesn't seem to have any effect at all.
- Stinger gels and they didn't work either
- Gu makes me very sick so that is out as an option
- I have a couple calf compressors that seem to help a little but they aren't entirely reliable either
- Nor are running tights or keeping my legs warm in general
I will continue to keep trying "stuff" but at this point was hoping a more directed/informed giudance might help me fix this problem quicker
Apparently I fail at forum searching. Found this in that "More Like This" section that appeared after I posted:
...interesting suggestion that drinking too much water can flush out your electrolytes...I drink TONS of water. People at work have even suggested I may drink unhealthy amounts of water (though they couldn't say why it was unhealthy). Maybe time to add Gatorade to my long runs. This latest race I just ran and cramped at was pretty stingy on the Gatorade I thought (only three Gatorade stops for a half marathon?) I'll report back in a couple weeks as to whether it worked or not, unless someone else has a better idea. Probably need a non-Gu/non-Stinger alternative for Gatorade-stingy races if that turns out to be the problem.
Excess water consumption can lead to a condition called hypnoatremia (you can google it or look on wikipedia or many exercise sites), with symptoms similar to dehydration and possible serious consequences (including death in extreme cases). So that is something you should check carefully, to see if you are in fact drinking more than is healthy. If your urine is consistently clear and/or you need to urinate frequently, say more than every three hours, you may indeed be drinking too much water.
However, recent research points more to under-trained muscles as the cause of cramping, rather than dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. In that case, I would suggest stretching and strengthening your lower legs - calves and shins. Some simple exercises the require no equipment are toe raises for the calves (on the edge of a step) and top-taps for the shins (can be done standing or seated).
I agree with the "undertrained" explanation, but there are so many factors that make healthy muscle contraction possible, I would steer clear of focusing on just one thing. It's a teamwork effort on the part of nutrition, hydration, training, and recovery. Make sure you don't neglect any of these in pursuit of your goals. However (there is always a however), some genetics come into play, too. Believe it or not, this is another thing you can change. Here is a video that starts funny, but gets pretty serious about explaining this fact...
I cramped badly at mile 15 in my first marathon, after less than a year of training for it. My nutrition and hydration were really good, training insufficient (more strength training in those days, but less running), and recovery was suspect. I still cramped, sometimes just as early, in subsequent marathons, but became less likely to cramp as the years went by. It wasn't that I picked up my mileage so much as staying consistent and gaining experience that made cramp-free marathons possible. When you are getting older, but improving, you are doing something right. You just have to give your legs a chance to keep up with your demands. Rome wasn't built in a day.
When athletes experience unusual bouts of cramps, attention turns to the other factors. Sometimes overtraining is the problem, too. In fact, this happens in microcosm during your run. A surprising number of people do not know, and are often frightened to find out, that exercise actually damages muscles. This effect is almost guaranteed every time you run. A certain number of muscle cells are going to rupture, break down, and become absorbed over a few days. And yeh, this hurts, but the new muscle cells that grow to replace the old are more likely to be stronger, and less likely to be damaged the next time around. In the meantime, a cramp is the way your body stops you from training so this process can take place. While training is important, it really only breaks you down. It is the recovery period during your rest that actually make things stronger.
If you are cramping, it is like the whistle to end the play. There could be a number of things wrong, at least for the moment. A few years ago I started running the only marathon I did not finish. I was well-trained, well-nourished, and ready to go. The temperature was way lower than any I had trained in, but I was prepared with tights, layered shirts, and something to wrap around my head. I warmed up well before the gun went off, but cramped badly in the first mile. I never made it to mile two before my legs locked up completely, and I could not even walk, let alone run. I decided it was not my day, and quit. A couple hours later, I would relax and try to jog out the problem. I wound up running several miles without a problem then or later. So, was I undertrained? Overtrained? Too cold? Who knows? It went away and did not come back.
Since then, when I have felt cramps coming on during long runs, I have attempted to manage them. I don't stretch them as I see others doing, because a stretch really doesn't do anything to increase circulation, and I know that circulation is the key to solving almost any issue with cramps, in the short-term and in the long-term. I've tried slowing, which often works temporarily, massaging the cramp, which also works for a while, paying attention to my stride to relax and shorten it, and dealing with the pain for a while until it goes away. That last one is really tough, but it has actually worked in some cases.
I am normally not in favor of running through pain, but pain from cramps is different from pain due to a muscle tear or inflamed joint, etc. It is somewhat artificial, like a complaint of dubious merit, a response out of proportion to its cause. Isn't it true that they often occur in people who are not exercising? If so, how does doing nothing when you are already doing nothing help? In my case, I have many times felt better after exercising the cramped muscle, than by babying it too much. It all depends on the real source of the cramp.
This means, you have to do your homework on all contributing factors, so you can rule out bad leads that waste your time. Then you will know if it is safe to continue exercising, if this too shall pass, and you will gradually loosen up. I believe a big factor in cramps is actually mental, in that too much anxiety causes the cramp. If you have ever had too much caffeine, and were edgy and started to twitch, it was a demonstration of this principle. Yes, caffeine is somewhat diuretic, so there is a little dehydration going on, but that fast in all tissues? I don't think so. In fact, I don't trust any research on cramps to nail down the phenomenon at all, because there is way more that we don't know than what we do. That can be said of almost any research, which frequently gets overturned by subsequent studies.
I'm willing to bet that thinking too hard about all the potential causes of cramps is likely to cause more of them than knowing nothing and chilling through the challenge. If you are basically healthy, not deficient in anything, not dried out or water-logged, your muscles should work pretty well until you eventually shred them. Worrying about it too much during your run will not help. Try banishing that 10-mile barrier by refusing to believe it exists, because I don't think it does. Count every two miles as one, and see if you don't make 20. I'm serious.
So, maybe that "neuromuscular change" the one British study noted was really more "neuro" than muscular. If you have really been careful with all the other stuff, I think it's a thought worth following up on. I've been through some hellaciously long runs without cramps, and they seem to have been free of anxiety with nothing to prove. My best marathons have been with less clock-watching and more enjoyment. I'll bet if you can forget the barrier, and run within your comfort zone, even step outside it a little and welcome the fatigue, that barrier just might disappear.
Excellent responses so far, and I'd like to add my 2 cents. Gatorade isn't a very good sport recovery drink because it's incomplete as is Powerade and some others. Magnesium is essential to helping prevent muscle cramps along with some other important internal functions. I use a drink mix call R4 from GNC which has magnesium and I won't do any distance training without it. Plain water is of course helpful and I'm happy to get some from the aid stations in a race to make my fuel belt stores last longer but its obviously lacking a few ingredients that you'll need. Most power bars don't have magnesium either so do some lable reading. I personally use LaraBars as my primary and whatever else turns up in the race packet or what I get by volunteering at race aid stations. Because you're unique, just like everybody else, your mileage may vary on different food or drinks available.
Good luck with the racing and keep us posted on your results.
Man...awesome responses so far! Thank you all so much!
A little more background about myself. I am 39, started running at 37 and completed my first (and only...so far) marathon at 38 in just under 5 hours. I've done four half marathons so far and recently posted a PR of 1:54 while struggling with cramps from mile 9 onward. I estimate probably 1:46-47-ish if I hadn't been waylaid.
Oddly enough the path from couch to marathon was cramp free even though I experienced them off and on my whole life. In January this year I switched from gigantic heel shoes to more minimalist - I train in both Brooks Pure Cadences and Newton Gravities (Newtons = hella fast but hurt my heels so I mainly use them just for races). I also took on "Natural Running" and overnight knocked over 1 minute per mile off my pace at any distance.
Reading the responses and thinking more, this switch seems to have brought on more cramps, much more frequently. That definitely jives with being "undertrained" and maybe they'll go away on their own the longer I stick with the faster running style that puts tons more stress on the calves. I doubt many can take 15 minutes off their Half PR even while struggling with cramps for 4 miles . I guess that is alot more speed in a very short span of time.
I agree cramps are somewhat "artificial" and did attempt to run through them on several occasions, even getting them to relent that way twice, but they became very insistent. Interesting, though, that I probably wasn't helping much by stretching them. And yes, I was definitely "clock watching" because I knew I was going to blow away my old PR of 2:09.
While I would prefer to take a more scientific approach and change only a single variable at a time, I only have 5 weeks until my next Half which means only 2-3 long runs to try stuff. So I will approach this from both ends - conditioning and electrolytes. I plan to add calf raises to my gym routine (3 sets of 20-30, once or twice a week, ensuring full range of motion) and adding Tablytes as a supplement. That R4 stuff looks like it packs a whallop so should Tablytes prove insufficient I may move up to that. As I discovered with Gu, though, I have a fairly sensitive stomach and might not be able to handle R4 (although I could always just dilute it).
Ok so...update. I managed to get 3 calf raise workouts in in two weeks which really agitated my PF that I didn't mention I had . Going to continue them for now but if the PF doesn't relent I may switch to just stretching more deeply. I also ordered a set of heel cups for the PF but that's a different topic.
Took on a 14 mile run. My Tablytes of course showed up at my doorstep the minute I returned from the run so I haven't tried those yet. The last run I did had some anti-cramping drink in the goody bag (I forgot the name of it) so I tried 4 oz of that and loaded my camelbak with half strength gatorade instead of just water. I had no full-on cramps but got one slight twinge at around 13.5 miles. That's usually how it starts so if the usual pattern would have held I anticipate cramping at around a mile or so later. Not ideal but obviously an improvement. Hopefully it continues to trend away as I am more seriously considering doing another Full in October.
Following up on what NzAndy mentioned, magnesium imbalance is an important factor when treating muscle cramps. I have read figures on magnesium deficiency in the US population hovering between 60-78%, but this number does not take into account the increased need for magnesium among the exercising population, people under severe stress, those with insufficient sleep, and coffee drinkers. Sounds like a lot of Americans, doesn't it?
Magnesium helps to counter what happens in muscle when too much calcium accumulates in muscle tissue. Often times, it is not that we are completely lacking in minerals, but that they are not in balance. The same chemical interactions apply in human tissue as in technology such as batteries. Sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, all play a role in how and when muscle tissue contracts. It is easy for these chemical processes to be thrown out of balance, even when the minerals are well represented in the diet. Not only will certain types of stress deplete important minerals, but the fact that we eat them in balance does not mean we absorb them equally. Magnesium is an example of a mineral that is notoriously difficult to absorb, and unlike iron, is easily and frequently eliminated via excretion. In fact, this is why it is often used as a laxative.
So, the use of supplements with a balance of nutrients does not ensure that you will either absorb or retain them. Your net retention of these vital electrolytes is more important than dietary balance, especially under the stress of exercise. You may need to skew your nutritional intake to achieve that net balance.
Let's look at a mineral that is well represented in the US diet: Calcium. Though Calcium is a vital electrolyte that has been highlighted by a trendy focus on bone health, it is only one of many minerals involved in bone-building. Yet, it is added as a supplement to almost everything, from bread to orange juice, despite the fact that it is not hard to absorb from a balanced diet. Calcium can be difficult for the body to manage in excess. It is an important component of arterial plaque, bone spurs, stones, brittle bones, and muscle tightness. Keeping it in balance can be complicated by medical conditions and use of certain medications.
Because calcium is abundant in the human body, and highly alkaline, it is an important buffer in the highly acidic diet we are accustomed to here, rich in grains, sugars, and flesh foods. In addition to concerns about bone health in the aging population, that's probably another reason why it is added to so many foods. There's a good chance we need more of it, but I believe that ironically, dietary balance has been a casualty in this battle to correct the inherent imbalance in our diet, activities, medications, and habits.
In short, I would not be surprised if you find yourself within that conservative 60% of Americans deficient in another important mineral, magnesium, the absorption of which can be blocked by an excess of calcium. When it comes to diet vs. supplementation, clearly diet is a better way to acquire and absorb minerals, because of the tendency of minerals in elemental form to compete with each other for absorption.
LOL did you say coffee? I drink about a pot a day . Then switch to tea in the afternoon. Prior to an early morning run on weekends I still get in 2-3 cups. Too bad its so hard to test. This made me chuckle but I just may try it in conjuction with less coffee:?
"Try increasing the amount of magnesium you take by mouth until it causes diarrhoea, then reduce the dose slightly so it does not."
Ran a hillier Half and cramped even earlier, with the first one hitting at 7.5 miles. The good news is that it pissed me off so much I was able to take another 4 minutes off my PR even with frequent stopping. Still, I estimate it cost me 5-8 minutes. Tried to run through the cramping and this actually worked a couple times but then one hit so hard that it actually crept up to my hamstring when I refused to stop and work it out.
With massively increased Magnesium levels (unless I can't absorb it) I think I can rule that out.
Current theory on the table is salt. Turns out my diet is almost devoid of it and I've avoided it ever since my dad's heart had trouble dealing with it. So I've started adding just small amounts of salt to stuff. I've completed one 14 mile run since I implemented the salt addition and there was not even a twinge of a cramp. So possibly I am onto something but the run wasn't that hilly and hills are what seem to prompt the cramps so the jury is still out.
Secondary theory is that I overtrain. I'm pretty sure I don't overtrain mileage-wise (3 runs/week usually) but speedwise I am sure I do. Every run turns into a race in my head and I end up pushing hard. I've since backed off and included recovery runs and easy runs.
I've also come across suggestions that people with "sprinter muscles" burn glycogen at a much higher rate. Being a 100-200-400 meter runner in high school I believe I fall into the fast twitch "sprinter muscle" category. So its possible I need to do a better job of carb loading and then fueling during a run. I'd read carb loading wasn't really for Half marathons but possibly I just burn glycogen faster than most distance runners due to my physiology.
I too have had to deal with cramping - so I am very empathetic. I'm 56, started running at 52, I've run one marathon and several HM's. I too have wanted a scientific explanation to why cramping happens and what I've learned is that nobody really knows... There is a tremendous amount of speculation and lots of good thought, but no silver bullet. As one of your responders suggested, the answer is likely in a fine balance of nutrition and endurance training. And then of couse, is the need to be very cognizant of the weather (humidity) conditions.
Everyone is different re cramping, but I've discovered that if I start to taste salt on my lips, I need to get slow down and get a serious amount of electrolytes (in the form of gatorade and endurolytes) into my system - if I don't I will start to cramp. (I've cramped so bad that I was unable to move off the road and had to DNF a 30K race - EMS came, lights and sirens - it was embarassing and humiliating).
So the bottom line is that you are going to have to figure out what combination and balance of nutrition and endurance training works for you to prevent cramping... For me, I'm finding that upping my endurance is helping - as long as I am also paying close attention to my nutrition.
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