After a few Marathons and runs over 15+ miles (about 2 hours or so) I get really intense calf cramping / tightness in both legs. Only in the calfs. No pain running. Was thinking its an electrolyte or hydration problem... If I elevate my legs and shake or massage my calfs it is helpful.
I am wondering if anyone else has had this and what has been helpful.
Maybe its just lactate build up and I have to deal with it. Suggestions?
There are many explanations for cramping, and you brought up a couple of the more popular ones. Any time a symptom is mentioned, the first thing people think of is this kind of explanation. If a person has had experience with cramps, what may have happened in their case, and what worked for them, will often spring to mind first. I know that is what you are asking for, but you also provided a couple of clues that might not apply in other cases. Let's explore them.
You said you get relief when you elevate your legs after a run. This technique has been recommended before, and I'll briefly describe how it works. When you are running, the arteries in your legs dilate to bring additional circulation to the working muscles. After you stop, this additional blood flow is normally less necessary. When you elevate your legs, it becomes more necessary, because the arteries have to fight gravity to feed the starving muscles. The extra circulation feels good, and helps the recovery process.
Chances are there is not enough circulation in your legs after a run to fight off the cramp, unless you elevate your legs. Massage has also been shown (by infrared imaging studies) to stimulate peripheral circulation. Harder to see if this effect penetrates to the level of muscle, but the results tend to favor that explanation. Studies have been done to counter this claim, but it's really hard to put together an objective, non-invasive test to verify this one way or another. The most important thing is whether or not it works for you, and you say it does. Great, but why is enhanced circulation better for your exhausted legs?
Suppose you hydrate well enough and still have plenty of electrolytes that you haven't diluted or eliminated via increased urination. That would appear to be ideal, but without circulation, there is no delivery mechanism for water or essential minerals (electrolytes). Circulation is key, whether you have enough of these other things or not. So we now know of at least two or three things that help improve your circulation over just resting. Among them would be, in order of your mention, exercise, elevation, and massage, all of which seem to coincide with less cramping or pain, and all of which, again, appear to affect circulation in your legs.
So, you may be right. It may be an electrolyte or hydration problem, but may be more about internal distribution than intake. But why is all this circulation suddenly important now, when it wasn't a big deal in the past? Let's move on to why this may be more important after a few Marathons and long runs, etc.
Mileage, especially after competition pace, takes it's toll. It is normal for exercise to break down muscle. It is also normal for muscle to rebuild in a strengthening process. Otherwise, it would be silly to continue training when we could race on fresh legs instead. This is what makes us so different from the machines we are often compared to. If you were just a machine, you might opt for less wear and tear, and simple addition of vital fluids and nutrients, such as quality fuel and oil might represent in your car. Human physiology is much more complicated than that.
The damage that accumulates after Marathons and long runs is often very subtle, and sub-acute in nature, even though it tends to hurt a lot. This is why you can still run on it, and the running, thanks to increased circulation, can feel good. Sitting around is not so good, even though rest would appear to be beneficial. The explanation above takes care of that, but what exactly is happening to your calves, that certain activities can help, while rest doesn't appear to help much at all?
There is an editing process that goes on in your muscles over the years, as weaker muscle cells are broken down by your immune system, reabsorbed, and replaced by stronger ones. This microscopic damage (we call it micro-tears) is critical to rebuilding stronger muscle. It hurts a lot at times, but is one example of "no pain, no gain." The destruction and rebuilding of muscle often hurts, sometimes a lot. What is important for you to know, is that the rebuilding (recovery) process needs rest to complete. You may feel better while active due to enhanced circulation, but sooner or later your body's resources have to concentrate on the rebuilding process, and this happens best during sleep. Are you getting enough actual deep sleep to accomplish this?
The cramping and stiffening of your muscles can be seen as a reminder of just how important rest is. It acts to inhibit your use of muscles that must rest to rebuild, even though it ironically interferes with the circulation you so desperately need. Think of it as a cue, not a directive. As you have seen, complete inactivity doesn't help much. Save that for acute injuries under the direction of a physician, when continued activity might be a danger to the injury.
You may be one of many people who benefit from a "cool-down" after exercise. Elite athletes with very tough, highly evolved muscles might consider an easy run after a race to be a cool-down, but most of us would do better with a walk. Galloway is very emphatic about how important it is to keep walking after a Marathon, even for days after the event, to ease stress on muscle tissue while still encouraging circulation to help heal it. His approach, which has been embraced by many, also mixes walking into training runs, even the competition itself, as a way to build recovery into the exercise that is otherwise only breaking you down.
You asked about experiences with this, so I'll tell you mine. In a nutshell, competing at more than one Marathon in a given year, with not enough years of muscle rebuilding under my belt, training and competing at too fast a pace, with too little recovery, didn't work so well for me. I found that running my trainers at a reduced pace, about a minute or two per mile slower than goal pace, as Galloway recommends, works a lot better. I also take the prescribed walk breaks of a minute or so at least every mile, and it helps extend my potential mileage, while shrinking my recovery time. More than anything else, the patience I lacked in the beginning, has paid off over time. Good luck!
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