The dreaded muscle cramp. It’s that sudden onset of intense pain that gets you scrambling for relief and wondering what you did to deserve such punishment.
So what exactly are muscle cramps, and can you do anything to stop them before they sneak up on you? Read on to understand what causes muscle cramps and the solutions to this painful condition that can put a major hitch in your running routine.
We’ve all experienced that clenching pain in the calf or thigh that seems to come out of nowhere. You probably wonder exactly what’s going on when the charley horse strikes. Essentially, your muscle contracts suddenly and involuntarily in a spasm that you can’t control. Ouch!
While muscle cramps are annoying and painful, typically they are harmless. Take note if you experience cramps with increasing frequency or don’t improve with self-care. You may want to consult your doctor to rule out any underlying medical condition and to help you pinpoint the source.
Your muscles can cramp for a variety of reasons. Some may seem obvious, while others may be new to you. You may discover the reason for your cramps right in this helpful list of common culprits.
Skipping Your Warm-up
This cause is a big one for many runners. It adds time to your workout and is so easy to leave out when pressed for time. But when you skip this step, your muscles are tighter and more prone to injury and cramping.
Overusing Your Muscles
If you’re doing the same exercise moves or working out the same muscle group daily, overuse can cause muscle fatigue that leads to cramps. You can also experience overuse by not tapering off your workouts enough before a race.
Starting a New Exercise Routine
Sometimes you may get too ambitious when you start a new workout. You want results now! But if you ramp up the difficulty and intensity too quickly, it can strain your muscles and cause them to cramp.
If you’re low on minerals such as magnesium, potassium, or calcium, you’ll be more likely to have muscle cramps. All of these nutrients help with muscle contractions, so when they’re out of balance, your muscles can spasm.
If you’re exercising in high temperatures and sweating heavily, you can become dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps if you don’t drink enough fluids.
Wearing the Wrong Shoes
Beware of your footwear. When your shoes don’t fit correctly, provide good support, or are too worn, it can lead to muscle cramps. Your shoes can strain the muscles and decrease circulation in the feet, ankles, and legs to set the stage for some painful spasms.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
Now that you know some of the most common causes of muscle cramps, it’s time to do something about them. Try some of these cramp prevention strategies to avoid those painful surprises that put a damper on your run.
When you take the time to warm up your muscles before a workout, you’ll be much less likely to experience cramping.
This warming process makes your joints and muscles more flexible and less prone to cramping and injury. Overall, a win-win situation.
You should make sure to add stretches to your running regimen to head off muscle cramps. Experts recommend stretching both before and after your workouts for the best results.
Dynamic stretches, or stretching while moving, are what you want to perform before you begin your main workout. You can do static stretches, which are the type that you hold for a while, at the end of your workout and before bed.
Ease Into a New Workout
Rome wasn’t built in a day, so you want to take it easy when you start a new exercise routine. Begin slowly with the intensity and duration of your new workout and build up gradually to your end goal to avoid cramping your style.
Taper Off Before a Race
You have a couple of weeks left before your big race. I bet you’re thinking you want to train as much as possible, but this can do more harm than good. Training too much before pushing your limits can be a recipe for muscle cramps. Taper off your routine before your race to prevent cramps during your event.
Drink Plenty of Fluids
It may seem like you should only worry about drinking fluids when you get thirsty, but it’s important to start hydrating before you feel the need to drink. Stay on top of your fluid intake, especially in hot weather, to keep those cramps at bay.
Eat a Balanced Diet
To ensure you have all the key nutrients for muscle function, eat a balanced diet rich in magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Foods such as bananas, black beans, and leafy greens contain the nutrition your muscles need to stay cramp-free. You can also add a supplement if you can’t get enough of these minerals through diet alone.
Buy Good Shoes
You want to wear comfortable, supportive, and properly fitted shoes for every activity throughout your day. The fit of your running shoes is extremely important to ensure proper support and circulation to prevent cramps.
But don’t forget about those dress shoes, sandals, boots, and heels. They can also put a strain on your feet and legs that can cause cramps, even when you’re not wearing them.
The Takeaway – What Causes Muscle Cramps
Cramps can be an unpleasant side effect of running. Understanding what causes these painful spasms is the first step to finding a solution.
Use this list of causes and preventive measures to review your habits. You’ll be able to see where you may be sabotaging yourself.
When you make a few simple changes to your running regimen and lifestyle, you can head off muscle cramps before they derail your workouts.