Most runners aren’t strangers to injury. Most of them are familiar with such maladies like shin splints, stress fractures, ankle injuries, and maybe even peroneal tendonitis. But it’s the serious runners who are most familiar with experiencing calf cramps when running – especially on long-distance runs.
The problem with leg cramps – or any kind of muscle cramp for that matter – is that it isn’t clear what exactly causes them. There are several viable theories though.
Let’s discuss those theories and what adjustments you can make to hopefully avoid cramps when running altogether.
What Causes Calf Cramps?
Cramps occur when your muscles involuntarily contract. When you’re calf cramps, what actually happens is that the two muscles that comprise what’s known as the “calf muscle,” contract. As seen above, those two muscles are the gastrocnemius and the soleus. And when they contract, they cause intense pain – so intense that even the ankle might flex. To make matters worse, contraction causes the muscle to spasm, which results in decreased blood flow to the muscles, which deprives them of oxygen and vital nutrients.
While these muscles might cramp during a run, a lot of people actually first experience them hours after a run. This usually occurs while they’re in bed, sleeping.
There are four main reasons that your calf might suddenly cramp. They are the following:
- You’re dehydrated
- Your electrolyte levels are depleted
- Muscle tightness
- Muscle fatigue
Can You Avoid Them?
If you keep the above in mind, yes it’s possible. there are a few things you can do before a run and while running to try to avoid calf cramps.
The first is to make sure you stay hydrated. We recommend you consume sixteen to twenty-four ounces of non-caffeinated fluid about an hour before you run. You should stop drinking at that point so that you don’t have to stop in the middle of your run to use the bathroom. That’s up to you, of course. As far as cramps are concerned, the more water, the better, up to a certain point (past that point, you start losing too many electrolytes, which, as we said above, is also thought to cause muscle cramps).
Tip: to know whether or not you’re dehydrated, check the color of your urine. If it’s dark and orangey, that’s a clear sign that you’re dehydrated. The lighter your urine, the more hydrated you are.
Secondly, it would be wise to counteract the danger of an electrolyte imbalance. When you run, you sweat; this sweat carries electrolytes – in the form of sodium and chloride – out of your system. While conventional wisdom may compel you to reach for a bunch of bananas to cure yourself of cramps, it would actually be better to opt for salt tablets. This is because your sweat contains a much higher concentration of sodium and chloride than it does of potassium. Be sure to check out our article on salt tablets for more information.
Third, make sure to do warm-ups and stretches before you run. This will help speed up blood flow and loosen up your muscles. Remember, muscle tightness can cause cramps. We have an article on the best stretches for runners too, so be sure to also check that out.
Fourth and lastly, if possible, start out slower and pace yourself. Adjusting something as simple as your level of exertion will do wonders in combatting muscle fatigue. It’s very possible that your calf muscle spasm simply because it’s exhausted from the burden of running too far too fast.
Doing all these things can help you rid yourself of calf pain completely. And if they don’t – they’re still good practices to implement. But at the same time, if they don’t help, you’ll want to continue reading for our tips on how to deal with calf cramps during a run.
How to Prevent Calf Cramps When Running
In addition to what we’ve already discussed, there are several things you can do to mitigate the occurrences of calf cramps when running.
The first is one we’ve already urged you to do: stay hydrated. If you’re prone to cramps even after you’ve followed the advice given above, be mindful of how much water you drink while running.
Secondly, get some compression gear. Wearing compression gear when you run yields you a plethora of benefits that extend far beyond preventing calf cramps. Consider one of our own line of compression sleeves, which are made from 100% recyclable materials retrieved from the ocean in order to fight against our earth’s plastic problem. Check out the available colors below.
Unfortunately, sometimes spasms just happen. And if they happen during your run, you have no choice but to stop. In order to get back to running as fast as possible, it’s best to begin massaging the cramping calf immediately. Don’t just stand there clutching your calf and hollering in pain – that won’t do any good. By massaging the calf, you’re aiding in increasing blood flow to it, which in turn will aid in breaking up the spasm. Once the pain dissipates, you’ll want to stretch it gently to get it to loosen up, because it still may be tight.
If the problem persists, you should consult your doctor. Your cramps may be caused by a vitamin deficiency, or they may be a side effect of medication that you’re already taking, or the symptom of an underlying condition (running with flat feet, for example, may cause pain in other areas of your body).
And there you have it: everything you need to know about calf cramps when running. If you have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment below.