How to Avoid and Treat Muscle Cramps From Running

Man holding calf in pain
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It's common for runners to get leg muscle cramps, especially when running long distances. But if you pay attention to possible causes and take preventive steps, you can avoid muscle cramps in the future.

Hydrate Properly

Muscle cramps are often associated with dehydration, so it's important that you make sure you're hydrating properly before, during, and after your runs.

Before Runs

An hour before you start your run, try to drink 16 to 24 ounces of water or other non-caffeinated fluid. Stop drinking at that point, so that you can void extra fluids and prevent having to stop to go to the bathroom during your run. To make sure you're hydrated before you start running, you can drink another 4 to 8 ounces right before you start.

If you're doing a long run or race such as a marathon, some runners do a "salt shot" before they start running, to get some extra salt.

Get a small packet of salt, dump it into your hand, and follow it with water. Sodium and hydration requirements vary by individual, so this might not be for everyone.

During Runs

The general rule of thumb for fluid consumption during your runs: You should take in 6 to 8 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during your runs.

During longer runs (90 minutes or more), some of your fluid intake should include a sports drink (like Gatorade) to replace sodium and other minerals (electrolytes) lost through sweat. Muscle cramping often occurs as a result of electrolyte imbalance, so it's critical that you replace your electrolytes.

After Runs

Don't forget to rehydrate with water or a sports drink after your run. If your urine is dark yellow after your run, you need to keep rehydrating. It should be a light lemonade color.

Warm Up and Stretch

Doing a proper warm-up before you start running gets your blood flowing to your muscles and can help prevent leg cramps. Warm-up by jogging slowly for 10 minutes and doing some warm-up exercises, such as butt kicks, jumping jacks, or high knees. Perform static stretches, during which you hold stretches for 30-60 seconds before and after you finish your run.

Did You Start out Too Fast?

Another possible cause of muscle cramping at the end of long runs or races is that you simply went out too fast. Here are some ways you can avoid pushing the pace too much in the beginning and burning through your stored energy and hitting the wall:

  • Deliberately run your first mile slower than you plan to run the final one. It's tough to do since you'll most likely feel really strong in the beginning. But keep in mind that for every second you go out too fast in the first half of your race, you could lose as much as double that amount of time in the second half of your race.
  • Make sure you're in the correct starting position. Don't start yourself with faster runners because you'll most likely try to keep up with them.
  • Start your race at a comfortable pace and make sure you check your watch at the first mile marker. If you're ahead of your anticipated pace, slow down. It's not too late to make pace corrections after just one mile.
  • Keep telling yourself that runners are going to pass you in the first mile. But you'll be passing a lot later in the race.
  • Practice starting out slow during training runs. When you do your long run each week, try to hold back during the first few miles, so you get used to the discipline of not going out too fast.

Regular Massages May Help

Going for a sports massage can be a good way to treat soreness that often develops as a result of muscle cramps. Regular massages can also help reduce tightness in your muscles and reduce your chances of muscle cramping during runs.

You can also use massage tools, such as a foam roller, to do self-massage at home. Make sure you're also doing some post-run stretching to reduce tightness.

How to Handle Mid-Run Cramps

Staying well-hydrated will help prevent muscle cramps, but if you're dealing with cramps on a run, try slowly massaging and stretching the affected area. Do some of these leg stretches for a minute or two to relieve the cramps.

If Your Leg Cramps Continue

If leg cramps persist after trying several methods, consult your healthcare professional to determine whether the cramps are a result of a vitamin deficiency, medication side effect, or an underlying medical condition.

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3 Sources
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  3. NWS Government. Beat the heat - Urine colour chart.