Got Cramps?


When I was in high school, I ran a cross-country race in which I was leading the race, with a pack of runners from another school right off my shoulder. I was feeling very confident like I was dictating the pace.

With about half a mile to go, once we turned onto a different section of the course, I felt a cramp in my calf. I stuttered for a few steps, and the entire pack of runners went by me as if I were standing still. By the time I had realized what had happened and regained my composure, it was too late for me to respond to their move. They were too far ahead of me for me to catch them before the finish line. That’s one race I wish I could run again.

Have you ever been running along a trail, enjoying the scenery, the smell of tall pines or eucalyptus, and BAM – you get a nasty cramp?

Whether it’s a sharp stitch in the side of your abdomen or a sudden, piercing tightness in your calf or hamstring muscle, cramps can downright destroy an otherwise great run. But they don’t have to if you understand how to deal with them when they occur.

Why do you get cramps?

Despite the common occurrence of cramps, why they occur is still somewhat of a mystery to many physiologists and doctors. Scientists believe that side stitches, which they’ve given the fancy name of exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), results from either eating or drinking too close to running, especially food and drink that has a high sugar content, or from the movement of internal organs inside the abdominal walls, causing their connective tissue to pull on the diaphragm, which moves with breathing. Side stitches affect nearly 70 percent of runners, typically occur on the right side of the upper abdomen, and are less prevalent in older runners and in those more fit.

While many runners think that muscle cramps are caused by dehydration and/or an imbalance in electrolytes, which could theoretically affect the ability of a muscle to contract, research has shown that dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are not the cause. Drinking a sports drink on your long trail runs, while important to maintain hydration, won’t prevent you from cramping. It is currently believed that muscle cramps are caused by an increase in running pace and premature muscle fatigue, which affects the nervous system’s ability to relax a muscle after it has contracted.

Trail running, in particular, can cause local muscle cramping since there is more stress on the muscles of the lower leg, as they navigate the uneven terrain of trails. Cramps tend to occur when runners run farther or faster than they are used to and occur more often in muscles that cross more than one joint, such as the gastrocnemius muscle in the calf (which crosses the ankle and knee) and the biceps femoris (one of the hamstring muscles, which crosses the hip and knee).

Research comparing athletes who experience muscle cramping to those who don’t, has shown that cramping is associated with running at a faster pace that may result in premature muscle fatigue, a family history of muscle cramps, and a personal history of cramping and tendon and/or ligament injuries.

How can you get rid of cramps?

If you do get a side stitch while running on trails, slow the pace down a little and take some deep, even breaths. Try bending forward while tightening your abdominal muscles and massage the area with your fingers. For muscle cramps, stop and passively stretch the muscle. Since muscle groups work in opposing pairs, with one muscle group relaxing while its opposing muscle group contracts, you can also try to relax the cramp by voluntarily contracting the muscle group opposing the cramped muscle. For example, if you get a cramp in your hamstrings, try contracting your quadriceps, which should help the hamstrings to relax.

Next time you get a cramp on the trails, don’t panic. Just follow this simple advice. And make sure no other runners run past you.

Preventing cramps

No runner likes getting a cramp, whether it’s a stitch in your side or a muscle in your leg. Here are some things you can do to prevent stitches and cramps:

  • Warm-up adequately.
  • Don’t make abrupt changes to your running pace.
  • Strengthen the muscle that is vulnerable to cramping.
  • Stretch the muscle that is vulnerable to cramping.
  • Strengthen your core muscles to support the abdominal contents.
  • Don’t eat within a couple of hours of hitting the trails. A full, distended stomach can place greater stress in the abdominal area.
  • Train more to improve your fitness, which can prevent premature muscle fatigue.

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