Posted by: Joe English | February 3, 2010

Training — What causes muscle cramps in runners?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

Marathon runner Jen writes in with a great question that comes up all of the time. It has to do with cramps in her calves when running and what causes them. Here’s Jen’s question:

This past October I changed my running schedule quite a bit. Instead of doing the same runs at the same comfortable pace all the time I decided to make the change and start pushing harder. The video about “quality vs. quantity” really hit me. I HATE to run fast, but that’s what’s going to make me faster…duh.

So I just started running faster, just pushing to where it was hard the whole time, on all of my runs at first. This is when my calf started letting me know it was there. Then on one of my long runs during the first of January it cramped up so bad I thought I was going to have to have my husband come pick me up…but of course I ran faster just to get home. Then cried because I’ve never hurt like that before! . . . .[Now] the only run that hurts me is the long run. It doesn’t cramp when I sprint or run an 8-10 mile tempo pace, but when I go out slow for that 15-17 mile run…Wham right about mile 10…. I do the chomps, I drink water, etc…none of that has changed from the last 3 years.”

Great question Jen. Let’s start by looking at what a cramp is and what causes a cramp before we jump into the solution space. Too often the standard answer that you’ll get is to drink more fluid, but that may miss some of the causes of cramping that may be causing the problem in your particular case.

How do muscles work?
Muscles work by contracting and relaxing. Any particular muscle can only move in one direction and it only moves by contracting. The muscle is connected across a joint to another part of the body and when it contracts (or shortens itself), it pulls across that joint and moves the part of the body towards it. When the body part is going to move back the other direction, a muscle in opposition to the first muscle contracts and pulls the body part back in place. In this manner — through opposite muscles contracting and relaxing — parts of our body are moved back and forth.

To continue reading about muscle cramps in runners, click here.


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