Muscle cramps are among a runner’s most scary nightmares, given that no one quite knows why they occur. While theories range from loss of sodium and electrolytes to dehydration and muscle fatigue, the unpleasant truth stands that nothing can be as debilitating as a sudden cramp in the midst of your endurance training — or worse — during a race you’ve been looking forward to.

Cramps generally occur in cases when the muscle is too overwrought or overheated from the workout. The fitter you are, the less your muscles feel taxed – leading to reduced cramps. Beginners and those who overtrain see the worst of it. While there’s nothing much to do when a cramp strikes, besides stopping your run, stretching the affected muscle and taking deep breaths, there are a few preventive measures that can keep them from occurring too many times.

Hydration is the key
Yes, water’s going to solve yet another one of your running problems. Loss of muscle fluid is believed to be one of the primary reasons behind cramps and staying hydrated before, during and after your run will lessen your chances of cramping on race day. For intense training sessions or races longer than 5K, it is important to replenish the electrolytes and salts lost by the body as well, and in such cases, sports drinks and sodium supplements can help bridge the gap.

Stretching helps
Jumping into a run or a strenuous workout without adequate warm up is a surefire way to attract cramps, and several beginners learn this lesson the hard way. Stretching before a run not only prepares your muscles for what is to follow, they also lengthen the specific cores and help you gain an advantage in your training. The more you loosen and work on a muscle before starting, the lesser the chances of it cramping up mid-race. And always end your runs with stretches to make sure your muscles can recover from the exertion.

Don't forget your post-run stretches (Image: Victoria Chukarov | Demand Media)
Don’t forget your post-run stretches (Image: Victoria Chukarov | Demand Media)

Train long and strong
Preachy as it may sound, don’t take shortcuts in your training. If you’re training to run a 10K don’t leave the whole distance for race day. Your muscles need to get familiar with what you’re expecting of them, and training wise and hard is the only way to get there. Additionally, strength training your cores — abdomen, thighs, hamstrings, quads and hips — can be really beneficial for improving muscle memory and strength.

Pace yourself
Ease into your training and keep your pace steady at the beginning so as to not send your muscles into shock. Incorrect techniques such as running on your toes or striking the ground too hard can cause your foot muscles to contact and lead to cramping. While it’s important to ultimately reach the pace and rhythm you’re aiming for, try to get there at a measured pace that your body can handle. And always remember to cool down after a run to avoid those annoying midnight cramps.

Cramps may sound innocuous but they can end your race (Image: Drum And Run)
Cramps may sound innocuous but they can end your race (Image: Drum And Run)

Watch your diet
Including greater portions of calcium, magnesium and potassium in your diet is said to help prevent sudden cramps, as they contribute to your overall muscle strength and replenish lost minerals. Don’t eat immediately before training or a race, and allow your food to digest before tackling the treadmill. Protein and fibre-heavy meals should also be avoided immediately before training as they take time to break down within your body.

Similarly, caffeinated beverages tend to dehydrate your system, and should be avoided in excess. Since most bodies have different reactions to diets, as a beginner it helps to maintain a food log to decide what works for you and what doesn’t.

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