Why Do Runners Get Cramps While Running?

Runners get cramps while running because of an electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, shallow breathing, or muscle fatigue. Some types of cramps still have an unknown origin, but most of them are entirely avoidable. Some cramps, especially in long-distance runners, simply occur because the runner attempts to run beyond their physical capabilities (further or faster or both).

We are going to talk a lot about cramps in this article and you will learn that most nagging pains during a run are just cramps so you have the power to avoid them.

Common types of cramps while running

Most runners are familiar with at least one of these. Long-distance runners who remember how they started out might be very familiar with all of these.

Side cramps also known as Side Stitches

This is a type of cramp that happens most often to new runners. It appears on any side of the abdomen, but the right one seems to be more prone. The pain is sharp and the runner can feel it building up with effort.

Leg cramps (calf cramps)

The intensity of this type of cramp varies tremendously. Some runners just feel their calf too tense for a few seconds. Others find themselves stuck on the track because both their calves cramped forcefully at the same moment.

Stomach cramps

Even those who don’t run know how these feel. Although they are called stomach cramps they can affect any part of the abdomen. The pain starts suddenly and when it’s at its worst, the runner definitely needs to stop.

What do cramps feel like?

The perception of pain is very personal so the description of cramps can differ a lot.

Most runners describe cramping as an intense, sharp, throbbing pain that is associated with tension. Some will say that it almost feels like a burn, especially when the calves are the ones cramping.

Reasons why runners get side cramps (side stitches) while running

There is no exact, well-researched reason behind side cramps. The fact that they usually are not a major cause of concern might be the reason behind the lack of evidence.

However, the fact that they are more common in those who just started running, may indicate the fact that the main cause could be a behavior that the runner learns to avoid.

Some of the causes can be:

  • Shallow breathing that puts pressure on the diaphragm;
  • Eating too much before a run;
  • A pace that is too fast for your current fitness level;
  • An electrolytes imbalance (sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium).

Ways to prevent side cramps (side stitches) while running

As we stated before, side cramps happen most often in newbies. This means that the best way to prevent them is to pay attention to the circumstances that you got them in.

Some of the ways to prevent side cramps from happening are:

  • Eat a light meal before going for a run and don’t eat anything at least one hour before you start training;
  • Don’t drink copious amounts of liquids. Instead, take small sips;
  • Always warm-up and include abdominal stretches in your routine. Do this even if you will be running half a mile.

Treatment for side cramps

There is no magic pill to take away this type of cramp. If you are done running, you can simply stop and the pain will go away on its own, in a short while.

If you want to keep going try one or a combination of the following.

  • Stop running, start walking at a slow pace;
  • Focus on your breath, try to breathe with your abdomen, and move the diaphragm;
  • Drink an isotonic drink to stay hydrated, especially if it’s very hot outside;
  • Massage the area that is cramping using SMR (self-myofascial release with a foam roller or massage trigger ball).

Reasons why runners get leg cramps while running

There are only a few reasons for which muscles in your legs get a cramp, and all but for one are under your direct control.

  • They have been pushed too far;
  • They have been pushed for too long;
  • A fault in the system, when the nervous system sends the wrong impulse to contract a muscle with high intensity (most common while resting, even sleeping).

Ways to prevent leg cramps while running

Prevention is always better than treatment, and when it comes to leg cramps, we all want to avoid them.

You can do this by:

  • Maintaining the proper level of hydration;
  • If you will be sweating use isotonic drinks as water alone will not replenish electrolytes or energy gels;
  • Always warm-up before a run;
  • When you start feeling the slight burn, the familiar feeling that you will get a cramp, slow down;
  • Do not power through the pain. A certain degree of pain is normal. In time you will learn your threshold. Don’t cross it.

Many runners have the habit of finishing the run with a sprint. This is great because in a race when you see the finish line, you start sprinting in order to maintain your position.

However, if you have been on a long run and your legs already hurt a lot, sprinting will probably mean that you are pushing your muscles too far and you will end up with a cramp.

Treatment for leg cramps

There is not much you can do to treat a leg cramp, but there are a few good options that will at least lower the pain.

  • Stop running;
  • Massage the place that is cramping;
  • Apply a warm or a cold pack – see what works for you;
  • Drink an isotonic drink;
  • Eat some glucose (energy gels)
  • If you are already at home, place a cold shower on your legs;
  • Stretch.

Reasons why runners get stomach cramps while running

Stomach cramps are common in long-distance runners. Most of the reasons behind it are purely mechanical – you tend to throw stuff around in your intestines with all that jumping up and down.

However, other very common causes are:

Ways to prevent stomach cramps while running

Similar to preventing diarrhea in other circumstances, you need to always make sure that you practice good food hygiene and that you don’t eat fruit like prunes, watermelon, or pears in excessive quantities before a race.

Also, you should:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking a balanced isotonic;
  • Avoid heat exposure and always cover your head when running in strong sunlight;
  • Do not overeat before a race;
  • Drink water only from reliable sources.

Treatment for stomach cramps

There is no particular treatment for a “runner’s belly”, but you need to address the reasons that caused it in the first place.

  • Hydrate properly;
  • Get to a shady place and cool down;
  • Eat right;
  • A bit of peppermint tea might help;
  • Talk to a doctor if it doesn’t go away in 24 hours.

 Should you run after cramping in the calf?

Always avoid running if your muscle is still stiff, even if the pain has decreased. This is one of the most common mistakes made by runners and it almost always ends with an injury that takes weeks to heal.

If your cramp is light, you may get away with running at a slower pace until it disappears completely.

However, if the cramp is brutal, stop and wait it out until the muscle is back to its original form and the pain has completely disappeared.

How do I get rid of cramps that happen after running?

It is common to have cramps after running. Sometimes these can wake you up from your sleep and they can be very violent.

Try a gentle stretch during the cramp, and massage the muscle until the pain goes away.

The best way to prevent running cramps would be to hydrate in order to obtain an electrolyte balance and to stretch. The more you stretch, the better your chances are to avoid a sudden cramp.

Massage the area that is cramping using SMR (self-myofascial release with a foam roller or massage trigger ball).

No matter if we like it or not, cramps are a part of any runners’ life. The good news is that the better you get at running, the fewer cramps you have because you will develop your own avoiding mechanisms.

Running Injuries

What is the best way to train for a marathon without injuries? Check out this article:

How do I not injury myself when training for a marathon

References

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/how-to-stop-runners-cramps#1

https://www.healthline.com/health/side-stitch#prevention

https://www.healthline.com/health/runners-stomach#treatment-prevention

https://www.verywellfit.com/how-can-i-avoid-and-treat-muscle-cramps-2911343

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

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Why Do Runners Get Cramps While Running?
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