If your legs often feel achy, tight, or cramped during a run, it’s time to stop and get to the bottom of it. Running coach Andrew Cheong shares the possible reasons and fixes.
We all thrive on the momentum of running, when you’re on a high and feel like you could keep going. But if you ever feel pain, it’s a warning sign that something is wrong, and it’s time to slow down or stop.
What’s the difference between aches and cramps?
Aches can range from a mild soreness spread out over a large area to sharp, localised pain. Many running injuries are caused by overuse, i.e. running too much or too soon, and start off with a dull ache. Fascia and soft tissue injuries often feel more acute in the morning when the fascia and muscles have been at rest for some time; this is when blood, and lymph circulation is at its slowest. After walking around, or warming up, these aches will usually subside. While it’s a good thing, it still means you should address the underlying problem. The pain of this sort is likely due to muscle tightness, imbalances or gait, and posture issues.
Cramps are those painful involuntary contractions of muscles that last for more than a few minutes, sometimes up to 15 minutes or longer. This differs from short spasms, that is over in seconds. Till today, scientists are still debating the real cause of cramps. That’s because there is such a wide variety of cramps, and they don’t all result from vigorous exercise. In non-exercise cases, pregnant women get cramps if they are low on calcium and magnesium. Writers and concert violinists get cramps while working or performing due to repetitive finger actions.
Skeletal muscle cramps, or ”true” cramps, happen during exercise. This is due to a combination of dehydration, overheating, electrolyte loss and excessive sweating, which causes the nerves to become hyperactive. These, in turn, stimulate the muscles to cramp up. Now that we have narrowed down the causes of muscle cramps, here are some fixes.
1. Ensure you are hydrated
If you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated, so drink before that happens. How much to drink is different from person to person. It also depends on the ambient temperature and intensity of exercise.
2. Drink or eat enough electrolytes
Keep in mind that drinking just plain water may not be a good thing. Our bodies need electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and calcium to keep the nerve fibres firing properly and muscles functioning normally, so make sure you consume an isotonic drink or something salty, especially when you’re exercising outdoors. Too much of one electrolyte like sodium over another like potassium is not ideal. The good news: if you have healthy working kidneys, your body should naturally be able to maintain this balance.
3. Train and prepare
There is no substitute for proper training and preparation. Well-conditioned muscles will not cramp as easily as tired ones. Runners with a good running gait and form will be more efficient, and are less likely to overuse a set of muscles.
4. Take supplements
In some cases, athletes have turned to supplements like Crampfix which seems to help prevent cramps. The mix of sour and spicy in Crampfix is said to overstimulate the nerves, causing them to fire less and muscles to relax. If you are prone to cramps, it’s worth a try.
About the author
Andrew Cheong is the founder and Head Coach of SSTAR.fitness, an endurance sports coaching service. Since 2010, Andrew has been dedicated to coaching runners of all abilities, for races ranging from 5km to the Marathon and beyond. He has a Diploma in Sports Science, is a certified Distance Running Coach by the Road Running Clubs of America, a qualified FISAF personal trainer, an IAAF Track and Field Certified and a Mental Toughness Coach. Andrew has completed more than 30 marathons and Ironman races. He and his wife were the first Singaporean couple to be awarded the Abbott Six Star World Marathon Major recipient in 2017.