Cramps are involuntary muscle contractions, caused by who knows what. It is definitely in relation with the nervous system, muscles and neuromuscular firing. It can be very painful.
Endurance athletes are often the victim of inner thigh and calf cramps. Sprinters are on the other hand to hamstring cramps.
What I find, that unless you have a full body cramp experience during exercise, or that you have localised cramps what by simply stopping or changing the effort disappear, cramps are not from electrolyte deficiency or imbalance. In reality taking in salts and chips or spicy foods will not help ! Nor gherkins juice, mustard, sniffing salts, vinegar. What will help is the time you spend sitting or walking and recovering while eating those refuelling and rehydrating. This doesn’t mean that you should drink simply flat H2O though !
I once competed in a 150km mountain event. I had to drop out due to cramps at the 50km mark. Despite the fantastic high volume preparation and great taper, I made a simple error. No electrolytes in 29°C weather, starting neglecting basically 6hours before the race, while waiting at the start line as I had no other transportation option, than the race bus itself what arrived way too early. I was just normally sipping on water here and there. I drank normally, just a bit more as I was thirstier. Then during the race too, I did the same. I started having inner thigh and calf cramps after 45km. Then I had cramps on the opposing muscles too. Like adductors and anterior tibialis. Then quands and when stretched them, got cramps in the hams. Then it got really bad and had cramps even in facial muscles, core muscles, the little hand muscles and even in the palms, neck, pecs and basically any movement triggered something. I did not go to hospital for a diagnosing, but I guess it was a simple hyponatremia. Over drinking with little and not enough salt, nor glucose.
We don’t know what causes a cramp. However what you can research yourself too, that in what condition a muscle cannot cramp ? If a muscle has proper oxygen supply, it will not cramp. I read a study somewhere, that even if you deplete artificially a muscle from electrolytes and over fatigue it, if oxygen is supplied or forced into that muscle, it will not cramp. This was an isolated test and it is of course not possible in the human body. However what we can understand from this, that anything that causes a muscle to be depleted from oxygen, will cause it to cramp.
Major causes of muscle oxygen depletion
- Lack of specificity
- Lack of training
- Lack of core function, bad posture and incorrect running technique.
That is a complex subject, what is quite easy however to solve. It can affect breathing. A lot !
- Lack of control and circumstantial understanding when racing
- Untopped glycogen stores when racing
- Lack of glucose intake in conjunction with electrolytes when racing
I don’t want derail from the subject here. I could go on and and on with the list. Like lack of sleep, too much chemicals used on the body, too much white sugar in the beginning of an event, too much caffeine, bad sleeping habits like a bat mat and all kind of stuff that could be listed here. However we discuss the 3 majors that I have been seeing over the decades of observation.
Lack of specificity & Lack of Training
This is simple. If you wanted to run with a specific intensity and you rely on some romantic memory like 5months ago as a pacing angel sitting on your shoulder, you’ll have surprises. You must train the paces that you want to race at.
You must also train appropriate distances to your event.
You must look at environment and conditions. Running for 5 hours flat on the concrete will not prepare you to run in the mountains for 5hours with 3000m of elevation gain and loss, on technical mountain ridges, at altitude, in cold or in heat, with a heavy backpack while using trekking poles. On the contrary, if you’ve done let’s say over 24hour mountain races, where you must hike and run a lot with trekking poles, will not qualify you to run constantly at a moderate aerobic effort with no stops for 7hours during a rolling running event. Doesn’t translate !
Lack of core function, bad posture and incorrect running technique
Most people are disconnected from their bodies. Once you understood how to contract your core muscles correctly, what includes correct timing, firing, activation and many other stuff in conjunction with all sort of movements, you’ll be able to use and train these muscles and regain all functions of body and mind. Read the book from Dr. Zazulak: Master Your Core.
Once you understood core function and can utilise it too, you’ll be able to have correct posture in any situation. Including running.
Once your posture is correct, your biomechanics can be changed and trained to. Foot strike patterns, joint angles, knee lift, lean from the ankle, breathing patterns, head position and so on. Cadence and arm movements are also crucial !
The keys to my success of eliminating cramps
My issues were always inner thigh cramps and calf cramps.
Deep lunges. I started nordic walking 20 years ago. I still do a lot of it. No, not like the pensioners who do no thinking and just scrape the concrete with their sticks. I do a lot of bounding and poling exercises derived from the dryland training of cross country skiers.
One very important section of these workouts are long and deep walking lunges. I do not use weights or anything. I however do walking lunges with long steps. A lot. When starting out, during a 1hour session I might do 6 of these each second or third lap, topping at 60. 3 weeks out from the race, I might be able to do 4 x 100 or 3 x 150 on a way, that it doesn’t affect me at all in case of next days training. How do you go from 6 x 6 to 3 x 150 ? You do it with consistent practice and by adding in little each week. After 2 to 3 months of once or twice a weekly training you can easily achieve this.
I think that they work because of the eccentric contractions on the descent phase of the lunges. I have strong quads so just by pushing upwards it is like nothing. I can climb D+1000m or ride big gears on the bike. However it is the descending what kills; the eccentric contractions ! I have been doing these for a very long time. I do not stress my body though. Before each race, I restart from zero. You don’t need to go overboard and increase it unlimitedly. That is not the point. It is also mobility, stretching and conditioning. Deep walking lunges ! For me, they work. I do not say that it is only them. I do them in conjunction with other training routines, but ultimately, they really stick out from my logs !
Then of course, downhill running. I must thrash my legs a couple of times before the race. If not, I will be not ready. That is obligatory. It must be also done specifically. If you had a race where you would be climbing and descending D+/-1000m 5 times, don’t even think that running 250m hills would suffice. You know what I mean here. You can of course train very efficaciously, if only those hills are available. However if you’ve invested the exact same amount of effort into more specific 800m to 1500m hills, you would be way better off with that ! Also running hard down and climbing back up multiple times. That is very important. It is easy to run down a D-1000m hill and call it a day. What if you had to run back up or go for a tempo effort afterwards, maybe multiple times.
I also like to have a quality hill circuit. Like uphill, flat, downhill, flat. This way, I do uphill bounding and skipping and sprinting, a fast downhill recovery, maybe some other routines on the flats and roll around for an hour.
Long runs. I find that a biggy in so many athletes preparation. Like running only 6 x 30k during a 12 week preparation for a marathon. That is a long run only every second weekend.
The length of the preparation period for an amateur is not enough. The quantity of long runs are not enough. The length of the long run is not enough. Most likely the intensities chosen for the long run is not correct either. I find that for a 10k runner it should be around 28 to 32km and for a marathon runner 35km and upwards. Why do 20 or 30 of those ? Cause you want to be able to include as much marathon intensity into long run as possible and you must have the legs and the aerobic function to do that so !
At the beginning when you go out for that first 35km long run, you might walk for 10minutes, jog for 25minutes, run for 80minutes alternating between (M-Pace + 20 sec) and (M-Pace + 40sec) and will finish off with 4 x 500m @ M-Pace with 20min cooldown.
For that (4 x 500m @ M-Pace) to develop into a (4 x 8000m @ M-Pace), you need only one single thing ! Time !
Same for an ultra. If somebody can run 35km every weekend, after a couple of years he can jump into a 100miler anytime with little change in specificity customized to the race. If this was not the case, some longer runs and over-distance training might be needed. Tune up races of half distances, adventure runs and so on. Specificity and regularity. Consistency !
The longer you have been doing it, when you had no time, you can put specificity away and still not to lose specific fitness. Like not being able to do a mountainous long run of 4 to 5 hours and run 35km on the roads in 2,5h. If you had only 4 outings till race day, that might be a catastrophe. If you were doing it for years, it is totally fine. It depends.
The long run for me is one of the most important anti-cramp factor in my magic hat ! It is crucial and very important.
Deep lunges. Downhill running. Long run.
I do a lot of stuff like yoga, pilates, kettlebells, athletic drills, weight training, stretching, foam rolling, mobility and callisthenics, basketball, nordic walking and cycling and so on. However, these three are my go to to focus on when want to be strong and efficacious on the downhills.
If you thought to have some mysterious cramping and want a magic solution There are so many stuff you can do. I find however that if your nutrition, hydration, sleep, lifestyle and strength and conditioning habits are on top, these are just an extra to skimp on training.
- Taking in magnesium and B6.
- Use magnesium oil on cramping areas during the 10 days leading up to the race.
- Using a silica based cream like GSA or Mountain Ice on crampy muscles and the joints around for 10 days before a race. 4 to 5 times a day.
- Blood restriction training. BFR bands. Compression gear. Not during the event, but during training.
- EMS. Compex or Mark Pro or Cefar…
- Sauna, infrarouge or other light therapies.
- Green and white clay or zeolite or dolomite poultice every second day during 3 weeks.
- Drinking Quinton hypertonique
- Checking D3, Iron, B12 levels and correcting them