Listen to any group of runners chatting and the question of how to prevent running cramps in your calves or thighs comes up very often.
If you suffer from side cramps, they are usually related to breathing issues or digestive issues but leg cramps are generally related to electrolyte issues or inadequate muscle conditioning.
Knowing the cause of your leg cramps will help you decide how to deal with them and how to prevent them in the first place.
The first step in how to prevent running cramps is to look at your diet. The main electrolytes, or lack of them, that cause running cramps are magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that helps in the contraction and relaxation of muscle.
Sodium is the key mineral that helps maintain body fluid levels.
Potassium is the third most abundant mineral in your body. It helps in regulating fluid levels, sending nerve signals and controlling muscle contractions.
Chloride is an electrolyte that helps to regulate the fluid levels in your body.
A key to correcting any electrolyte imbalance is to work out why there is this imbalance in the first place. The following are possible causes of electrolyte imbalance:
Depending on the cause, it is very possible to correct any electrolyte imbalance.
Obviously if you have a metabolic or endocrine disorder or are on specific medication , you must first discuss how to go about this with your medical practitioner or dietitian.
Improve your magnesium level:
Improve your potassium level:
Improve your sodium and chloride levels:
Sports companies have used this knowledge to their advantage judging by the amount of electrolyte sports drinks available to buy. However be careful. Yes these drinks contain electrolytes but they also contain a huge amount of sugar. These sugars can cause spikes in blood insulin and nausea, when taken in larger quantities.
One sports drink however that I do recommend is Tailwind. If you want an electrolyte drink that has all the electrolytes that you need, is very easy on the stomach with no insulin blood spikes (only uses simple glucose) and tastes good (important!) then give it a try.
Lack of muscle conditioning plays a big role in how to prevent running cramps.
How many runners do you know who only run. Meaning they do no other strength training activities.
Add to that, lack of diversity in training, always running the same route at the same pace, plus getting older and you have a recipe for someone who may suffer from poor muscle conditioning.
Improve your overall base fitness.
Take a good look at your training and ask yourself if you are training your whole body or just your legs. If you answered yes, think about diversifying and incorporating strength training into your life. Yep it can be hard when you already have a very hectic schedule but it can pay huge dividends not just in reducing cramps but also in making you a faster and more efficient runner.
If you need a guided strength training plan, have a look at this website which offers 2 levels of strength training plans. There is a one off payment but I have total confidence in their packages so am happy to recommend them.
If you'd prefer a book then this is worth a look: Quick Strength for Runners: 8 Weeks to a Better Runner's Body.
Train for the race.
A key aspect in how to prevent running cramps is to make sure that you do the right training for the race. I know that sounds obvious but so many people either don't put in enough mileage during training or they don't practice on the type of terrain that they are going to be racing on. Your muscles and ligaments need to be woken up or reminded of what lies ahead.
Check for any biomechanical weakness or imbalance.
An injury or weakness on one side of the body can cause an imbalance in your running form. This can lead to running injuries or causes some muscles to overwork, leading to cramps. If this sounds like you, consider getting advice from a professional. It is not a bad idea to get an annual check up from an osteopath, a bit like a car getting a service.