How to relieve running leg cramps

Calf cramp stretch

How to relieve running leg cramps  is a question that comes up often. Cramps can literally ruin your race and boy can they be painful.

There are several ways to stop the cramp when it rears its ugly head but also try and understand why your suffer from leg cramps in the first place and how you can prevent them coming back.

Imagine this scenario.......

You have just hit the half way point in your marathon or race and you start to feel one or both calves twitching or tightening.  You ignore it, after all you are trying to get a PB or at least finish the race. Over time, the twitching and tightening becomes more frequent and then it starts to become painful so that you actually have to slow down. Eventually the pain is so bad that your calves actually feel like they have locked up and you have to stop running immediately. 

Sound kind of familiar?

How to relieve running leg cramps

The first thing to when you feel the cramp starting, is to stop running and to try and relax the contracted muscle.  If you are doing a race, this can seem devastating to you but it might help you at least finish the race.

Then you need to do a process called reciprocal inhibition technique.

What this means is that you FIRST need to contract the opposite muscle (shin bone muscle in this case) so that the contracted muscle (calf muscle) can be relaxed and thus relieve the cramp. 

It sounds complicated but once you do it once you'll automatically know how to repeat it.

Do it correctly: Try to think about contracting the opposite muscle first, rather than trying to just stretch the cramped muscle. If you stretch an already cramped muscle, you risk doing more damage to the muscle and you are more likely to have sore muscles over the next few days.

Self help whilst standing

Relieve calf cramp standing
  1. Whilst standing, place the affected leg a step distance in front of you with the foot on the ground.
  2. Bend your rear leg at the knee and start to sit back as though you are about to sit on an imaginary stool. Keep the affected leg out in front with a soft, slightly bent  knee.
  3. Whilst in the seated position, bend forward at the waist and at the same time raise the toes of your affected leg so that you heel is still on the ground but your toes are pointing towards your shin. 
  4. Concentrate on keeping your toes pointing towards your shin bone and think about contracting your shin bone muscle, rather than just stretching the calf muscle. As you contract the shin bone muscle, the calf will relax.
  5. Hold that position for 10 seconds then slowly let your toes drop back to the ground. Then resume an upright standing position. Repeat this a few times if necessary.
  6. Once you start back running, go slowly and ease back into your pace. If you feel the cramp coming back, slow down and try and relax your legs. Repeat the stretch if you need to.

Case history: I had terrible calf cramps during a race - in both calves at the same time. Not fun. I was forced to lie on the ground whilst 2 kind runners (one on each foot!) pressed my foot hard against my shin bone. This definitely relieved the cramp but my calf muscles were REALLY sore for at least a week afterwards.

This same procedure can be done for hamstring cramps too. Concentrate on contracting your thigh muscle in order for the cramped hamstring to relax.

Self help whilst sitting

If you find yourself on the ground with cramp, the procedure is the same as the above. Contract the opposing muscle so that the cramped muscle relaxes. 

Below is a good video which shows you how to relieve running leg cramps in your calves, hamstrings and toes whilst in the sitting position.

Why you get leg cramps
How to prevent leg cramps
Side Cramps

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