Strategies to reduce calf cramps while running

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Potential causes for cramps while running

  • Early onset fatigue
  • Temperature extremes that a runner is not conditioned to
  • Hydration status

There is some debate in the world of research about whether or not exercise associated muscle cramps (aka EAMC) can be influenced by training or diet. Some believe that cramps are a genetic issue and there are studies that support this argument. However, others show that diet and training adjustments can impact a runner’s chance of getting a cramp mid-run. Here are some tips that may help reduce your risk calf cramps while running. 

Avoid early onset fatigue 

In other words, train smarter not harder. In this study, cramps in marathon runners came during periods of high intensity, long duration, and with more hills in the race. Try to train for each of these, especially if you have a race that includes many hills or is longer than your usual race distance. Avoid running faster than your usual pace at the start of a race. 

Instead of shying away from these, include a day of hill workouts. Or gradually increase the distance of your long run each weekend. By helping your body adapt over time, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing a cramp, at least on race day. 

It is also a good idea to incorporate stretching before and after your runs. For many, this is a known piece of training but can be easily forgotten or skipped. After all, many of us just want to get out there and run! Stretching can prepare and warm up your muscles so they aren’t thrown into a high intensity run without warning.

Understand the weather

Both extreme heat and cold may contribute to increased risk of calf cramps while running. This may be an argument to run outside more often than on the treadmill. Conditioning in the environment you plan to race in decreases the risk of cramping. If you plan to run a summer race, get used to running in the heat. Same goes for an early spring race that might be colder than you’re used to. 

While running on the treadmill on extreme weather days is still better than skipping a run (see avoid early fatigue). Getting outside and used to the weather can help on race days or a fun run with friends when you may especially want to avoid cramping.

Hydration status

Mentioned last, only because this may be the most debatable. But in my opinion, it is still important. Hydration status includes both fluid intake and electrolyte balance. 

Some studies have shown that including sodium in your fluids before and during exercise can reduce the severity and risk of cramps. This is more important for exercise lasting longer than 1 hour or in conditions when you are sweating more than normal. 

People who sweat a lot of salt may also consider including sodium in your hydration plan. Having a salty drink or a some pickle juice may help cure a stubborn cramp.

Most rehydration packets and drinks have either a lot of added sugars and dyes or are sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners (like stevia, monk fruit, or artificial sweeteners). If you try to avoid those ingredients, check out this article that has several homemade options. 

Other considerations for calf cramps while running

Of course, there is still a lot to learn about the cause and prevention of cramps. Here are some other potential causes from this comprehensive review

  • Fueling properly 
  • Chronic conditions
  • History of cramps and injury
  • Slower runners
  • Training less than 3x/week
  • Running less than 5 years

Recap

If calf cramps are a recurring issue for you. Try changing up your exercise routine to include more stretching and cross training. And take a look at your hydration status. Try a day of including a rehydration drink before your run to see if that helps, especially on hot days. 

And, as always, consider talking to your doctor, trainer, or dietitian to explore what might be the best next step for you. 

This information is for educational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for medical treatment or diagnosis. You should consult with your doctor before changing your diet or starting supplements for any health condition.

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