We have all been there. Mid run, mid swim, when we take our tight fitting boots or socks off, when we have just finished a run. That painful spasm of your digits or calf...incapacitating and painful.
What is a cramp?
It is a strong spasm of the muscle, that pulls against the tendon and renders the unfortunate recipient unable to use that limb or digit. It is most commonly found in the digits of the feet or hands, or the actual feet and the calves themselves. The digits often appear to be in spasm and can look unnaturally and forcibly bent or excessively straight. The giveaway sign of cramp is the sudden onset of pain, stiffness in the muscle and inability to continue with your pace or at all. You may even have a temporarily misshapen muscle as a result of the severity of the contraction.
Why does it happen?
This is not known for sure. It is believed that it can be due to dehydration, an electrolyte imbalance, muscles lacking glycogen, fatigue or a pace that is too fast.
How to deal with it if it happens?
Stop or slow down if this gives adequate relief. Hydrate, take electrolytes if necessary and stretch the affected area if appropriate and possible. Do not over stretch as this may cause an issue for the affected area - think of the stretch as more of a gentle static lengthening of the muscle and keep it light. You must not force the muscle to stretch as you could injure it. Sometimes, if the cramp is severe it is impossible to stretch; just straightening the muscle may be all you can do.
How to stop a cramp from happening?
Keep hydrated and bear in mind that running in different climates may result in having different hydration requirements. For instance, if you are running in 14 degrees and wearing a wind proof jacket, you may well perspire a lot and lose extra fluid. If you are running in a humid environment, you may not realise that you are overheating so rapidly. Those running in warmer conditions will have different water and electrolyte requirements. Get to know your body and give it what it needs.
If you drink a lot of fluids, perspire a lot or have more wet stools, you may well be in need of electrolytes. A sports electrolyte part way through a long run and at the end of your run can keep your electrolyte levels nicely topped up. Remember to sip to hydrate as a sudden large intake of water messes with your electrolyte balance too.
Factor in adequate rest periods in your training regime. Fatigue can lead to tight muscles and tight muscles are more likely to go in to a spasm when challenged mid marathon/long run. Try and keep a more even pace; sudden increases in speed can cause a great challenge to the muscles and create a reflex safety response for protection - i.e. stopping you dead in your tracks!
Have enough fuel for your run. If your body needs glycogen (sugar) you are more likely to get a cramp. If you are running for longer than 2 hours, take something to replenish energy during your run.
Finally, if your cramps do not respond to the above methods, speak to your Doctor about taking a magnesium supplement. There are magnesium sprays available for dermal application; many of our clients have found these to be helpful. Always speak to a medical professional before supplementation to ensure safety.
Make sure that you have conditioned your body well to your training and race demands. We see a number of people who 'pull' races or long runs 'out of the bag'. Strength of mind is great, but your body really does need time to adapt, condition and strengthen. You always pay for a long run or a race; you can pay up front with good training, or later with time out to recover from injury.
Eva Evangelou is the Author of 'Say No! To Neck and Shoulder Pain' and the owner of the busy Sports Injury Clinic in Cyprus ~ Limassol Sports Massage. She is a qualified Aromatherapist and Teacher.