I remember the early morning runs we had while I attended Valley Forge Military College. A typical day would involve a 5AM wakeup, quick formation, some calisthenics and then a run, usually until the sun came up or even later. I rarely had anything to eat or drink until after we ran back to the school, and my sides cramped up every single time.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the side stitch is a cramp often experienced by runners, and that is what I was feeling on those early morning runs. While painful, side stitches don’t cause any permanent harm, they just make you hate every second of the run. I never experienced calf cramps from running, but I have gotten them while Scuba diving if I kick a certain way or over-exert myself.
A muscle cramp is an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax. They can happen for a variety of reasons, but dehydration is one of the biggest causes of muscle cramps.
Here are some things you can do to prevent muscle cramps.
Stay hydrated and eat a light meal before running. Downing a water bottle right before the run isn’t going to help you. You need to start sipping that water about 2 hours prior to running. For some people who loose electrolytes faster than others, you may want to add salt to your water or other electrolyte replenishing mixture. You should eat a light breakfast about 2-3 hours before your run. Some people have had good results with eating a banana right before a run, and this is a commonly prescribed remedy for calf cramps while Scuba diving.
Warm up and ease into it. A common mistake is to go in cold and start at too quick of a pace. Especially on a cold day, you need to get your muscles warmed up before you hit your stride. Gradually increase your speed.
Strong core. Having strong core muscles can help prevent side stitches. As you run, your internal organs and tissues bounce around and feel the same impact your feet are absorbing. The shock of each step radiates though the body. Your core muscles can help hold everything together and minimize the shock. Research has shown that strong oblique muscles are less likely to cramp up.
Maintain your breathing. Rapid, inconsistent breaths can help side stitch cramps develop. By breathing at an even pace with your steps, say breathing in on steps one and two, and out on step three, you help keep your diaphragm relaxed and help assist steady movement of the respiratory muscles. This even breathing also helps make more efficient use of oxygen, which improves your performance.
If you get cramps while running, there are things you can do to treat them.
While I had no instruction on how to deal with side stitches, I discovered applying pressure with my hand or pinching the affected side provided some relief.
You can also stretch the affected side to relief the pressure. Slowing your pace a bit to catch your breath and settling your breathing can also help.
In our dive training, we learned how to treat calf cramps in the water by massaging the calf until the cramp subsided. You can do this while running if you stop for a few seconds.
Some people claim compression socks help prevent their calves from cramping up. I’ve found mixed reports on compression clothing, and if other methods aren’t working for you, you may want to try compression socks and see if they help you.
Cramps can develop after a workout or run, and it is important to stretch and roll out the muscles used after the workout to help prevent cramps from occurring. Take a golf ball and roll out your feet, or use a lacrosse ball or a friend (or enemy) and a barbell to roll out those calves.
The best prevention for any cramps is staying hydrated and eating properly well ahead of the run or exercise. It takes time for that food to digest or that water to be distributed throughout the body. Working out thirsty and hungry is what caused my constant cramping during those runs at school. I’m only 25 years late in figuring out why it was happening and what I could have done about it.