What Causes Calf Cramps While Running & How to Cure Them
How do I prevent muscle cramps while running? What are they, and what causes muscle cramps and calf cramps? These questions are important to ask and to learn the answers to them. Many of us have dealt with the problem of calf cramps, especially those of us who enjoy running, training and exercising.
To make our running and training more enjoyable, healthier, more efficient, and pain-free, it is important to understand what calf cramps are, what causes them, and what we can do to prevent them while running.
Calf Muscle Cramp Definition
Calf muscle cramp always happens suddenly, involuntarily and without warning. Due to a number of reasons, which will be presented and explained later on in the text, the calf muscle spasms, or in other words, it contracts involuntarily.
These sudden spasms and contractions cause the muscle to harden, tighten and become painful. The muscle is then hard to the touch and can feel lumpy, sometimes even visibly lumpy under the skin.
Calf cramps occur especially often because the muscle in the calf spans two joints – knee and ankle, and is one of the few two-jointed muscles in our body. Legs and calf muscles suffer the most in certain types of training, mostly in running, so it is important to know what causes calf cramps while jogging, as well as how to prevent calf cramps while jogging.
Causes of Calf Muscle Cramps While Running
If you are training regularly, training for some kind of race, or simply running recreationally, then you are probably familiar with cramping, cramps in feet, muscle spasms in legs and similar occurrences and types of pain.
That is why it is important to know what causes leg cramps and how to avoid calf cramps while running. The causes of calf muscle cramps can usually be divided into two main types.
The first is calf muscle overload and fatigue, which happens when the leg muscles are overused due to some extensive training or running, which causes them to become tired and fatigued.
The second type is an electrolyte imbalance, which happens when your body is dehydrated, i.e. when you don’t drink enough water or when your sweat extensively.
Let’s find out something more about these main causes and see why calf always cramps while sprinting.
1. Muscle Overloading and Fatigue Muscle Cramps While Running
This first category of calf cramps happens when one particular muscle, in this case, calf, finds itself in a shortened position, which always occurs when we are running. At that time they are very vulnerable since a lot of stress is put on them, and they are repeatedly overloaded.
After a while, they become tired and fatigued, and that is what causes muscle spasms, and sometimes even severe leg cramps, especially if you are a beginner and very familiar with cramps, the so-called “charley horse” in the calf.
Muscle Cramp Symptoms
Some of the main symptoms of calf cramps while training beginners should take special notice of are constant or prolonged cramping that happens suddenly, and cramping that is localized in one muscle and occurs asymmetrically, and that can be eased or stopped by massaging the muscle and stretching it.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
When it comes to leg cramp causes of this type, in the calf muscle, it is important to know them well and be aware of them in training, in order to be better at preventing muscle cramps while racing.
Muscle cramps, and the pain that follows it, happen more frequently in older age, as well as with people who do not stretch properly before training, running, or a race. People with poor or insufficient physical condition are also more susceptible to getting cramps in calf while running, as well as those who exercise too extensively and intensively.
2. Electrolyte Imbalance Calf Muscle Cramps While Running
Electrolyte imbalance is an often occurrence and a very usual cause of calf cramps. To find out how to get rid of calf cramps while running, it is important to know exactly what electrolyte imbalance means and entails.
Electrolyte imbalance means low levels of certain electrolytes, the most important ones being chloride and sodium in this case. This usually occurs when we sweat extensively because, through sweating, we lose the sodium and chloride contained in our body.
If the latter electrolytes are not replaced immediately, imbalance and deficiency occur in our body. The neuromuscular junctions then become hyperexcitable and cause the muscle to cramp.
Dehydration is a well-known concept to most of us, and it is an occurrence that happens too often. We don’t really pay attention to how much water we put into our body, and how much water it actually needs – and it needs a lot. Especially when training, running or taking part in a race.
It is recommended to drink smaller amounts of water approximately every 20 minutes in order to prevent frequent muscle cramps while jogging.
Muscle Cramp Symptoms
Some of the main muscle cramp symptoms in this category, that occur due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, are the gradual onset of cramping, meaning it doesn’t happen suddenly but begins with “twitches” or smaller muscle contractions. The cramping is not localized, but jumps around and spreads, and it is not constant but occurs intermittently.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Severe muscle cramps while sprinting are caused in this category mostly by our own negligence, and luckily it can easily be remedied simply by taking better care of ourselves and paying more attention to hydration.
Some of these main cramping causes are extensive sweating, insufficient daily intake of electrolytes and fluids, as well as insufficient hydration or intake of salt while training, running and exercising.
How to Stop Calf Cramps While Running
Now that you know what calf cramps are and what causes leg cramps, you are probably asking yourself “How do I prevent calf cramps while sprinting?” or “What happens when cramping occurs while running and how to stop leg cramps?”.
Well, the best tactic to stop leg calf cramps while racing can be found in these three simple statements: “Slow it down, stop, and stretch the cramped muscle!”. Here is how and what you can do to stop the cramping and the pain.
1. Two Stretches to Treat Calf Cramps While Running
The first thing you can do is a simple stretching of the calf muscle. Stand one to two feet away from a wall (or a tree). Place the toes of one foot up on the wall and press that heel down towards the ground. Keep both legs straight and push your hips forward to increase the stretch. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds or more, and then switch legs and repeat.
If you are experiencing severe leg cramps, there is another stretch exercise on how to stop cramps. Here you will have to lie on your back and then raise the cramped leg straight into the air, vertical to your body. Then simply pull your toes down towards your head. You can do it with your hands or with the help of a towel.
2. Massage to Lower Calf Cramps While Running
If the stretches did not help and you are still wondering how to stop leg cramps immediately, you are in luck, because by massaging your muscle, you can get instant relief from the pain of cramping.
Locate the pain and the part of the muscle that is cramping and gently put pressure on it, massaging it and stretching it. It will boost the blood flow and reduce the calf cramps. The muscle tissue will start restoring, and you can continue running but start slowly.
3. When You Should Stop Treating a Calf Muscle Cramp
If you are experiencing severe leg cramps, or the cramping is not stopping or decreasing, then you should probably stop training or running for the day. The chances are that the calf cramps are not going away and that the muscle is fatigued.
The best thing to do is to rest and continue in a day or two. Training and running with a cramping calf muscle may cause some greater damage to the muscle.
How to Prevent Shin and Calf Cramps While Running
Explaining and dealing with the concepts of calf cramps, leg cramps, feet cramps, and severe cramping, explaining what causes cramps and how to stop leg cramps while running, leads us to some of the best ways of how to prevent calf cramps while running, training or preparing for a race.
Some of the ways have already been mentioned briefly throughout the text, but now let’s look at them more closely and find out some more ways of preventing calf cramps while racing.
1. Warm up Properly
One of the main, most simple and preventive way of avoiding muscle cramps while sprinting is to warm up properly. It is the basis and the most important thing in every exercise and should be a constituent part of every training and running session. Every trainer and athlete knows it, and it will be the first piece of advice offered to you if you are a beginner.
If you skip the warm-up, you are risking muscle cramps and spasms, and the chances are much higher of causing muscle fatigue. Five to ten minutes of proper warm-up will do wonders for your body and for preventing calf cramps.
2. Cool down Properly
Apart from taking the time to properly warm up, it is also important to slowly cool down as you finish running or training. To prevent calf muscle cramps while racing, as well as after running, it is important not to stop running suddenly and on the spot. Rather start gradually reducing the pace of running, turning it into slow jogging, and finishing it off with a five-minute walk.
You shouldn’t simply stop running, not even if you have reduced your pace. Continue walking and breathing deeply to calm and ease all of your muscles in the body.
Getting cramps in the calf while running is also caused, as was mentioned earlier, by dehydration. That is why hydration and rehydration are very important if you want to prevent calf cramps while racing. In the process of running or training, we sweat, some more some less, but we all inevitably lose fluids.
This leads to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, which is connected to cramping. Stay on top of this problem and always stay hydrated – drink water before, after and even while running, and don’t wait until you are thirsty because that is already a sign of dehydration.
4. Replace Electrolytes
The loss of electrolytes is connected to sweating. The more and longer you run, the more you sweat, especially on a hot day. And the more you sweat, the more electrolytes you lose. Some of the most important electrolytes for our muscles and their proper functioning and contraction are sodium, potassium, chloride, and magnesium.
One of the most efficient ways you can replace them after or during a run is by drinking sports drinks which contain precisely those important electrolytes that we lose.
5. Race Right
If you are racing or planning to take part in a race, you need to develop a proper strategy to prevent muscle cramps while racing. You need to plan your training session at the pace you will be running the race.
Do fast runs, slow runs, progression workouts, and cover all grounds. It is better to push yourself a little further while training and risk cramps then, than cramping during a race.
6. Steady Runs & Combo Workouts
When it comes to a certain type of exercises and workouts that help prevent cramps and calf pain while running, steady runs and combo workouts come highly recommended. Steady runs are especially important if you are training for a longer race or a marathon because they imitate the last part of the race. They build aerobic strength and muscles learn to work more efficiently.
Combo workouts are mainly designed to train your legs to run fast when tired. They can include hilly runs or tempo runs, and will help prevent cramping, especially during the final stages of a long race.
7. Strength Training
To prevent calf muscle cramps while running, it is very important to build your strength. With strength training, your muscles will become stronger and more resilient. It means that they will not need to contract as much while performing at a higher pace, which will lead to lower calf cramps while running.
Apart from preventing cramping, strength training will help you run faster and will decrease the chances of injury.
8. Run More at the Pace You Plan to Race
Developing a pace at which you plan on running for your race is important if you want to develop muscle memory and strength. The more training you can do at that certain pace, the more efficient and successful your running will be. And at the same time, your calf muscles will get used to it, which will prevent any potential cramping or at least decrease the chances of calf cramps.
9. Work on Your Running Form to Prevent Calf Cramps While Running
Last but not least, apart from a running plan and specific exercises, it is also important to develop your own running form. This means, learn and practice when to slow down, run faster, and when to run at a steady pace. It is all important because if your form breaks, there is a higher chance that you’ll start experiencing muscle cramps.
Sometimes it is easier to work with a coach, or a personal trainer, who will help you figure out what’s best for you and your body.
Don’t Confuse Bonking and Calf Cramps While Running
Bonking is not the same as cramping, and they are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. Bonking or hitting the wall happens when your body runs out of glycogen, which is its main fuel source. Your body then cannot run as fast, inevitably starts to slow down, you feel light-headed or dizzy, and there is little you can do.
Cramping, on the other hand, affects only the muscles and happens when they are overworked and fatigued. Both of these problems can be overcome and prevented by specific and targeted exercises, listening to your body, and knowing what your limits are.