The most commonly sustained injury when training for or running a marathon is muscle cramps. Cramps occur when the body runs out of energy, fluid and electrolytes or when the muscles overheat during exercise. Fortunately, cramps are preventable. Following a proper training regimen and marathon preparation can help you to achieve your goal of running a marathon without fear of cramps.
Preventing Muscle Cramps
1Perform stretching exercises. Stretching exercises are recommended to relieve the frequency and severity of muscle cramps. In the run up to a marathon, you should aim to do at least 5 to 10 minutes of stretching, three times per day.
- As cramps are most frequently experienced in the calves, you should focus on stretching these muscles. One good calf stretch involves starting in a standing position about 60 – 90 centimeter (35.4 in) from the wall, keeping the soles of the feet flat on the floor.
- Step forwards with one foot and lean your hands against the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds before switching to the other leg.
- For more information on beneficial stretches, see this article.
2Keep your legs in the correct position while sleeping. There are a couple of things you can try to prevent calf muscle shortening (and the resultant cramps) during sleep. These include:
- Keeping the legs slightly elevated by placing a pillow under the feet while sleeping on your back.
- Hanging the feet over the edge of the bed while sleeping on your front.
3Hydrate properly before, during and after the run. Dehydration or the loss of fluids is the major cause of cramps. Therefore, it is essential to stay hydrated while you are training for a marathon, while you are running during a marathon and after the marathon is over.
- Before training (or the marathon itself) it is recommended that you pre-hydrate by drinking only water – sports drinks will not benefit you at this stage, as no electrolytes have yet been lost. You should also avoid caffeinated drinks in the lead up to the race, as these have a diuretic effect that can lead to water loss.
- Rehydrate with water during the first 60 minutes of exercise, and with a sports drink after 60 minutes of exercise. After an hour of exercise, your body loses energy and electrolytes which the sports drink helps to replace.
- To maintain proper body hydration, it is recommended to drink 5 to 12 ounces (148 to 355 millilitres) of water for every 20 minutes of activity. Before and after running, take in 4 to 8 ounces (118 to 237 millilitres) of water. The amount of fluid intake will also depend on the body weight of the runner. It is suggested to seek professional advice on the amount of fluid to be taken.
4Change the type or brand of running shoe you wear. Make sure that you are wearing properly fitted running shoes. Shoes that do not fit properly cause stress to the muscles and tendons that puts the runner at higher risk of developing muscle cramps.
5Maintain a healthy diet. Be aware of which foods and drinks can contribute to (or prevent) muscle cramps during a run. For instance:
- Caffeinated beverages contain substances that worsen muscle cramps due to dehydration.
- Don’t consume foods that are high in protein or fat in the 4 to 5 hours before running. Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates instead.
- It is recommended to eat bananas while running because they contain high levels of potassium, a substance that helps prevent muscle cramps.
6Try carb loading. Prolonged exercise duration greater than 90 minutes puts the body at risk for cramps. The body gets deprived of its main energy fuel, glucose, as the muscles scurry for the final stretch. Carbohydrate loading is a technique that focuses on storing glucose in the liver and muscles which can be tapped into for energy later
- During the training period for a marathon, you should be getting 60% of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 25% from fat and 15% from protein. Some examples of good carbohydrate sources are rice, bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, and potatoes.
- In the final days before a marathon, you should increase your carb intake to getting 70% to 80% of your total calories from carbs, with the remaining 20% to 30% of your calorie intake divided between protein and fat.
- After the marathon, you should resume a normal diet. Carbohydrate loading is not advised for long-term use because it may lead to a rise in blood glucose levels and diabetes.
7Make sure that you are pacing yourself properly. A well maintained and consistent pace of running will help you to avoid muscle cramps.
- Take your overall health and fitness levels into account in order to determine the appropriate pace for you, both during training and during the marathon itself.
- Wear a watch or use a phone app that tracks your pace and alerts you if you are running too fast or slow.
8Try to taper off the intensity of your training as the marathon approaches.Tapering is defined as gradual reduction of exercise intensity as a competition draws near. This prevents overtraining and reduces the risk of injury. Tapering is very important in a marathon race, when it is coupled with carbohydrate loading to maximize glycogen storage rates.
9Ensure that you are getting enough sleep. Getting an adequate amount of rest will ensure that your muscles recuperate well in between training sessions and that they are not already damaged or worn down by the day of the marathon.
- Hitting the sack for at least 7 hours per night is necessary for optimal regeneration of muscle damage and prevents overtraining.
- Unfortunately, sleep may be difficult to come by in the night before the event, as it is normal for a person to experience extreme anxiety and excitement in anticipation of the day ahead. Therefore, the most crucial sleep happens two nights before the event. It is essential that you get a full 8 hours sleep two nights before the event to ensure that your body is well-rested and prepared.
Relieving Muscle Cramps
1Take painkillers to relieve muscle cramping and pain. Painkillers block the receptors that signal pain to the brain, preventing pain from being interpreted and felt. Therefore, these medications can be a useful tool in relieving the pain of muscle cramps following a marathon. There are two different classes of painkillers, as follows:
- Simple Painkillers: These are over-the-counter drugs used to relive mild to moderate pain, such as paracetamol and acetaminophen. Doses of simple painkillers may vary according to age, but the usual recommended dose for adults is 500 mg oral tablets every 4 to 6 hours.
- Stronger Painkillers: When simple painkillers do not work, stronger prescription painkillers are sometimes recommended, such as codeine or tramadol. For oral tramadol, the usual dosage for adults is 50 to 100 mg every 4 to 6 hours. For codeine, the recommended oral dose is 30 mg every 6 hours (drugs.com).
- NSAIDs: NSAID stands for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These medicines work by blocking specific body chemicals that causes the affected area to become painful and inflamed. Examples are Ibuprofen, Naproxen and Aspirin.
2Give approximation a try. Approximation is a massage technique used to relieve muscle cramps. It is done by pressing the muscle fibers together in the same direction for a specific time.
- You can perform this massage by grasping the muscles above and below the cramps. Then push the hands together to shorten and compress the muscle until the muscle relaxes.
- Try to contract the muscle without pressing the opposing muscle against the cramping muscle. This forces the cramping muscle to relax, thereby relieving the cramp.
3Use cold therapy to reduce pain. Cold therapy helps to reduce blood flow in the swollen and inflamed muscle and slows down the pain signals that are transmitted to the brain. Thus, the pain felt during muscle cramps is decreased.
- A cold compress can be applied to the affected muscle for at least 20 minutes every 4 to 6 hours for three days.
4Follow up with heat therapy to promote muscle relaxation. Heat therapy involves the application of heat to the affected area, which causes the muscles to relax by dilating the blood vessels and promoting blood circulation to the area.
- Some studies show that the use of continuous low-level heat wrap therapy (CLHT) can help to decrease muscle and joint pain more effectively than oral analgesics, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
- A hot compress can be applied to the affected area for 20 minutes three times a day. Be careful when using heat therapy as it could cause burns.
Recognizing the Causes of Muscle Cramps
1Be wary of nerve malfunctions. Medical problems such as spinal cord injury or a pinched nerve in the back or neck could cause malfunctioning of the affected nerves and lead to the development of muscle cramps.
2Watch out for muscle strain. Overworking certain muscles can result in a loss of energy in the muscles. When this happens, the overworked muscle suddenly contracts, leading to a muscle cramp. This frequently happens in sports like running, where the same muscles are used repeatedly.
3Avoid dehydration. A lack of adequate hydration can result in a fluid and electrolyte imbalance that is more likely to provoke muscle cramping.
4Pay attention to any blood conditions. Muscles require an adequate blood supply in order to function properly. Therefore, any underlying blood conditions that interfere with the supply of blood to the muscles can lead to muscle cramping.
5Be careful about leaning at the waist. When a person gets tired, the normal response is to lean to the side, with a hand on your waist. Holding this position for prolonged periods can strain the core muscles. It puts the abdominal muscles in a vulnerable position which can lead to muscle cramps.
6Be conscientious about proper hip extension. Proper hip extension while running involves placing the upper thigh and leg backwards when the foot hits the ground. This gives more power and speed to your running. However, if the hips are not extended properly, it puts strain on the calf and quad muscles, leading to cramps.