Running and Calf Cramps -Conquering the Calf Cramp Conundrum: Causes, Prevention, and Relief

The most common issue that we runners will all experience at one point in our lives is calf cramps. They can be a real buzzkill.

running calf cramps
Understanding their causes and learning how to prevent and treat them can help you conquer the calf cramp conundrum and keep you on the path to enjoyable runs.

On this page I will cover:

  • Why do we get calf cramps?

  • What to do when we have them?

  • How can we prevent them?

  • But, first, I'll share a few of my experiences with calf cramps while running.

    Running and Calf Cramps – Some of My Experiences...

    The last time I experienced this was during an ultra-marathon. I had been going for hours. It was a sunny day in Summer. I was exhausted. I could feel my calves tightening up. And there was still a long way to go.

    running calf cramps
    For the next three hours I was carefully balancing not going too fast and putting too much stress on the calves and going fast enough to stay ahead of cut-off timings.

    Hard day in the office…!

    Avoiding calf cramps while running isn't always straightforward. Sometimes the reasons for it seem clear enough. Take my first half marathon. I hadn't trained enough for it, but wanted to run it anyway. I know, not smart. But hey, I was young and full of confidence…

    My longest run in training had been 10 miles. Enough to finish a half marathon. At least, if you take it easy and your goal is to finish it. But if you decide to race it then you are in for trouble. Guess what I did?

    And this was in the time before GPS watches. I started off way too fast. And not far after the 10 miles mark the tank was empty. I felt the calf cramps coming up. Only by slowing down enough I could prevent them from hitting me until after the finish. I really felt that I could not speed up with even a notch or I would be in severe trouble.

    I felt like I died ten times in those last few miles. It seemed to last forever. In my attempt to finish within goal time I needed to accelerate the last few hundred meters. I did that, finished within my goal, but hey, my calves were finished for the rest of the weekend...

    Painful experience.

    Running and Calf Cramps - Why Do We Get Calf Cramps?

    running calf cramps
    Calf cramps during running can be attributed to several factors. Understanding these triggers is the first step towards avoiding those calf clenchers. Some of the reasons are:

    One of the most common causes of calf cramps is pushing your muscles too hard. Overexertion, especially when pushing yourself beyond your limits, running uphill or increasing your pace suddenly, can lead to muscle fatigue and cramping.

    Poor Nutrition
    Your muscles require proper nutrition to function efficiently. Inadequate intake of essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and calcium can increase the likelihood of calf cramps.

    When you sweat during a run, you lose fluids and essential electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium. Dehydration can cause muscle spasms and cramps, including in your calf muscles.

    Underlying Health Conditions
    Certain medical conditions like diabetes, circulation problems, or nerve disorders can increase your vulnerability to calf cramps.

    So, there can be a number of reasons. And often it is a combination of factors. Take my ultra-marathon. Running for hours. Warm, sunny day. You can easily see how exertion, dehydration and even nutrition can all be factors, contributing to experiencing calf cramps while running.

    You may also sometimes experience calf cramps while sleeping. Tough way to wake up! But it is a period of the day you are not drinking and eating; dehydration and lack of minerals can easily translate into calf cramps.

    Same with that first half marathon. Even though it was a much shorter run, a half marathon is a long distance. And I was pushing myself beyond what I was capable of. Both times I really got to the verge of having calf cramps while running. And I really needed to manage my effort in the remainder of these races to not be stopped by them.

    Running and Calf Cramps - How to prevent leg cramps?

    running calf cramps
    Now that we've identified the culprits, let's talk about how to prevent calf cramps from crashing your running party.

    Stay Hydrated
    Make sure you're adequately hydrated before, during, and after your run. Drink water regularly, and consider sports drinks that replenish electrolytes if you're running for an extended period.

    Balanced Nutrition
    Maintain a well-rounded diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to ensure you get the necessary vitamins and minerals to support your muscles. During long efforts, have sports gels or chews or alternatives you like to keep you fuelled.

    Train Well, Know Yourself and Gradual Progression
    The examples I have provided of my own experiences with calf cramps, clearly have a big “Do'h"-factor about them. Clearly, when you are underprepared and decide to race over long distances like half marathons, marathons or ultras, you are going to be at risk of calf cramps.

    When you are a Type-A personality like me who always wants to push themselves and not accept they may be undertrained, you are going to have a few, ahem, learning experiences like this. At some point, you'll hopefully lean. Maybe one day I will as well…. :)

    Clearly, gradual progression of intensity and distance and being well prepared for the event you are competing for should be priority. This gives your muscles time to grow and adapt. It will make sure your body is well prepared for the challenges ahead.

    Running and Calf Cramps - What to do when you get calf cramps while running?

    running calf cramps
    Definitely slow down if you feel them coming. You might be lucky enough to be able to prevent them. But if you get one of those sharp, sudden leg cramps, you will have to stop. Well, I don't have to tell you that. I am quite certain you will stop immediately.

    You can then do the following:

    Stop and Stretch
    When a cramp hits, stop running immediately. Gently stretch the affected calf by flexing your toes towards your shin. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds.

    Rub the cramped muscle gently to help relax it. Use your fingers or knuckles to apply gentle pressure in a circular motion.

    Hydrate / Eat
    Take small sips of water to rehydrate and restore electrolyte balance. Consider a sports drink if you have one on hand. Sports gels or chews can assist as well.

    Allow your muscles time to recover before attempting to run again. Don't rush it; listen to your body.

    Seek Medical Attention
    If calf cramps persist or become a recurring issue, consult a healthcare professional. They can rule out any underlying medical conditions or provide tailored advice.

    running calf cramps
    Calf cramps can put a damper on your running routine, but with the right knowledge and precautions, you can minimize their occurrence. By staying hydrated, maintaining a balanced diet, and being well prepared for the event you are participating in, you'll be well on your way to a cramp-free running experience.

    Make sure you check out the running training section for running tips and advice to get you into peak condition for your next race and the runner's diet section to work out what you need to eat and drink.

    And if those pesky cramps do sneak up on you, remember to stretch, massage, hydrate, and give your muscles the time they need to bounce back. Visit a doctor if the calf cramps are coming back continuously, so they can help you rule out any medical issues.

    With all this knowledge in mind, lace up those running shoes and hit the road, knowing you're prepared to conquer the calf cramp conundrum!
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