You will recognize muscle cramps by spasm type pain that occurs during the course of a run or race or even in bed after a race. These are commonly in the calves or feet, but also occur in the quads and upper legs and in some cases throughout the body. The often come in waves and may last from a few seconds to several minutes per wave. They can be quite severe and painful.
The science behind muscle cramps continues to evolve. In the past these were attributed to poor hydration and electrolyte deficiencies. We’ve come to understand that it is more complicated and involves temporary abnormal signals between nerves and muscles with several potential contributing factors likely including genetics as well.
Stretch and slow down
Regardless of the cause, you are likely overworking the muscle for the condition that you are in. The cramps may force you to temporarily stop. Try to gently stretch the muscle or have someone stretch it for you. Decrease the amount of work you are asking the muscle to do. This usually means slowing down or resting at least for a little while.
Consider your hydration and fuel status
While dehydration is not the sole cause for cramping it can contribute. Ensure that you are appropriately hydrated for the conditions and your fitness. Many use a “drink to thirst” strategy for hydration but this is something that you should figure out prior to race day. NOTE: DO NOT OVERHYDRATE. While dehydration can ruin your race, overhydration/hyponatremia (low sodium) can be deadly. On a hot day when you are sweating a lot, you will need to drink more. If you are sweating a lot and you are seeing salt crusts on your clothes, you will likely need to supplement salt and electrolytes. Whole foods such as salty potatoes or bananas are best, but electrolyte tabs and drinks work as well if you don’t tolerate whole foods well while racing.
Reset the nerve/muscle (neuromuscular) communication
Research points to certain types of stimuli signaling the brain to help reset. This is one theory behind pickle juice in that it is not just the salt intake but the strong taste that signals the brain to reset. Consider things such as pickle juice, spicy food/drink to aid in this. Again, you probably want to experiment with these before your race.
Do you have other symptoms?
Do you have other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness or confusion? If so, do not just treat the cramps. Address the other problems as well as they may point to a more serious condition.
Does your urine look brown like soda or tea? If so you may have cramping from rhabdomyolysis and you should hydrate and seek medical attention.
Often times cramps occur when your training has not prepared you for the effort or conditions you encounter during race day. So train wisely!
If you find you always get cramps regardless or proper training, conditions, and appropriate race day body management or that your cramps are getting more frequent and worse consider seeing a health care professional as these may be warning signs of an underlying medical condition.