This is something I suffered from a lot, and I often asked myself that very question “How Can I Prevent Muscle Cramps While Running?”. I think the main reason for this, in my particular case, is that I didn’t really know my body’s limits. This was especially true when I started to throw in ascents, descents, longer distances, technical terrain, and varying mountain weather conditions. All these “very new to me” factors required more from my muscles, and as a result, I had to learn how to be more efficient when running for longer on the trails.
I used to rock up to trail races without really knowing how to pace myself. So, I would just run out the blocks as quickly as I felt I could manage at the time. The problem with this is that once you have done a few hills, your body is completely depleted of salts and electrolytes, and before you know it, you’re hobbling to the finish with the most painful leg cramps and a bruised ego. This was so frustrating as it seemed like such an easy thing to avoid. And guess what, it is! When you know how of course.
4 Steps to help eliminate cramping
- Dynamic stretching before a run
- Pace yourself properly
- Drink electrolytes
- Take salt tablets with you
Dynamic stretching before a run
It’s so important to do dynamic stretching before you run. This warms up the muscles so there’s less chance of you straining them when you start running. Straining your muscles during a run can trigger the onset of cramping, especially when your muscles begin to tire. This is even important when its cold. A few classic dynamic stretches to try are:
- butt kicks (great for the hamstrings)
- leg swings
- alternating toe touches (also good for the hamstrings)
- alternating walking lunges (great for the hips and quads)
- heel raises
We plan to release some videos of these stretches soon, so i won’t go into any detail on them in this post.
Pace yourself properly
As I said before, I used to go like a greyhound out the gates when a race started. That’s all very well if you’re running a 5k, but anything beyond that and off-road needs a different approach. I also tend to sweat a lot when running at an intensity of around 65% or higher. This has a handy purpose of cooling you down, but it also drains you of your salts and dehydrates you.
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When running at a high intensity for anything less than 2 hours, and I know that race organizers will provide electrolytes at aid stations, then I only take water in my bottle and drink the electrolytes provided. If electrolytes aren’t provided or I know my race or training run is going to last more than two hours then i’ll take my own electrolytes in one bottle, and have another soft flask for water. I always run with a hydration pack which takes two 500ml soft flask bottles. This works perfectly for this scenario. The reason for having two bottles, is that sometimes you just don’t feel like drinking your electrolytes, but require hydration. Being able to satisfy the need for pure water is a must when on the trails.
The electrolyte and carbohydrate mix that I’m currently enjoying is Tailwind Nutrition (unflavored). I have tried many different brands, but right now, this one works for me without giving me an upset stomach. If you’re not sure which to go for, then I advise you to try some out and see what works best for you. It really is a trial and error process for electrolytes, as everyone’s tastes and requirements differ.
Take Salt Tablets
These were a bit of a revolution when I first discovered them. They are my get out of jail free card when the first three steps fail me and cramp still manages to appear. The brand I use is called SaltStick Caps. They’re basically capsules filled with salts and electrolytes (and no carbohydrates, including sugars, lactose, and fructose). Whenever I feel like cramping is imminent, I take one of these tablets and within 5 minutes, the feeling is completely gone. And I find I can keep cramp at bay by continuing this process throughout my race. Please consult the bottle guidelines to make sure you don’t take too many during a 24 hour period though.
For me, it was a combination of these practices that mean I no longer suffer from muscle cramps during trail races. If you are suffering from cramping, why not give these steps a try. You’ll be so thankful when you finally wave goodbye to muscle cramps, and can concentrate on performing to the best to your ability.
If you have any questions relating to this article, please ask away in the comments below. We will answer them, to the best of our ability based on our research and experience.
*Disclaimer – We are not medical experts, and all information in this article has been gathered from our experiences on the trails and sourced from our own research on the internet. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider, with any questions you may have regarding personal health or a medical condition, including diagnosis and treatment for your specific medical needs.