Back to Fitness: Cramping


Six years ago, I was at mile 31.5 of a 32-mile trail race and in the lead. The race took place in July, so it was predictably hot and humid and I was running hard, but in control. About ½ mile from the finish, I came out of the woods to a road crossing and saw a large truck slowly making its way towards me.  Just about to win my first race ever, I wasn’t going to wait for that truck, and I changed gears to a quick sprint in order to get across the road safely and on to the finish line.  

Well, my body had other thoughts. After 5 hours of hard running, as soon as I changed up my gait to sprint across the road, it triggered an insane cramp in my right calf muscle. I was horrified as I looked down to see my calf muscle involuntarily contracting, causing me not only great pain but also rendering that leg completely useless for running. I fell to the ground amazed at my sudden change of circumstance and tried to stay calm; meanwhile the muscle continued to contract. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably just 30 seconds, I finally could stand. I took a full minute to stretch and rub my calf, and then slowly hobbled off toward the finish. I still ended up finishing in first place, thankful that second was not immediately behind me, but it was a humbling moment to know just how powerful and uncontrollable a muscle cramp could be.

If you exercise enough, at some point you are likely to experience muscle cramping. There is a lot of new science on why we cramp, but there is still a lot that remains a mystery.

Although I don’t have time for getting into all the great recent studies that are changing the way we think about exercise-induced muscle cramping, I recommend reading Joe Uhan’s summary article on the topic at the following link:

For those of you wanting a quick overview during your morning cup of coffee, here you go!

First, let me say that I am not talking about side cramps, aka side stitches.  That is when you get a sudden sharp pain just below your ribs. There is a lot that remains a mystery about side stitches also, but it is generally accepted that they are more common in newer athletes and that training more can definitely reduce their occurrence. Otherwise, many of the same principles below apply to side stitches.

Exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC) is the general term used for larger muscle group cramping (what I experienced at mile 30 of my race). It has been long thought that cramping was related to problems with salt and hydration, but that theory has been fairly well debunked (read the article above).  Although the exact cause for cramps has not been fully agreed upon in the scientific community, consensus seems to be leaning more towards “altered neuromuscular control.” In short, there seems to be a point at which too much exercise or too much stress creates a state where the muscles start freaking out and cramping.

There are several good thoughts on why people get EAMC:

You’re overdoing it.  This is generally the best explanation and overall accepted. When you are pushing and asking your muscles to do much, much more than they normally do, cramping is their way of finally stopping you. I hear all the time from people who had a goal race ruined by cramping and often the blame is on the weather or not enough salt, but usually the story starts with “I was having one of my fastest days ever, but then…”  

You’re injured.  If you’ve got an injury in one of the more prone muscle groups (calves, hamstrings, quads), then the ability of these muscles to keep up with your max effort is compromised. I once tweaked a calf muscle a few weeks before a big race and even though I was taking it easy, I was battling on/off cramping in that specific area during many parts of that race.

You’re just prone to it. People with a history of cramping are very likely to experience cramping in the future. Some folks just seem more sensitive to cramping and these folks have to work extra hard to prevent them.

What can we do?

First, train more.  Cramping is your body’s way of saying, “We’re not ready for this!” so it should come as no surprise that cramping will be more common when you are pushing your limits in either distance, duration, or intensity of what you are doing. Better training will allow your muscles to be better able to adapt to these stresses.

Second, slow down.  Cramping is also your body’s way of saying “slow down!” You may not feel like you’re overdoing it, but your muscles do and now you have to respect that. Take the intensity down a notch, take breaks, and you’ll find your cramps will improve.

Third, drink pickle juice?  The very interesting new science is that there are certain compounds that can trigger receptors in your mouth which seem to decrease the muscle activation associated with cramps in your legs. Things like pickle juice, mustard, and other salty/savory foods can indeed help stop your cramps, even though they are not at all affecting your sodium levels in your bloodstream.  

Cramps will always be a part of exercise because we humans are always trying to push ourselves, which is a good thing.  Every person will be different, but fortunately there are some good methods you can use to prevent them from ruining your day in the future. 


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