Cramps are painful, involuntary contraction of muscles. In runners, a common site of muscle cramps is in the calf (gastrocnemius & soleus muscle). Cramping may come on during or after a run. Many people experience the onset of cramps hours later, sometimes while sleeping at night. The involuntary contraction of the calf muscle causes intense pain and may even cause the ankle to flex. Cramps cause the muscle to go into spasm, which inhibits blood flow to the area. The decreased blood flow makes it difficult for oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to the muscle. The exact cause of leg cramps has not been determined, but there are many possible reasons for cramping.
- Low electrolyte levels
- Muscle Fatigue
- Muscle Tightness
- Hydration – water consumption before, during, and after exercise. If you are exercising longer than one hour, consider a fluid that contains carbohydrates. Weigh yourself before and after exercise, consume 20 ounces of water for every pound lost during exercise.
- Electrolyte Replacement – electrolytes aid in proper muscle contraction and are lost through sweat. Be sure to replace what you are sweating out by consuming enough sodium and potassium. Drinking beverages such as Nuun or other sports drinks is a convenient way to rehydrate and replenish lost electrolytes during and after exercise. If you are exercising for longer than one hour and are using energy supplements such as Gu, chews, or chomps, many of them also contain electrolytes. Salt tabs may also be beneficial during periods of prolonged exercise.
- Compression – the use of a compression sock or sleeve during exercise can help decrease the risk of cramping. Compression reduces extraneous movement of the calf muscles, which decreases the total effort of the muscle and helps to prevent fatigue. It also helps to increase blood flow to the area which keeps the muscle in rich supply of oxygen.
- Arch Support – an unsupported arch can cause the muscle of the calf to work harder, which may increase the risk of fatigue
- Stretching – gentle stretching of the muscle can help to decrease the cramp at the time of onset. Even after the cramp has subsided, the muscle may remain tight and should be stretched.
- Massage– gentle massage at the onset of the cramp may help to increase blood flow to the area and break up the spasm. Once the cramp has subsided, the muscle may remain tight and should be massaged to help realign muscle tissue and restore normal function.
- Ice and/or Heat– At the onset of a calf cramp, the application of ice may help to reduce the pain and spasm. If muscle tightness continues for days after the initial cramp, the use of heat may help to relax the muscle through increased blood flow to the area.