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Ask the Coach - How to Prevent Cramping

(this post along with other useful training tips found on http://neoendurance.blogspot.com)

Ty would like to know how to train right to avoid cramping. He writes, "It has come up a few times for me - first on the PP Ascent then on the XTERRA 1/2 Marathon race. I thought I had trained right and did not experience any problems during training but on actual race day experienced cramps on the Ascent towards the top. Slowed my time down considerably."


Cramping is a common issue that athletes face. There are a few thoughts on cramping out in the sport performance world. Here are the most common:
  • Cramping has to do with electrolyte balance so consuming additional electrolytes, staying hydrated will reduce/prevent cramps (I think you hear this the most from sports supplement companies)
  • Cramping has to do more with race preparation - are your muscles prepared to go race speed?
Let's looks at thought 1, electrolyte balance. We should try to maintain electrolyte balance in our bodies so that our bodies will continue to function properly. Active.com has a good basic article on electrolytes, I touched on the subject in a previous Ask the Coach post, and here is a more in-depth look at electrolytes from the First Endurance blog. (Note: First Endurance is a sports nutrition company, but it's a pretty thorough post.)

The question of calf cramping actually came up this week on the USA Triathlon coaches forum, and some suggestions were to evaluate the athlete's diet (ie consumption of leafy greens that contain calcium and magnesium, which aid in muscle contraction and relaxation) and blood electrolyte concentrations to see if there was a deficiency. Certainly for optimal performance athletes should make sure they are keeping their bodies in balance on a daily basis and are consuming adequate amounts of nutrients in their diets (best done by eating natural, non-processed foods).
While it seems clear that electrolytes are important for sports performance, is it the only contributing factor in cramping, if at all? Probably not.


Now let's look at thought 2, specific preparation as the cause for cramping.
Training Bible coach Jim Vance wrote this blog post in response to the USAT Coaches discussion, which summarizes the performance aspect. When we look at race preparation, we want to make sure we include training at race conditions and paces. Races like the Pikes Peak Ascent and the XTERRA half marathon, are very hilly races, and put a lot of strain on the leg muscles. Because I don't know at what paces or conditions Ty trained, I can't comment on his specific preparedness, but in order to complete a challenging race, one must include challenging paces (and elevation gain in his case) in training. Running form can also play a role. If your technique is such that it puts additional strain on a particular muscle group, your muscles might be more likely to protest via a cramp when the intensity or duration becomes too great.


Another point that we can bring up is general muscle tightness. The more we train, the tighter our muscles will get if we don't keep them loose with stretching, massage, foam rolling, or other similar techniques. If over your training period your muscles are getting progressively tighter, they might tighten up beyond comfort during your race.


If you are self-coached and prone to cramps during a race and not in training, have a professional evaluate your training plan and possibly your running form, or bike fit for cyclists. The cost of a consultation will be well-worth finishing at a pace for which you are prepared!


Comments on this post? Please leave your comments below. If you have questions that you would like to see answered in the 'Ask the Coach' column you can post them in the comment section. You can also contact Coach Nicole on facebook, twitter or via email at nicole@neoendurancesports.com.
Coach Nicole is the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at http://neoendurancesports.com/.

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Comment by Bruce Wacker on November 10, 2010 at 5:20pm
For some good current independent science check the following blogs:
http://www.joefrielsblog.com/2010/05/muscle-cramps-and-mythology.html
http://www.joefrielsblog.com/2010/05/muscle-cramp-theory.html
I pretty much stopped taking electrolytes over a year ago and have noticed no ill effects. Three times I'd cramped in hard races and I'm convinced my muscles just couldn't handle the race effort. Besides, I can't stand Gatorade during races.
Comment by Rob Lucas on November 8, 2010 at 10:33pm
I've had cramps for both reasons. It's actually hard to tell the difference. When I'm less trained, I'll get cramps in shorter, hard efforts more and I believe they are most likely from the 2nd cause. Even those I've found can be somewhat be reduced by taking electrolytes. My cramps in longer events I think a caused more by electrolyte imbalance although it easily is a combination of the 2 causes.

I use Hammer's Endurolytes because they contain more minerals than just salt. Over the years, I've figured out pretty well how many I need to take based on conditions. If I do start cramping, I'll take some extra ones and usually the cramping goes away in 5-10 minutes. Other times no matter how many I take the cramps don't go away but that's most often when I'm not in top form.

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