Jim2's Running Page

Marathon Cramps

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1998 

I believe that there are several causes of cramps. Therefore, it's necessary to deal with several factors to avoid them. The key factors are early race pace, hydration, minerals, electrolytes, weather, being adequate trained and a sufficient taper.

I experienced leg cramps (calves) in my first 3 marathons that slowed my pace considerably and reduced me to some walking after 21 miles. I almost had problems with them in my 4th and 5th marathons. I occasionally felt ripples/spasms in my calves as they bordered on cramping. I was able to fend them off each time they threatened with more of a forced forefoot landing for a few strides. But, my pace was still affected. After that, I have avoided them completely in my 16 subsequent marathons. (Except for my 18th when an experiment with Gallowalking/pacing brought them on....but that's another story. :) ) In the process, I have adopted several techniques that I think are effective against cramps.

Pace is a major factor, probably the primary one, that can lead to cramps. We often feel so damn good in the early miles that we are seduced into running just a few seconds per mile faster than goal race pace to "bank some time", or because we want to believe that we underestimated our race potential. I think this was the primary cause, along with mineral/electrolyte depletion, of the cramps I experienced in my early marathons. It simply doesn't work, unless you misjudged your goal pace to begin with. Running just 5-10 seconds per mile faster in the first half what you are truly capable of will extract a even bigger price in the second half. Positive splits harm your overall race performance. And, cramps can be one manifestation of them.

I "pre-load" minerals and electrolytes. In addition to a high carb diet the week before the race, I consume a carbo-load supplement for 3 days before a marathon. Several companies make them. They contain electrolytes, as well as carbs. Gatorade's is called Gatorlode and is the one that I can most readily find. However, Gatorlode does not contain potassium, which is a particularly important mineral for cramp avoidance. Many runners think that the depletion of potassium during a race is a common cause of cramps. On the advice of an experienced marathoner who is also a pharmacist, I take a daily potassium supplement for 5-6 days before a marathon.

I have learned the value in using the sports drink offered during a marathon at every opportunity to supplement and replenish mineral and electrolyte stores. Don't wait until midway through the race to use them. (Same for gels, if you use them in addition to or in lieu of sports drink. I don't use them.) Using the drink as early as you can delays depletion of your body's stores. If you wait until your electrolyte stores are partially diminished before using the drink (or a gel), it's too late. I drink it, in addition to water, at every aid station where it is offered during a race. In the first 5 marathons I ran in 1983-84, there was no sports drink available. It was just coming into being at that time. Beginning in 1985, it was available in the marathons I ran and I started using it. This, plus better early race pacing and pre-race mineral/electrolyte loading, solved my cramping problems.

Some people say that overtraining tires leg muscles and sets them up for cramps. I do not believe that. However, under-training and/or under-tapering can. I don't believe it is possible to overtrain for a marathon, as long as you avoid injury and burnout.....and taper properly. The taper is miraculous in marathon preparation. Done properly......neither too much nor too little work while tapering.....your body and mind will recover from any level of stress (barring injury) you placed on them during training and they will be at an optimum point of freshness and energy for the race. I do believe that being undertrained can be a factor in cramps, especially in endurance/stamina base. That's why total mileage and a sufficient number of long runs of 18-22 miles are so important in a training program. Going into a marathon, I would be much more worried about being undertrained or under-tapered than overtrained or over-tapered for cramp avoidance.

Finally, warm weather can increase vulnerability to cramps. You can't do anything about the weather, you might say? Well, you can. It relates back to pace. It's necessary to adjust race goals and pace to account for warm conditions. Many marathoners fail to adjust sufficiently....or at all....which invites cramps late in the race.

After 12 consecutive marathons with no cramps, I experienced them in my 18th because I deliberately tried to force a faster pace than I was capable of that day by using Galloway's walk breaks. I tried running 13 sec/mile faster than I had determined was my realistic pace without walk breaks. It didn’t work. Spasms started after 15 miles and both calves cramped hard at 20 miles. It was just another example that pace is an overriding factor.

I think the most common cause of late race cramps in a marathon is running the first half too fast....with loss of hydration, electrolytes and minerals not far behind. You have to honestly assess the time that you are prepared to run.....then pace the first half a few seconds per mile slower than that. Trying to run a little aggressively and bank time usually leads to late race problems, often cramps. However, this puzzle does have several pieces. All have to be addressed. Only you can really evaluate your race and determine what the likely cause(s) were.

Jim2