Most runners will likely experience random pain at some point in their running career, in the form of cramps.
Cramps can affect many different parts of the body. They can be caused by a variety of things, such as excessive heat and a low electrolyte level. But one of the most common types of cramps—caused by overuse—is calf cramps.
They can be debilitating and even force you to abandon your workout. In this article, we will offer advice on how to treat and manage calf cramps so you can run pain-free.
What is a Calf Cramp?
A calf cramp is when the calf muscle—either the entire muscle group, a single muscle, or certain muscle fibers in the calf—contracts involuntarily and continuously.
This causes pain and a restriction of the range of movement of the affected muscle, as the muscle is locked in a contracted position and cannot extend.
When Does a Cramp Happen?
Calf cramps—or cramps in any other muscles—can occur at any time and for seemingly no reason. But the most common type of cramp is exercise-induced or exercise-associated muscle cramps.
In this context, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and overuse are the most common reasons that are thought to induce cramps.
When the body is under stress of this nature, the brain inhibits the chemical responsible for muscle extension and activates the chemical that stimulates the muscle. This leads to continuous, involuntary contractions of the affected muscle.
This can happen in the middle of your exercise or later on when the body and brain begin to relax. When running a race or training, it’s common for a cramp to begin near the end of the race when the muscles are fatigued.
Cramps can also happen randomly during the day or night when one isn’t doing any form of exercise at all.
Muscle Cramp Duration and Location
Cramps can occur in any muscle. They usually set in suddenly and can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. They are usually constant, as opposed to coming and going.
Cramps are localized, which means they occur in one muscle—group of muscles or muscle fiber. It is unlikely that a cramp will occur in two separate muscles at the same time.
What Causes Muscle Cramps?
Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps for a variety of reasons. One possible explanation is that the fluid content in the body and muscles helps to keep the muscles relaxed and ready to contract at any point.
When this fluid content is unbalanced, it can lead to muscles being stiffer than usual and struggling to relax again after contracting.
And when dehydrated, your body also can’t cool itself down adequately. This can lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If your body is in this state of distress, your muscles have to work harder, which can lead to them seizing up from exhaustion.
Dehydration can also lead to an electrolyte imbalance, which is one of the most common causes of cramping on long runs.
If you don’t warm up properly, your muscles may be too tight to work through their natural range of motion.
Performing exercise with muscles that are inadequately warm is a recipe for muscle cramps, tears, and sprains!
Excessive Exercise Intensity
When exercising—whether doing a training run, a heavy weightlifting session, or running a marathon—your body utilizes the glycogen stores in your muscles.
This is converted to ATP—adenosine triphosphate—which provides energy. Some of this energy goes towards the contraction and relaxation of muscles as you exercise.
When you push yourself too hard during exercise and you deplete your ATP stores, your body cannot produce enough energy to relax the muscles again.
The muscle remains contracted—in a cramp—for a few seconds or minutes until the body stops the exercise and can muster up some energy to help the muscles relax.
Excessive Exercise Duration
Cramps can be caused by overloading a particular muscle, which is the most common cause of calf cramps when running.
Muscles—like calves—which spend a lot of time in the shortened or contracted position during exercise are particularly susceptible to cramping.
The longer the muscle is in a contracted position, the more painful it is to return the muscle to its normal position. This can induce a cramp in the muscle, as it attempts to straighten from its stiffened position.
Insufficient Nutrients or Electrolytes
Electrolyte imbalance is a common cause of cramps when running. Muscles use these minerals to perform important tasks related to health.
Electrolytes are lost in sweat. The most common one lost is sodium. If one exercises for a prolonged period of time and doesn’t replenish electrolytes, a sodium deficiency may occur.
When the electrolyte levels—particularly sodium—in the body diminish, the body can react in drastic ways, including cramping. As the body attempts to regulate its own fluid levels, it can alter the fluid content of the brain which leads to cramps of a neuromuscular nature.
Response to Massage or Stretching
Massage or stretching is intended to relax and release knots in the muscles. But in some cases, stretching or massaging a muscle can stimulate pressure points and cause a painful response.
Massage also helps to eliminate toxins from the body. Toxins moving through the muscles as well as direct muscle and pressure point stimulation can lead to cramps or even DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness.
Weak Ankles or Feet
Runners with weak ankles are prone to calf cramps. In order to take strain off the ankles and feet, the calves take on a greater workload. This can lead to calf cramps from overuse.
No Massage During Recovery
Massage improves blood flow and helps to heal muscle fibers and relieve tension in the muscle.
If you neglect to massage your muscles during recovery—with a foam roller or by having a sports massage—your muscles may cramp later due to impaired blood flow.
Side Effects of Medication
Diuretic medications can also cause an electrolyte imbalance by altering the fluid/electrolyte balance in the body; this can lead to cramps, as we’ve already discussed.
Often, these medications are to lower blood pressure or cholesterol. If you are on one of these medications, you will need to take extra care to maintain your electrolyte balance and avoid cramps/
You need to make sure you’re staying well hydrated, before, during, and after you exercise. This is particularly important if you’re sweating a lot. Paying attention to your hydration will reduce your chances of becoming dehydrated.
You may need to experiment to find out how much water is an adequate amount for you. Carry a water bottle with you if you’re going for a run, or invest in a hydration pack if you need a larger volume of fluid.
Using compression gear during recovery can significantly reduce the chances of getting cramps. It stimulates blood flow to the muscles, which helps to heal small tears in the muscle. Good blood flow to the muscle will prevent overuse cramps.
You can also wear compression gear during exercise. This reduces extra movement of the muscle during exercise, which can help to reduce the amount of effort the muscle exerts during the exercise.
This means the muscle can go for longer before becoming fatigued, allowing less chance for cramps to develop.
Staying hydrated is important, but if you’re going to be exercising for 45 minutes or longer you will need to replenish your electrolytes as well as your fluid. If you lose too many electrolytes but keep replacing fluid, you will end up with an imbalance.
Replace your electrolytes with an electrolyte replacement tablet or drink. Make sure the electrolyte supplement you choose contains good levels of sodium and potassium, as well as magnesium and calcium.
Wearing the Right Shoes
Wearing the wrong shoes can cause the foot to be positioned incorrectly and places extra strain on the calf muscles. It’s essential to choose shoes that adequately support your arch and reduce calf fatigue.
Using a foam roller after exercise can help the muscles to ease up and prevent cramping. It also improves blood flow, which accelerates healing.
When you feel a calf cramp starting, it’s wise to stop running and try to treat the cramp immediately to prevent it from becoming worse. Most runners will not be able to run through the pain of a calf cramp, but trying to push through can lead to further injury.
When you feel a cramp starting, try to gently stretch the affected muscle and rub it lightly to try and get it to relax. This may be enough to alleviate the pain, but if not you can continue to treat the cramp yourself.
When your calf muscle is cramping, put your weight on the leg with the cramp and bend your knee just slightly. This stretches the calf muscle out and can reduce the pain.
If you can’t stand on the leg due to the pain of the cramp, sit in a chair or on the floor with your sore leg extended in front of you. Grab your toe and pull it towards you, keeping your leg straight until you feel the stretch in your calf muscle. This is also helpful for a hamstring cramp.
If your quad starts to cramp, stand on your unaffected leg and pull your cramping leg up behind you.
Whichever one of your muscles is cramping, placing an ice pack on the affected area can help to alleviate pain and induce relaxation.
If ice seems to make your cramp worse, you can try a heat pack or hot water bottle. Some runners find that heat can stimulate relaxation more than cold can.