Running Cramps Part III: How to Prevent Muscle Cramps And What to Do If You Get a Running Cramp

Written by Curb IvanicUncategorized


Now that I’ve described my personal struggles with cramping and discussed what causes running cramps I’d like to finish off the series with some recommendations on how to prevent running cramps. I’ll use myself as a case study and example.

My cramping issues usually show up in long runs over 4 hours and usually on terrain I’m haven’t run on in a while (such as snow) or during long races where I’m pushing the pace.

I experienced running cramps for the first time this year about four or five weeks before my target race. The cramps were isolated in my adductor (inner thigh) muscles and happened when running on snow about 3.5 hours into a run.

Given that my race was going to take at least six hours I knew I had to modify my training program to minimize any cramping issues. Ideally it would have been wonderful if I could prevent the running cramps from even occurring but I knew that probably wasn’t going to happen in such a short time frame.

My Cramp Prevention Training Program

1. Part of at least one run each week included some running on snow. I wasn’t sure how much snow would be left on the race course but if running on snow caused me to cramp I needed to train for that possible scenario. June was a relatively cold month and it looked like there would likely be snow on race day.

As it turned out, the weather changed dramatically in early June and we didn’t encounter any significant snow on race day. But training on snow meant I had to do a lot of hill running to get to the higher elevations and that’s never a bad idea in preparing for the Knee Knacker.

As you can see from the course profile below, there are no flat sections in the race:

2. Another race specific conditioning tactic was to include some faster paced running during each long run. I wanted to put in a good performance (relative to my own abilities; I had no illusions of competing for a top placing) so I had to make sure my body was used to pushing the pace especially late in a long run.3. Each weekly long run was done on different parts of the course to train for the race specific terrain.

4. I worked on developing the flexibility of my adductors. I did side lunges on a slideboard three times per week to increase the muscles’ range of motion while being loaded.

But as I detailed in my previous article, I still experienced running cramps in my adductors on race day so my training program didn’t go far enough.

What I’ll Do Differently to Prevent Running Cramps

  • Include isometric exercises for the adductors. Even when I’m just resting if I squeeze my thighs together hard enough I can almost cause a cramp in my adductor muscles. Not surprising because as mentioned previously, muscles in a shortened state are more prone to cramps. I’m hoping that doing some isometric contractions while condition these muscles to contract without cramping.
  • Run more long runs. I’ve run this race before by running only twice per week. If my goal is simply to complete the race and not worry about my time then I can get by on a minimal running program. But if I want to challenge myself to run a fast time then I need to run more long runs in the four to six hour range.

Develop Your Own Cramp Prevention Program

If you are prone to cramping here’s what I’d suggest you do as preventative measures:

  1. Include exercises that train your cramp prone muscles in different positions. Use exercises and drills that put them in a lengthened position and others that put them into a shortened position. Use isometric and eccentric protocols for these exercises as well.
  2. Analyze your running technique and see if there are any issues that may need to be addressed. You could be placing too much loading on certain muscles by the way you run.
  3. Prepare appropriately for the conditions you’ll encounter on race day. This can be difficult if you’re traveling to a distant destination that has different terrain and climate to where you live and train. But aim to get as race-specific with your training as you can.

Dealing with Running Cramps If They Occur

Realize that it may take quite some time to resolve persistent cramping issues.

In my case I think it’s going to take a lot of time to get my adductors cramp-resistant. And to be honest, I may never get to that point.

If you do end up cramping despite efforts to prevent them, here are some scientifically backed methods for reducing or stopping a cramp:

1. Stretch the muscle

Gently try to stretch the cramping muscle. By doing so you’ll help increase contraction-inhibiting signals coming from muscle receptors. At least that’s the theory. In reality this never rarely helped me because my cramps are so severe I can’t bear to stretch it out.

And often trying to stretch one muscle will cause another muscle to cramp. Usually it’s the opposing muscle that cramps up. For example if my hamstrings are cramping and I try to stretch them, my quads may end up cramping as well.

Still, studies have shown it works so try it.

2. Massage the muscle.

This is another way of reducing the contraction in a muscle. I prefer this to stretching but it takes time.

3. Drink pickle juice, vinegar or mustard.

I’ve only found studies that deal with pickle juice but there’s anecdotal evidence that mustard and vinegar work as well.

The most common explanations why these compounds work is that it’s the sodium or the acetic acid that help relieve the cramp. But that’s wrong.

One study found that no significant changes in electrolyte status were detected after drinking pickle juice. And the pickle juice takes too long to empty from the stomach for their to be any metabolic effect.

Instead, researchers theorize that ingesting these substances stimulates a reflex that originates in the region behind the oropharynx. This reflex inhibits the neurons that are causing the cramping muscles to contract and so the cramp releases.

Now this isn’t a proven theory but these researchers are a lot smarter than I am. Until someone comes up with a better explanation I’ll go with it.

The main point is that it isn’t some nutritional component in the substance that causes the cramp to stop.

This is pure speculation on my part but maybe there are other bitter tasting substances which could induce the same reaction by stimulation of the cramp inhibiting reflex.

I can’t see myself carrying around a bottle of pickle juice but maybe I’ll pack some mustard packets for my next long race.

4. Hyperventilate

One simple and easy method you can try to relieve a cramp is to take quick, deep breathes at a rate of 20 to 30 per minute.

I have to caution this was a case study paper with only three subjects and they were testing this on exercise-related cramps that occurred several hours after exercise while sleeping.

However one of the subjects did try this method at mile 67 of a 100-mile mountain bike ride and the cramps resolved within three minutes and didn’t come back for the rest of the race.

If you are doing this out in the field just be careful you don’t get light-headed or dizzy from all the heavy breathing. And don’t do it while starring at someone, you’ll look like a pervert.

Cramp No More!

Use my cramp prevention program as a long-term solution to cramping but until you resolve the underlying issues, try some of the methods I’ve outlined to stop a cramp once it starts.

Related articles:

Running Cramps Part I: Hydration, Cramping and Running Form

Running Cramps Part II: What Causes Muscle Cramps?


I'm Curb

Curb is a performance running coach with 20+ years experience working with athletes of all levels.

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