How to Beat Marathon Muscles Cramps

One of the most common reasons for failure in the marathon is suffering from muscle cramping. These can be one of most frustrating reasons for a poor performance. Typically, when you suffer from a cramp, everything else is going pretty well. The pace feels easy, you’ve got plenty of energy, and a new PR seems almost inevitable. Then bang! Your calf cramps and it takes everything you have just to crawl to the finish.

This is because your marathon cramping isn’t likely a hydration or electrolyte issue at all. Rather, the problem is what we call a “muscle overloading” or a fatigue cramp. This occurs when the neural mechanisms that are supposed to inhibit muscle contraction are depressed and the chemical and electrical synapses that fire the muscle fibers are enhanced. The result is an intense, sustained involuntary muscle contraction.

The question now is why do these fatigue cramps happen, even after running countless training miles, tough workouts and marathon-specific long runs?

ImageMuscle cramps can derail even the most seasoned runners’ races.

How Poor Form Leads To Marathon Cramping

Your body will always compensate when one muscle group isn’t working correctly by rerouting the work that needs to be done to another muscle group. Meaning, if your glute muscle is inhibited and not firing correctly, your leg won’t simply stop working. Instead, your brain tells your muscles, “hey, this glute isn’t getting the job done, let’s fire the calves more forcefully to make up for the lack of power.” This “rerouting” occurs unconsciously and often you’ll never even realize it occurs.

Slouching And Poor Posture
One of the most common issues is slouching, or leaning at the waist, as you get tired. Keeping your shoulders and chest back and your spine in a neutral position for two, three, or even four hours is a difficult task for your core (hips, abdominals, lower back and glutes). Most runners lack the strength to hold themselves in the optimal posture for three to four hours. As a result of their weakness, they slouch (or lean forward at the waist), which will tend to sit the butt backward to counter balance their upper body’s forward position. This results in over-striding (landing with your foot out in front of your center of mass), which dramatically increases the impact forces that travel up the leg as the foot lands.

Over striding also puts the hamstrings in a vulnerable position at ground contact and forces them to do more work to pull the leg through since the glutes can’t be activated as efficiently. If you suffer from frequent hamstring cramps during the marathon, I contend this is the likely cause.

Lack Of Hip Extension
I believe one of the main culprits of marathon cramping, especially in the calves, is a product of reduced hip extension, which is much more difficult to recognize than slouching.

Hip extension is the act of driving your entire upper thigh (and leg for that matter) backwards after your foot contacts the ground. The power for this movement is generated primarily from the hip and glutes and it is perhaps the single most important factor in your ability to run faster. The more powerful your hip extension, the faster you will go.

As you get further into a race, the forceful contractions required from the hip and glute muscles to sustain a fast pace become more difficult to generate (this is especially true if you went out too fast and fatigued your intermediate muscle fibers early). To compensate for the hip and glute getting tired, the body recruits the calf and quad to help generate the power needed to maintain marathon pace. Since the calf and quad aren’t accustomed to such a large workload, they quickly fatigue and begin to cramp.

How to Address the Issue

Just like you need to perform core and injury prevention work to stay healthy, it’s important you perform form-specific strengthening exercises that target the mechanics that commonly deteriorate late in a race.

For example, if you tend to suffer from calf or quad cramps late in a race, you’ll want to perform exercises, drills and stretches that focus on improving your hip extension. Not only will this reduce many of the limitations that may be preventing you from generating proper hip extension, but these exercises will help you improve your muscular endurance and ability to generate proper hip extension late in a race when you’re tired.

Adding this type of form-specific work could be just what you need to prevent those late race cramps and help you reach your potential.

Article written by Jeff Gaudette.

(Jeff has been running for 13 years, at all levels of the sport. He was a two time Division-I All-American in Cross Country while at Brown University and competed professionally for 4 years after college for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Jeff’s writing has been featured in Running Times magazine, Endurance Magazine, as well as numerous local magazine fitness columns.) 

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