Want to avoid muscle cramps? Learn how to fight fatigue first.
Leg cramping will literally stop you in your tracks. Not only can those involuntary contractions of muscles be pesky annoyances, they are also painful problems that can leave a particular muscle sore for hours and days to follow.
For decades endurance athletes have been told that muscle cramping was due to things like dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and low potassium—eat more bananas and consume more sports drinks, and you’ll skirt the issue. The latest theory, however, suggests that muscle cramping is oftentimes due to fatigue, rather than solely a nutritional deficit.
“More evidence is showing that cramps may be due to central and/or peripheral neuromuscular fatigue versus electrolyte loss,” explains Charlie Boeyink, a physical therapist and endurance coach with Cadence Physical Therapy and Performance Coaching in Phoenix, Ariz.
Boeyink points to duration and intensity as two of the biggest cramp-causing culprits. Put simply, if you haven’t trained your body to withstand a certain number of miles or pace in training, you’re more likely to encounter cramping in a race. He offers an example: “If an athlete tried to run his 70.3 pace at one minute faster than his training ever reached, he’ll be at risk as the race progresses.”
Even if you’ve trained adequately, changes in your running form as you fatigue can also cause problems. “As form breaks down, more demand is placed on the muscle system and this may lead to cramping,” Boeyink says. Indeed, if you aren’t picking up your feet and driving your knees as you normally would, you rely more heavily on other muscles that may not be prepared to handle the load.
Fortunately, there are several measures you can take to decrease your likelihood of encountering muscle cramping. Boeyink says that including regular brick sessions in training may be one of the best precautions you can take. “When doing these, focus on body position, foot placement and cadence,” he says. “Get your race-pace efforts dialed in so there are no surprises on race day.”
Not only do these brick sessions help build strength and endurance to combat fatigue in a race, they also teach you to internalize your ideal race pace. This will help you stick to the pace plan, rather than going out too fast and getting sidelined by cramping later in a race.
Incorporating form drills a couple times a week can also play a role in fighting some of the side-effects of fatigue. “These can help train the body to unconsciously ‘go there’ when fatigued during a race or hard training session,” says Boeyink. Put simply, when you do form drills following a workout, you’re teaching your body to maintain good form even when you’re tired. These drills should be tailored to a particular athlete, but exercises like hamstring kicks, high knees, butt kicks and bounding all assist in increasing mobility and improving running form and economy.
While taking in enough fluids and electrolytes is still an important piece of the puzzle, many triathletes will find it reassuring that brick sessions and form drills may make an even bigger difference when it comes to avoiding muscle cramping in races. What’s more, when you commit to these measures, you’ll also likely notice a jump in strength and endurance, which is something any triathlete can get on board with.