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Cramping Up

Posted Aug 30 2012 2:00am



Cramps can be some of the most painful and debilitating injuries to happen to an athlete.

I should know: On several occasions I have had leg cramps come on so strong that I had to stop running.  It was not a choice to stop; I physically could not get my legs to respond without a lightning bolt of pain and electricity shooting me in my thigh and calves.

Prior to my first experience with leg camps I had had what I thought were cramps: a side stitch, soreness in my legs, etc.  I had always been able to “gut it out” with these types of pains, and they usually subsided after running for a little while.  Even if they didn’t go away completely, they were not debilitating.

Then came my first marathon experience, the 2011 Baltimore Marathon.

I had prepared reasonably well in the run-up to Baltimore, training with Team in Training and maintaining my training calendar reasonably well.  Sure, I could have been a little better about making all of the training runs and could have been a little harder on myself during the taper, but like the bumper sticker says, “It’s only 26.2 miles. What could possibly go wrong?”

The night before the run I went out to eat with my parents and enjoyed a few beers.  I went to bed later than I should have and woke up a little groggy and dehydrated.  No problem, right?  I downed some water and headed to the start line.  The first 13.1 miles of the marathon went along swimmingly.  Between halfway and the 16-mile mark I noticed myself tiring considerably.  The last 10 miles were, no exaggeration, a living hell on Earth.  I found myself hating everyone and everything around me, including myself.

Then the cramps started.

Like it wasn’t bad enough that I was having problems putting one foot in front of the other out of fatigue, around mile 20 I started to feel a twinge in my hamstring.  Then… BAM!  A lightning bolt came out of the sky, thrown by Zeus himself, and jammed its way into the back of my left leg.   I nearly fell down, stunned that I had just been mugged by a Greek god, but was able to catch myself just in time.  Then…BAM!  Another bolt hit my right leg, and at that point it was all I could do to stay upright and moving forward.  I walked the better part of the last six miles, saving enough energy to run (if that’s what you want to call it at that point) through the last stretch at Camden Yards and on into the finish line.

I had never, ever experienced anything like that pain before or since, until the other night.  On Tuesday I had the bright idea to run a treadmill 5K with a nice incline, then do a plyometric leg workout, then jump back on the treadmill for a few cooldown miles.  The plan worked great until the second treadmill attempt, when, .2 miles into the run Zeus threw a few more bolts at my calves.  Every time either foot would hit the treadmill an electric pain would seize my calf and make me feel like the whole muscle was trying to twist into the fetal position.  A few strides after the first cramp hit I was forced to hit the treadmill stop button with the same urgency as an MMA fighter tapping out of a match before being choked out.

So what have I learned from these experiences, other than cramps suck and Greek gods still exist?  First off, hydration is key.  I should have been smarter than I was the night before Baltimore and cut out the beers (beer drinking is NOT a stylized version of carb-loading).  On the course I should have hit the Gatorade more than the water, and I should have maintained my training all the way to the marathon rather than using the taper as a two-week vacation prior to the race.  Also, I should have practiced my hydration routine before race day to get my body ready for the entire 26.2, not just the first 16.

As for the leg cramps on the treadmill, I should have been a little smarter in how I transitioned exercises.  I was drinking properly and hydrated before hitting the gym, but that didn’t help me in this case because my body wasn’t ready for the shock of running inclines, then doing a bunch of plyo jumps, then running again.  Knowing your limits can help you to avoid cramps, and I found my limit the other night.

For more information on cramps, including side stitches and abdominal cramping, check out the WebMD page on the topic .  Their site is loaded with good info on this and a lot of other run-related topics.

Have you ever had a bad cramping experience?  Let us know about it in the comments below, and tell us how you treated it!
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