How to Stop Runners' Cramps
How to treat -- and avoid -- cramps that strike while you run or jog.
You're jogging right along -- actually, nearly galloping -- and hoping for your best time ever in a 5K, 10K, or just your regular run.
Then it hits, out of nowhere: You get a side stitch or cramp, a stomach cramp, or your leg muscle constricts, threatening to stop you in your tracks.
Cramps while running are the painful opposite of a runner's high, sometimes making even veteran runners grimace and groan.
They're common, according to experts and researchers. In one study of 848 runners and walkers -- most of them runners -- 27% said they had exercise-related abdominal pain, described often as a cramping sensation.
But you can learn to minimize cramps while running, and to act quickly when they do strike.
Here, two experts talk about where cramps come from, how to avoid them, and how to handle them if they strike anyway.
What Causes Cramps While Running?
The origin of a cramp depends on the type.
Side cramp or ''stitch": This cramp strikes you in the side, as the name implies, or even in the lower abdominal area. It's mainly the result of shallow breathing, not breathing deeply from the lower lung, says Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian. He's a veteran runner who has trained more than 200,000 runners and walkers and runs a marathon-training program. ''The side pain is a little alarm" alerting you about your breathing, Galloway says. An imbalance of blood electrolytes (such as calcium, potassium, and sodium) in your body may also contribute, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.
Stomach cramps: Again, incorrect breathing can play a role, Galloway says. But so can what you've eaten or had to drink before the workout. "If you have put too much fluid or food in your stomach, you can't get a large breath," Galloway says. If your levels of sodium, potassium, and calcium are off-kilter, it could contribute to stomach cramps, too, McCall says.
Muscle cramps: When your leg muscles cramp up on you, dehydration is often to blame, McCall says.
How to Prevent Cramps While Running
To avoid side cramps, Galloway suggests deep lung breathing. His advice: Put your hand on your stomach and breathe deeply. If you're breathing from your lower lungs, your stomach should rise and fall.
Side cramps affect beginners more than long-timers, Galloway notes. "Veteran runners shift [naturally] to lower lung breathing," he says.
To avoid side pain, don't start your run jackrabbit fast. Many side stitches are simply a result of that. "It's always better during the first 10 minutes to be more gentle," Galloway says.
Nervousness can play a role, too. When nerves hit, "you have a tendency to breathe more rapidly, or some do," Galloway says. "When that happens, a lot of people revert to shallow breathing," which can bring on a side cramp.