You're running, and all of a sudden, you get a side stitch or cramp, a stomach cramp, or your leg muscle clenches.
It happens to a lot of runners. But you can learn to minimize cramps while running, and to act quickly when they do strike.
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 fitness instructor with Function First in San Diego.
Stomach cramps: Again this could be related to how you're breathing, Galloway says. Or it could be something you ate or drank before your 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, that 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.
When your leg muscles cramp up on you, dehydration is often to blame. -- exercise physiologist Pete McCall
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 longtimers, 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.
What to Eat and Drink
To help prevent stomach cramps, consider what you eat before running, and see if there might be a connection, Galloway says. It might just be about digestion. Give yourself more time between eating and running.
"If you have a problem [with cramps after] eating 2 hours before, eat 3 hours before," Galloway says.
Also pay attention to what you eat and its effects on your running. "A simple carb by itself [such as a piece of fruit] and water usually is fine," Galloway says.
It's a matter of finding what works for you. For instance, Galloway says many people tell him they have gut problems after eating bananas, but not apples, before a run.
To prevent muscle cramps, McCall also tells runners to get enough fluid before exercising. His advice:
- Drink 16 to 20 ounces 45 minutes before training.
- Drink 2 to 4 ounces every 15 minutes during a training session.
- Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally rich in water.
How to Treat Cramps While Running
If you get a side or stomach cramp while running, Galloway recommends slowing down to a walk. "Do the lower lung breathing while walking, maybe [for 2-4] minutes. That can bring it around," he says. For stomach cramps, "often a burp or passing of gas will get rid of the cramp."
When a muscle cramp strikes, McCall tells runners to stop exercising, rest, and hydrate -- preferably with a sports drink that can restore their electrolyte balance.