Are Older Runners More Prone to Cramps: Yes, But Here's What to Do
PRONE TO CRAMPS?
HERE'S WHAT TO DO
Muscle cramps are perplexing. There is very little agreement about what causes them. Current research shows no correlation between cramping and dehydration or potassium deficiency.
It's unfortunate that eating bananas isn't enough. The involuntary contraction of a muscle that doesn’t relax can be quite painful and disabling. In severe cases, and particularly when you continue to run at speed with a cramp, the result is a calf muscle strain or tear.
Even after the muscle relaxes it often remains stiff and painful and prone to cramp again on subsequent runs.
As an age-group coach, I had two great 13-year-old runners who were prone to calf cramps towards the end of our tougher workouts. I’d have them pull their toe back for a stretch, and took to stocking 1.7 ounce Hotshot brand drinks in my first aid kit because it made their cramps relax almost instantly.
And with the groups I coach now, which skew much older, I get a much higher percentage of runners afflicted by cramps.
Risk of muscle cramping increases if you:
- try to run further or faster or heavier than you are accustomed
- stretch only periodically
- have a family history of cramps.
- are simply older.
Besides workout cramps, many older athletes live in dread of the foot or calf cramp that shocks them awake at 3 am.
My wife, a mountain biker, keeps a bottle of Theraworx on her nightstand to instantly relax middle-of-the-night cramps.
The longest layoff I’ve had as a masters runner came when I suffered a severe calf cramp 3 miles from my car with a son who needed to be picked up in 30 minutes.
I stretched my calf just enough to get partial relaxation of the muscle and ran it in, which turned out to be a very bad idea. I picked up my son almost on time, albeit with a limp, but it took months before I could exceed 5 miles without suffering a cramp in that same muscle.
These days, for a few weeks after actually suffering a calf cramp, I drink a Hotshot about 30 minutes prior to each run, which seems to eliminate the problem. If I get a hint of that pre-spastic feeling that precedes a cramp, I stretch it, walk for a minute, and then proceed to do the rest of my run at conversational pace. If a muscle actually goes to spasm, I drink a hotshot carried in my waist belt.
Marathon Cramps are a Wall You Don't Want to Hit
The worst of all possible cramps are the ones that come past mile 20 in a marathon. Noted fitness author Roy Wallack makes that clear in describing his attempt to run a Boston Marathon without sufficient training:
"On mile 24, my right calf blew. Really blew. It knocked me to the ground,"
Wallack says he was able to get up and continue after three minutes of stretching. But "every muscle in my left leg—not just the right—felt ready to pop. I felt like I was booby-trapped, a human landmine. One false step and ... At mile 25, it exploded like a gunshot. My left interior quadriceps muscle—the vastus medialis—balled up into a fist of pain. I went down, screaming 'Awwwwwww!' at the top of my lungs."
Don't count on a Hotshot to prevent cramps when running a marathon without proper training.
The best way to prevent that initial cramp is to ramp up slowly as you increase your workout load. This is one case where not increasing mileage by more than 10% a week is especially important.
The first thing to do when a cramp occurs is to get it to relax. For a calf cramp, stretch your big toe backward and apply self-massage.
You can also try stretching the antagonist muscle group (for example, contracting your hamstring to stretch and squelch a cramping quad).
At the first opportunity, foam roll the muscle that cramped to release some of the soreness. Getting a professional massage is even better.
Ice it initially to relieve the swelling, but switch to heat on day two to bring more blood to help heal the afflicted muscle tissue.
Once a cramp has occurred, downing a Hotshot type drink or saturating your calves with Magnesium Sulfate foam prior to a run reduces the tendency for the cramp to recur.