Muscles are incredible structures in the human body that allow you to move, lift objects, and interact with the physical environment in all conceivable ways. They are made up of many thin muscle cells bundled together. Since they are thin and long compared to other cells, we call them muscle fibers.
These structures consist of thin protein filaments called actin and thick protein filaments called myosin. When we want to perform an activity, the nervous system sends electrical signals to the relevant muscles. This triggers the release of calcium ions inside the muscle fibers.
Calcium ions perform an important role in body movement, by binding the actin and myosin filaments of the muscle fibers to slide one over the other. This causes the muscles to contract, generating the force required for movement.
What Is A Muscle Cramp Anyway
Normally, while we run, after each contraction, the muscle fibers expand back to their original shape to prepare for the next cycle. Every stride involves a series of contractions and expansion.
Though the action is performed so quickly, it is important to note that it is voluntary, and coordinated by the central nervous system. Sometimes during our run, the fibers stay contracted or involuntarily contract in the middle of a cycle. That’s when we feel a cramped leg.
Common Causes For Muscle Cramps
Pushing Too Hard
Working your leg muscles too hard or straining them for too long is a sure-shot way to develop a muscle cramp in your leg or calf. It is called overexertion. When your muscles overwork, it can lead to reduced calcium release that can cause impaired contraction of the muscle fibers.
Overworking can also use up the energy sources of your leg muscles. Accumulation of metabolic wastes is another result of prolonged activity of the muscle tissue. These can also lead to a cramped leg.
Your muscle mass is around 75 percent water by weight. When you lose water through sweating, the muscle tissue loses its structural integrity which will make them more susceptible to involuntary contractions.
Dehydration can also reduce the blood flow in the legs depriving them of nutrients and oxygen. These can both lead to developing cramps. When you sweat, you also lose electrolytes like calcium and potassium along with water. Not enough calcium ions to bind the muscle filaments can contribute to cramping of the muscles.
Losing Your Nerves
While performing a repetitive movement like running, the leg muscles can put stress on the nerves in the region. The phenomenon is called nerve compression and it causes numbness in the area served by these nerves. This blocks the neural impulses that initiate the muscle contraction, leading to cramps.
Solution For Muscle Cramps
Push Hard, Not Harder
While you run, it is important to listen to your body. If you feel tired or sore in some area, slow down or take a break. If you are only starting don’t push yourself too hard. If you are running long distances, start slow and gradually increase the intensity over time. This can prevent muscle cramps due to overexertion. If you are sprinting, it is important to take breaks between sprints.
This will help your muscles to recover from sessions of peak performance. As a rule of thumb, do not start the new session before your heart rate is back to normal.
Drink, Drink, And Drink Some More
To tackle dehydration, drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after your run. Your fluid intake needs can vary depending on your BMI, sweat rate, and climate. As a general rule, drink about 20 ounces of water a couple of hours before and immediately after the run. If you are running long distances, drink at least 5 ounces more, every 30 minutes of your run. But keep in mind that your body is always right.
If you feel thirsty, drink more water. On the days adjacent to your run, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These contain all the minerals your body needs for a great run. Avoid alcohol, caffeinated, and sugary drinks on and around your run day. These tend to dehydrate your body.
Warm-Up, Equipment, And Much Else
To prevent nerve compression, a proper warm-up is important. A good warm-up schedule should include dynamic stretches like leg swings and arm circles. This will loosen up the joints and muscles adjacent to the nerves. Always wear shoes that fit your feet well and provide support to your ankles and arches.
Footwear that’s too tight can suffocate your feet and prevent proper blood circulation. Avoid running on hard surfaces like asphalt. Your feet are not designed to run on them. Getting occasional massages can also help you reduce the tightness in your muscles that can lead to cramps. This can also improve blood flow.
To sum it up, giving attention to a few basic points can eliminate the possibility of muscle cramps during your runs. Paying constant attention to the body’s feedback remains the most important rule of safe running.
It’s an evolutionary mechanism built over millions of years and stood the test of time. Bundle that with the suggestions put forth by the latest studies in sports performance, you are all set for a great run.