Don’t Let a Cramp in Calf Muscle Cut Your Run Short
Picture this, you are in the middle of your long run for the week. You feel strong, your time is right on target, you’re breathing easily and feeling confident.
Then (queue music….dun, dun, dun) cramp in calf muscle.
It’s so painful; you almost fall in your tracks.
As you limp to the side of the road, you collapse on the grass.
Your leg is throbbing, you try stretching it out…but it gets worse!
What do you do now?
This is a runner’s nightmare, one that any serious runner has either experienced personally or has watched another runner suffering.
Before we get into self-treatment for this painful situation, I’ll assume that you know about keeping yourself hydrated and replacing lost electrolytes, that you’ve eaten properly and that you are aware that a calcium/magnesium imbalance can cause a cramp in calf muscle.
Ok so here you are on the side of the road, ready to scream out in pain. What to do now?
To begin with, DO NOT stretch until you help the muscle complete its contraction.
This may seem like the exact opposite thing to do so let’s talk about how the muscle works.
Muscles have an “all or nothing” system and will never stop a contraction in the middle. A muscle fiber contracts fully or not at all. If you try to stretch while the muscle is trying to contract, you are pulling the muscle one way, and it is contracting in the other direction, resulting in the tearing of muscle fibers.
You need to assist the muscle in finishing its contraction BEFORE you can stretch it without injury.
This is how you release a cramp in calf muscle:
When the muscle cramps, tightly grab your calf with your hands as shown in the picture here.
Place one hand at the top of the calf, just below the knee and the other hand at the bottom of the muscle, just above the ankle.
Now, assist the muscle in completing its contraction by squeezing your hands together. This will be extremely painful but only for a few seconds.
Next, release your hands and then place them back in the same positions. Squeeze your hands together again. This time it won’t hurt nearly as much.
You are now helping muscle fibers finish their contraction.
Take a few breaths to get back your oxygen that was lost while you were breathing heavily during the pain.
Now that you’ve released the cramp in calf you can safely stretch.
Your calf has two primary muscles; the gastrocnemius (“gastroc” for short) and the soleus.
Most runners faithfully stretch the gastroc by either keeping their foot flat and then bending their body forward as they keep their leg straight, or by standing on the curb and dropping their heels toward the street while keeping their legs straight. I always advise against this second method of stretching, unless done very slowly and deliberately because it is just too severe.
Stretching should be done gradually, increasing the stretch every 15 seconds until you are stretching as far forward as you can bend your ankle, then hold the stretch for 60 full seconds.
Here’s how to correctly stretch your lower leg after that cramp in calf!
Let’s start with the stretch for the gastrocnemius:
Keep your body upright, put one leg out in front of you, with the knee bent; and the other leg back, with the knee straight as pictured.
It’s the exact same leg position as when you are leaning against something; you just keep your body straight.
And it’s actually a lot easier to do and more convenient because you don’t need to find a tree!
The stretch that most athletes miss is the soleus stretch. Both the gastroc and the soleus insert into the Achilles Tendon and either one can cause the tendon to tear if severely contracted.
To add the soleus stretch is very easy.
Now for the stretch for the soleus:
Assume the same flat foot position as you had for the gastroc stretch.
Straighten your front leg.
Now take a slight bend in your ankle as pictured.
You will feel a totally different stretch.
Increase the stretch every 15 seconds until your knee and ankle bend as far as they can go, and again hold it for 60 seconds.
It has been my experience, while working with hundreds of athletes, that the soleus will cause the greatest amount of trouble.
A muscle cramp can stop you in your tracks. Treating it improperly will mean limping for the remainder of your run, having a negative impact on your time and on your muscle’s health and being in pain for several days.
The few minutes you will lose in your training time, or in the race, to do these treatments will be rewarded by the prevention of damage to your muscles.
Proper nutrition and stretching, along with eliminating the spasms that shorten the muscles in the first place, can help you to prevent the painful experience of a cramp while you are running.
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