by Joey Traywick
“What causes muscle cramps and those cramps I get under the rib cage when running? Is it the same thing? Can they be prevented?” – Weston S.
Given that we are in the “fun run” season, this is a very timely question, Weston! Actually, those two pains are uniquely different. The “side stitch” as it is often referred to is caused by the tissue enveloping your internal organs effectively rubbing up and down as you run. If you notice, most times, if not every time, the pain is on the right side. Sometimes, if you have eaten a large meal or had a lot of water to drink before a run, it can exacerbate this issue because your stomach and intestines may be enlarged to accommodate the influx of digestive material. Obviously, the best way to prevent the side stitch problem is to not eat or drink too much up to two hours before running. Also, some studies have shown that strong core muscles and good running form can help prevent the cramping from occurring. If the inevitable happens and you have a cramp while running, just slow down and walk for a bit. Usually if you can slow or stop the friction, you can stop the cramping.
A muscle cramp can occur anywhere there is voluntary muscle and may or may not be related to what you did or did not eat or drink before running. In the past, the general idea was that leg cramps were due to dehydration but in reality, it is now understood that cramps are brought on by a breakdown in the neurological transmissions due to extreme muscle fatigue. So, how can you prevent them entirely? Well, turns out, you can’t. There are no guarantees that you will never cramp again. If you follow these simple suggestions you may have fewer cramps and they may be less severe.
Number one, do some strength training! There are literally dozens of programs developed by and for runners to help prevent injury and promote speed and endurance. Remember, cramps are really a sign of muscle fatigue, so stronger muscles may cramp less often!
Number two, run at the pace you plan to race! Even if it is a 5k, folks sometimes start out at a blazing speed only to seize up halfway because the race day jitters can only get you so far. If your goal is to run a 10 minute mile on race day but you have only ever run a 15 minute mile up till then, you are in the cramp risk zone! Again, there are LOTS of programs that can help you improve your run time effectively. The point is to get as close to race conditions as possible (do you practice hills?) well BEFORE race day.
Finally, straighten up! Watch your form. This can help with the side stitch we discussed earlier and it can help prevent major muscle cramps from piling on you. Fatigue affects form. That is a fact of life. Your job is to maintain the best form as long as you can by not slouching or allowing your feet to “slap” the road or trail. If you are having trouble determining if you have good form, it may be time to hire a coach to evaluate your stride and overall running form.
If you cramp while running, it is OK to stop and/or walk for a bit. Which is worse, a race with stickman legs or a few minutes added on to your time? Live to run another day and take a walk! Yes, you can hydrate and eat some carb gel if you want but in truth, the best way to allow those neurological signals to reset is to stop and rest. It won’t kill you, in fact, it will make you look SO much happier in that finish line photo you’ll get!