Q+A: Why do my quads cramp in marathons?

Our experts answer real-life questions


Posted: 9 September 2000
by Irene McClay

Q My quadriceps always cramp up when I run marathons, even though I hydrate well and stretch regularly. Why is this, and what should I do?

A Exercise-induced muscle cramps are relatively common among distance runners. Quadricep cramps typically occur when muscles are used repetitively, which is certainly the case during a marathon. Possible causes include electrolyte imbalances (not enough sodium and/or potassium), fatigue and running in hot temperatures.

If your quads cramp up during a marathon, your best course of action is to stop and gently stretch the affected muscle. Massage can also help, but you really need to prevent cramps from occurring in the first place. Try these tips:

  • Stretch your quadriceps thoroughly (right) after running, and gently beforehand as well.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially when exercising in hot temperatures. (Energy drinks that contain both carbohydrates and electro-lytes are ideal).
  • Make sure that you’re consuming the recommended dietary allowances of potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium in your diet.
You can also incorporate plyometric exercises (ie bounding and hopping) into your sessions, to improve the strength and endurance of your leg muscles. An ideal time to incorporate plyometrics is before a speed session (after warming up and stretching). It only takes an extra 10-15 minutes to do the following exercises, and you will certainly feel the benefits. First, run 40-50 metres with a slightly exaggerated stride. Jog back, and repeat three more times. Next, bound for about 30 metres, paying particular attention to pushing off with each leg as strongly as you can. Again, repeat this three times. Finally, hop – trying to soar as high as you can without over-stressing your legs. Alternate between legs, with perhaps two 20-metre efforts on each leg.

Improved strength and endurance is not something that will develop overnight, but if you persevere with this type of session once or twice a week, you should notice a difference after a month or so.

Irene McClay, physiotherapist


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