Nothing puts the kibosh on a runner’s high more than a mid-run cramp, stitch, or other sudden ache. Though this can happen on any outing, it tends to be more common on race day, especially if you cling stubbornly to your race plan regardless of your training, the weather, the terrain, or your body’s current state, says Mary-Katherine Fleming, a Denver-based running coach. If one of those pains strikes, pull off to the side of the course and try one of these easy fixes. (Attempting to push on through a problem could lead to injury - so don’t do it!) If the issue persists or worsens, stop running and head to a medical tent.
1/ UPPER BACK TIGHTNESS
What it feels like: Tightness between the shoulder blades
Why it happens: This kind of pain is linked to hip misalignment and mainly affects women after pregnancy: many have not fully rehabbed, causing them to run with an anterior pelvic tilt, which puts pressure on the back and shoulders. Other people may run with shoulders shrugged and head forward, putting strain on upper back muscles.
The fix: Try big backward shoulder rolls while running. If the pain doesn’t subside, get off the course and lace your fingers together with your palms facing each other behind your back. Straighten up as tall as possible, then bend backward gently at the hips until you feel a stretch in your upper back.
2/ FOOT CRAMP
What it feels like: Sharp pain in the arch of the foot - it may feel like the arch is drawing upward.
Why it happens: Cramping in the foot could be caused by an imbalance in electrolytes - chemicals in the body that regulate functions like muscle contractions. When you lose too many of these nutrients through sweat, the electrical impulses in your body can go haywire, leading to muscle cramps and spasms in the foot. Foot cramps can also signal muscular fatigue, as repeatedly flexing and extending the foot over the course of a longer race can cause muscles to work overtime, says Somerset.
The fix: Stand tall and still. Keeping your shoes on, shift your weight onto the cramped foot and press into it as much as possible. If it helps, focus on spreading your toes apart. Lift your opposite foot off the ground to stand on one leg if needed. Apply full body-weight pressure onto the affected foot for up to one minute.
3/ CALF CRAMP
What it feels like: Mild to severe pain or tightness in the calf.
Why it happens: There are two potential culprits when it comes to calf cramps, Fleming says: an electrolyte imbalance and shoes you are still transitioning into - particularly those with a lower “drop” (difference between heel height and forefoot height).
The fix: If you feel the cramp in your left calf, step your right foot forward and sink into a lunge with your front thigh parallel to the ground and front heel pressing down. Hold, then step your rear foot forward, walk four or five steps, and then repeat a few more times on the same side.
4/ SIDE STITCH
What it feels like: Intense, stabbing pain under the rib cage, usually on only one side.
Why it happens: According to Dean Somerset, an exercise physiologist in Edmonton, Alberta, “Typically, if someone is cramping, they’re using muscles on that side preferentially over others that would contribute to breathing.”
The fix: While standing, take a few deep belly breaths, then press two fingers directly into the affected area. As you apply pressure, continue taking deep breaths and lean toward your opposite side from your hips. Hold for several seconds or until you feel the pain subside.
(Related: 5 ways to ditch the stitch)