How to deal with cramp when running a marathon

Asking your body to run 26.2 miles is pretty much asking for muscle cramp, and if it strikes and you don’t deal with it, you can kiss goodbye to your PB and say hello to a miserable rest of the race. There are gaps in sports scientists’ knowledge of cramps, but here’s what we do know:

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1. What doesn’t cause cramp

Dehydration isn’t the culprit, according to tests on crampers and non-crampers finishing the Two Oceans ultra-marathon, which found electrolyte levels were the same in both groups.

2. What does cause cramp (we think)

It’s a neuromuscular issue, caused by a malfunction in a reflex between your muscle and spinal cord, think sports scientists. One of the motor neurons becomes excited, and isn’t turned off, constantly stimulating the muscle to contract – aka cramp. We aren’t entirely sure what causes this, but local muscle fatigue seems to be a key factor.

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3. How to avoid getting cramp in a race

Preventing that local fatigue is your best path to preventing cramps. The secret is a combination of adequate training and pacing to match your training level. If you’ve trained to run a 4:00, don’t nail the first 10 miles at a 3:30 pace. It sounds simple, but it’s one of the hardest things in racing. It requires honesty, discipline and patience, because in the first 10 miles you’ll probably feel great. You’ve trained to complete 26.2 miles, so running 10 at a slightly faster pace seems easy, but you shouldn’t outrun your training.

4. What to do if cramp strikes

The best remedy is to pause and stretch the affected muscle for 30-60 seconds. Don’t obsess over these lost seconds – easing the cramp won’t just make those few miles bearable, it may get you to the finish quicker by letting you get back to a faster pace.

Cramp mid race? Running physio Scott Mitchell identifies marathoners’ cramp hotspots, and the ideal mid-race stretches for quick relief.

Quads: Stand by a wall for support, bend the affected leg behind you, and grasp the arch of your foot. Keeping your back straight and knees touching, gently pull your foot towards your bum.

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Calves: Stand on a kerb, feet hip-width apart and the back half of your affected foot off the kerb. Keeping your leg straight, push the heel down. This works the upper calf. Slightly bend the leg to work the lower calf.

Hips/Glutes: For right-side pain, lie with your left leg bent. Rest your right foot on your left thigh. With your back and head on the floor, grab your left thigh with both hands and pull towards your chest.