Kick cramp to the curb

Posted on 11 March 2016

For athletes – and runners especially – muscle cramps can be the bane of your existence. Here are a few tricks and tips to reduce the risk of having your muscles seize up on you.

You’re competing in a race, and you’re making good time. You’re well on track for a personal best … and then it happens: your legs start seizing up. Disaster. You’ve got cramps. Here’s a look at how to avoid exercise-related cramping, and secure that PB.

“It’s quite a hot topic, and a lot of the thinking around cramp has changed,” says Dr Jann Killops, Mediclinic’s former race doctor. “We are learning more and more about cramping as more research is published on the subject, the popular belief that cramps are caused by dehydration and salt loss in hot conditions has no scientific basis, in fact current thinking is that cramp is caused by abnormalities in the reflex control of the muscle triggered by fatigue and that some individuals are more susceptible to this than others.”

Dr Killops talks us through some of the likely causes of cramps, and how to prevent them.

Muscular fatigue

“To prevent cramps, stretch regularly,” says Dr Killops. “If you feel yourself going into cramp, get off the road and stretch.” Stretching exercises can help treat and prevent cramps. If your calf muscle is already cramping, straighten your leg and flex your foot upwards, bending your ankle so your toes point towards your shin. To prevent cramps in your calf muscles, stand about a metre away from a wall and lean forward with your arms outstretched. Touch the wall with your hands while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Hold this position for five seconds, then release. Repeat for about five minutes.


Cramps are usually related to overexertion and under-training. Pace yourself, cramps are related to muscle fatigue. On race day, resist the urge to push yourself harder than you’ve trained to go. In training, push yourself harder and longer so that you’re well prepared for race pace.


Here’s where things get complicated. If you haven’t trained enough, your body won’t be able to handle the exertion of race day. But if you’ve trained too much, your muscles could be a cramp time bomb just waiting to go off. “Cramp is usually related to over-exertion or under-training,” Dr Killops points out. “But over-training can definitely contribute to muscle pain. You could have micro-tears in the muscle, and when you exert yourself you’ll suffer pain and cramp.” It’s a very different kind of cramp to what you’d get if you over-exert your muscles, but it’s still cramp and it still hurts like crazy, she adds.


“Make sure you’re well hydrated,” advises Dr Killops. And she’s quick to point out that well hydrated means not taking too much or too little in the way of fluids. Over-hydration can be just as bad as dehydration. “Drink to thirst,” she says. “You don’t have to stop and drink at every single water station. Drinking too much can dilute the concentration of sodium in your blood and be very dangerous. Do not take anti-inflammatory drugs while you are cycling as this can lead to permanent kidney damage. If you have pain during a race, please stop at a medical aid station, let a doctor assess you and treat you safely to avoid long-term injury or damage.”

Published in Events

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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