Sweat and dehydration are the main causes of muscle cramps. During a marathon or other endurance event, your muscles are working constantly and your body temperature therefore rises. To lower it, you begin to sweat, but this leads to a loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which means your blood volume decreases and your heart rate increases. All of this reduces the body’s ability to dissipate heat, which accelerates fatigue and takes its toll on our muscles. The result – they cramp.

Try these five strategies to prevent and manage muscle cramps:

  1. Take time to stretch and pay particular attention to the muscles that are most prone to cramping. Stretch those muscles gently but thoroughly.
  2. Train appropriately for every event. This is especially important for marathoners. On race day, running much faster or farther than you’ve trained will simply overwhelm your muscles and make you susceptible to cramps.
  3. Prepare your body for the elements. If you live in a dry climate, for example, don’t decide to run a marathon in an extremely humid city, unless you give yourself ample time before the race to become accustomed to the steamy conditions. This can take up to a week or more.
  4. Keep a sports drink handy. Though experts don’t know for sure if dehydration causes cramping, it’s still important to stay well hydrated when you run as it may lessen the severity of any cramps you do develop. About an hour or two before you run or race (depending on your tolerance), top up your tank with 500ml of fluid. Then take in between 150ml and 350ml of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes during the run. Ensure your fluid of choice contains electrolytes as these salts can help prevent cramps.
  5. Hop to it. Try some leaping, hopping, or skipping drills – otherwise known as plyometrics – as part of your regular training. Such exercises can improve muscle-nerve coordination, strength, and help loosen tight muscles.

Even if you follow all of the above precautions, cramps may still strike during a race. What do you then?

  • Stop running immediately and stretch the affected muscle. This helps relax the spasm. You may have to stop and stretch a number of times before the cramp abates.
  • Apply deep pressure at the site of the cramp to provide relief. Just use your fingers to press into the affected muscle and hold for 10 to 15 seconds.
  • Drink a fluid with electrolytes. Sports drinks that contain electrolytes can help resolve cramps as well as prevent them.
  • Slow down for awhile. To keep a cramp at bay you need to take the stress off your muscles, so back off a bit. Besides, when a cramp hits, you may not have a choice.