Today, about 750m into my lunch time 6k run, I felt a sharp pain in my right calf. It was so sharp that there was no way I could continue running. Ahhhh! My arch nemesis – the calf cramp! I frequently get calf cramps when my diet hasn’t been providing the nutritional requirements for the amount of training I’m doing, or when I attempt to run when I haven’t quite recovered from a hard run. Or it’s a combo of both – my diet hasn’t allowed me to recover from a hard run. Basically – in this case it’s a sign of too much too soon. The day before I ran 10.31k and I ran it rather fast for a long run. It was the longest run I’ve done in months.
Now I’m not going to describe the intense pain of a calf cramp to you because if you’re reading this blog chances are you’re already fairly active and have probably encountered this yourself. If you haven’t experienced it then consider your self lucky. These hurt. A lot! I’m also not going to distinguish between a calf, hamstring or quadriceps cramp – they all have the same injury mechanism, and all require the same treatment.
The violent contraction of a cramp tends to strain some muscle fibers in the process – therefore your best initial response to this is to stop the cramp and the pain because the longer you allow the pain to continue, the more the cramping will continue and hence more damage to the muscle fibers. Do not stretch out the muscle! This also causes muscle tearing. Instead you want to massage the muscle because that reduces the pain (gate pain theory) and brings in nutrient carrying blood to the injury site. Those nutrients allow the muscle to release it’s contraction.
Contrary to popular belief, cramping is not always a sign of a diet lacking in sodium and potassium (though it could be, so you might want to keep some bananas on hand to prevent these injuries in the future) – it’s also a reaction by your body to protect an injured area. Spasm is part of the pain/injury cycle. As such a cramp and the lingering pain afterwards, should be treated conservatively as an acute muscle strain. This means that during the first 48 hoursyou should treat the injury with PRICE:
P – Protect the injury/Prevent further injury
R – Rest the injury
I – Ice the injury (20 min on, 20 min off)
C – Compress the injury (use a tensor wrap to compress and hold the ice pack in place as this also reduces blood flow)
E – Eleveate – raise the injured area to reduce the blood flow
Now if you look at the acronym carefully, each of the steps lead to reducing blood flow to the injury site. This is because in a new injury the tissue hasn’t had a chance to begin the healing process and is still bleeding (internally). This bleeding causes further damage to the surrounding tissue – hence more bleeding and swelling. You don’t want that. Yes, heat feels better. But you know what? It causes further injury and therefore delays the healing process. If you’re training for an event there’s no way you want to lose any more trainign time then you have to.
After the initiial 48 hrs you can apply 20 min heat, and a gentle stretching routine to help the scar tissue line up along the lines of stress. When the pain has subsided – you can ease back into your activities. Take it slow, reducing your intensity for a few days. Generally the rest days have allowed your body to recover both from a nuturitional standpoint and a physical standpoint from the training that initially lead to the cramp. Do not mask the pain with pain killers just so you can get through your training. Take advantage of the few days of rest – put your feet up, read a book – it’s your body telling you that you need a break!
If you keep this post in mind, then you can prevent those nasty cramps and minor muscle strains from becoming chronic overuse injuries. Happy Injury-free running folks!
Fitness Tip of The Day: When running errands or shopping, be sure to pack some healthy snacks to have on-hand. Then after you work-up a big appetite, you won’t be tempted to grab something at the mall food court or the fast food restaurant on the way home. Exercise is not enough. You must also include healthy eating habits.