You’re striding gracefully along at a quick clip, endorphins at full blast, loping toward a new personal best – then alarm bells go off, a sudden pain seizes you up in a targeted area, and you’re forced to screech to a halt.
Nothing spoils an otherwise perfect run quite like a cramp.
Maybe it’s an abrupt ache in the arch of your foot. Maybe it’s a stinging feeling all up and down your side. Maybe it’s the dreaded charley horse. Regardless of where it happens, every cramp feels bad.
Your body is telling you to stop and tend to it before you take even one more step. The good news: cramps are all temporary maladies, and there are some steps you can take to help prevent them from happening.
More persistent issues are another matter entirely. Simple stretching isn’t a cure-all for every kind of leg pain. Always ask a doctor for advice if you’re dealing with a running injury or long-term issue.
So what actually causes cramping, and what can you do to prevent and relieve them?
What causes muscle cramps?
A muscle cramp is an involuntary contraction of a muscle. They tend to be sudden and, in some cases, (e.g. charley horse) very painful. Most muscle cramps occur in the legs.
A whole host of different factors may contribute muscle cramps: pinched nerves, poor blood circulation, even holding one position for too long can cause them.
For runners, the most relevant causes are dehydration, overuse of a muscle, muscle strains, magnesium or potassium deficiencies and long periods of physical activity, especially in hot weather. All are important to consider if you’re looking to prevent leg cramps.
Can stretching prevent or cause leg cramps?
Stretching can help prevent some leg cramps, especially those that may be caused by a muscle strain. When your legs are warmed up and limber before going on a run, you’ll be less likely to strain a muscle. That said, stretching won’t always help prevent cramps associated with dehydration or a lack of magnesium.
Proper stretching shouldn’t cause muscle cramps, although “proper” is the operative word. Poor stretching form can contribute to cramps later on. If you feel any pain while stretching, stop the stretch immediately. Stretching can make muscle strains and tears worse, even if you’re doing it correctly. If the pain persists, seek advice from a medical professional.
Some runners prefer to avoid stretching, but it’s never a bad thing to do unless you’re doing it incorrectly. If you’re unfamiliar with basic stretching techniques, read our quick tips for running beginners.
Stretches to help prevent leg cramps
There are many ways to stretch out your legs. It’s best to focus on the stretches that target the key leg muscles your body uses during a run.
- Stand with your left foot in front of your right.
- Keep your right leg straight and bend your left leg forward.
- Make sure your right foot is straight and stays planted on the ground.
- Straighten your back and hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
- Repeat with your right leg.
You’ll feel the stretch from your ankle up to the back of your knee.
Standing quad stretch
- Stand straight up and pull your right leg behind you with your right hand.
- Pull your shin toward your thigh.
- Hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
- Repeat with your left leg.
You can place the hand you’re not using on a table (or the like) to help with balance. You’ll feel the stretch in the front of your thigh.
Sitting hamstring stretch
- Sit on the ground and extend your right leg.
- Bring your left foot as close to your right thigh as possible.
- Lean forward, grabbing your toes with your right hand if possible.
- Hold this position for 20 seconds, and be sure not to actually pull your toes back (it’s fine if you can’t reach them).
You’ll feel the stretch on your upper back legs, from your glutes down to the top of your knees.
Sitting calf and hamstring stretch
- Sit on the ground with both legs extended.
- Keeping your back straight, bend at the hips and lean forward, grabbing your toes.
- Hold for 20 seconds
- Stand in a split stance, with your right front forward and your left foot back. Bend your right knee at about a 90-degree angle.
- Press down on your knee and push your hips forward. You’ll feel a stretch in your left leg.
- Hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
- Repeat with your other leg.
This stretch hits your hamstrings and your quads. You can also lunge up and down instead of holding for a more dynamic stretch.
It’s also worth knowing a few stretches that target muscles that tend not to cramp. For runners, stretching your iliotibial band is crucial. Your IT band won’t cramp up, but you can get ITB syndrome, which is incredibly painful. Read our guide to ITB stretching for more.
Stretches to help relieve leg cramps
When you get a cramp, stretching the affected muscle is the best way to relieve it. And the one good thing about a cramp is that you’ll know exactly where it is. The most common cramps affect the hamstring, calf and quad muscles. Any of the above stretches can help relieve a cramp, but there are many more you can do.
Stretches to relieve calf cramps
- Heel drop stretch
- Wall calf stretch
- Seated calf stretch with band
- Downward dog
- Lunging calf stretch
Stretches to relieve hamstring cramps
- Towel hamstring stretch
- Wall (or couch) hamstring stretch
- Kneeling hip flexor
- Banded hamstring stretch (lying down)
- Child’s pose
Stretches to relieve quad cramps
- Lying quad stretch
- Frog pose
- Lying pigeon position
- Kneeling quad stretch
Other ways to prevent leg cramps
Beyond stretching, the most important thing you can do to prevent leg cramps is to stay hydrated. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, especially if it’s a hot day.
Magnesium and potassium deficiencies have also been linked to cramps, so you want to get enough of each. Have a banana in the morning – or carry one with you on longer runs. If you do get a cramp and think it’s due to dehydration or a mineral deficiency, replacing those substances can relieve the cramp.
You also want to make sure you’re not over-exercising. No amount of water, stretching, or bananas will stop cramps if you’re pushing your legs too hard.
Preventing and relieving cramps is all about being prepared. Stretch before a run and stay hydrated. Memorize a few stretches to relieve stretches when they do happen, and don’t let cramps get in your way.
The perfect run is always right around the corner. It’s Time to Fly™
Want more information on cramps, stretches and stretch techniques? Check out the following:
Runner’s World – The Complete Guide to Stretching for Runners
Healthline – Essential Stretches for Runners
Good Housekeeping – 3 Easy Moves to Get Rid of Leg Cramps
Cleveland Clinic – Leg Cramps
Healthline – Running Tips: 3 Essential Quad Stretches
Healthline – Stretches and Treatment for Tight Calves