Benefits of Heat Training

It’s getting hot out there. Bundle up.

running-in-hot-weather-300x250

Heat training can improve your fitness, help you adjust to altitude, and improve your racing, even in cold weather.

The body responds to stress with the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs). HSPs are so named because they were first identified as a response to heat stress, but are produced in response to many stresses. but they are thought to be  responsible for a number of beneficial  physiological responses including increased blood volume and quicker and more effective perspiration (1). The latter is an important part of heat acclimatization.

Increase blood volume is similar to what you get with altitude training/living. This may be due to the fact that when it’s hot, more of your blood is diverted from your muscles to help dissipate heat. Thus, your body reacts to the decreased blood/O2 available to working muscles by producing more blood. Some (not all) research has shown similar effects to what you would get training/living at altitude. And, the benefits from heat training seem to occur faster than with altitude training, though maybe not as great. It seems to help regardless of whether racing in hot or cold, high or low.

There are several ways to do heat training.

  1. Train when it’s hot. Do it on your long or medium relatively moderate intensity. Do not do your hard workouts in the heat as it’s hard to get enough intensity safely when it’s hot. Also, don’t do your easy/recovery workouts because training in high heat is high stress.
  2. Bundle up with extra clothes to simulate heat. Former elite runner Benji Durden used to bundle up during the hot and humid Georgia summers (2,3). That may be extreme. 100-mile world record holder Camille Herron covers up if it’s below 80-ish (4). This is especially effective over the winter (6)
  3. After a run, spend time in a sauna or take a hot bath. Ultra coach Jason Koop recommends 20-30 minutes. This may give similar benefits to training in the heat with low stress (5, 6).

Heat training affects people differently, so be alert to how it affects you personally. Start small to let your body adapt.

Stay hydrated in the heat. The goal is exposure to heat, not dehydration. Dehydration is damaging.

Train smart. See you on the trails (and roads).
http://runuphillracing.com/

1) https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20792387/training-in-heat-to-prepare-for-altitude/

2) https://www.runnersworld.com/advanced/a20834172/still-running-still-dreaming/

3) https://www.runnersworld.com/advanced/a20791232/common-myths-about-running-in-the-heat/

4) https://www.facebook.com/19710841/posts/10103391453427138/

5) https://www.outsideonline.com/2098556/surprising-benefits-training-heat

6) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/fitness/could-overdressing-during-your-run-improve-performance/article37918033/

 

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Imogene 101

The Imogene Pass Run is one of my favorite mountain races. It’s challenging and the scenery is stunning without the crowding of Pikes. I’ve raced it four times, all top-20 finishes, finishing between 2:37 – 2:45 on the full course (1:52 on the weather shortened course in 2006). Although my experience up front may be a lot different than the bulk of IPRs, I have heard from lots of friends from all parts of the pack.

WIN_20180609_13_21_20_Pro

In this I will talk about:

  • Where to stay
  • Course
  • Training
  • Equipment
  • Strategy

Where to stay
Ouray or Telluride? You’ll hear different opinions. There is no one right answer.

Ouray – Pros: You can sleep later. You can use your own (hotel) bathroom rather than having to wait in line for the porta-potties.
Cons: Long ride back after the finish. Will have to miss much of the post-race festivities.

Telluride – Pros: Easy walk from the finish. You can shower and change, and still participate in the post race festivities. Your family can sleep in and watch you finish.
Cons: You have to get up extra early to catch the bus or drive. Parking is difficult in Ouray. If you drive yourself, you then have to take the bus back to get your car (don’t drive yourself, take the bus).

I prefer staying in Telluride. The human body performs better after a few hours – time for your lungs and blood vessels to expand and your muscles to warm up. I like being close to my bed, shower, clean clothes after the finish.

Course
The race website, http://live-raceresults.com/imogene/course/ has a very detailed course description that I don’t need to repeat. However, there are a few things to note that will help.

You are allowed to take shortcuts on the way up. There are two to consider, and one that’s almost a must. You should check out the first two before the start:

0.32mi – Most of the front runners will cut the hairpin turn (red) rather than following the road around (yellow). It’s not a big short cut, and may not matter once it gets more crowded in the middle of the pack.IPRshortcut032_LI

0.44mi – Just after entering the dirt road, there are three choices, one more than the two mentioned in the course description:

  • Go right, dropping down across the bridge, then left up a small single track (yellow). Most of the top runners will take this route.
  • Just after the bridge, as the road curves left, stay straight, veering off the road, and climb up the left side of the ravine (red).
  • Follow the main road wide around to the left (blue). While the first two are much shorter, they are narrow and will back up. As the back-ups grow, this option becomes more viable.
    IPRshortcut044_LI

8.0mi – About 1/4 mi past the UCB aid station, the smoother jeep road will curve wide to the right, then back to the left (yellow). The old road goes straight up a rocky section (red). The 8mi cone is on this straight section. Going straight can save most a minute or two.IPRshortcut80_LI

The start of the course can almost be called gradual, 910’ in the first 3mi. It’s a wide and smooth 2WD road. The road then gets steeper up to the LCB aid station, 1,000’+ over that 2.1mi stretch, still fairly smooth. You drop down from the aid station, then the real climbing begins. It’s almost 14% from there to the summit, with a few pitches >20%. There’s a false summit about 1mi from the top. From there, you should be able to see and hear the people at the top. There are some giant rollers in the last uphill mile. There’s a short, single track section just before the summit. It might back up there. Just relax and go with the flow.

The start of the descent is the steepest and most technical. It drops at almost 16% in the first ~2mi, the dirt can be loose, rutted, and there can be some black ice (in 2005, I slipped on black ice, perhaps 30 seconds down from the summit, and broke a finger). After the first downhill aid station the descent is more moderate, ~10%, and the footing much better.

At mile 13, you have ~0.7mi of almost flat road. Remember to increase your effort here because gravity won’t be helping much.

At the end of the dirt road, you turn left and have 2-½ steep, paved blocks to the finish. The transition from dirt to pavement, the different feel, can be tricky, so be alert to prevent falls. As the course description states, “the second greatest number of injury falls in the race occur in the 2.5 block stretch just ahead of you.”

Training – Train for the hills, not the altitude
The altitude will affect you, especially coming from near sea level, but you can’t train for it. Anything that you might think you can do to train for altitude is something you should be doing anyway. Intervals and hills will get you faster and stronger, but will not cause your physiology to adapt to altitude.

Heat training can help. This could include bundling up even when it’s warm or training in a sauna. The additional blood required to dissipate heat reduces the available blood to the working muscles, somewhat simulating altitude. Just be careful to hydrate well if you do this. Otherwise, there isn’t much you can do about altitude other than getting there early or buying an altitude tent (or doping).

Train for the hills, both up and down. For uphill, include short, hill sprints, not just long grinds. Short, powerful sprints build strength and efficiency that you don’t get with slower and longer runs.

  • Uphill striders. Always get a good warm up before sprints and intervals. Go into the sprint with a few skips and/or high knees (simulates a strong uphill stride). Start with a few easy strides, building to full speed. Slightly exaggerate a strong knee drive parallel to the slope, forceful backward arm drive with the same leg going forward (helps drive the knee forward), and leg turnover. Go near all out about 20-30 seconds, a few strides past where your legs start to tighten up, your stride starts to slow, and form starts to break down.
  • Uphill sprints – Warm up and start similar to the striders. I like to take a few easy strides on flat at the bottom of a hill. Go all out for 6-10 seconds. Keeping it short engages different muscle fibers and energy systems than > 10 sec.
  • Uphill bounding. Long, powerful, gliding strides, getting hang time. Focus on a powerful, explosive stride. When you land, compress, then explode into the next glide as quickly as possible.

 

Downhill – Good downhill running can gain you 10+ minutes on the descent, reduce the risk of falling, forestall late race fatigue, and reduce post-race soreness. Good downhill running also translates into better and stronger flat running. You don’t need a lot of downhill running to prepare the muscles, though it does take time and practice to improve your form and efficiency. Read more at https://runuphillracing.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/benefits-of-downhill-training/

Practice hiking. Being a strong and efficient hiker is a skill that doesn’t necessarily come from running. Practice both for power and form. As with running, train using some short bursts in addition to longer hikes.

You often see people bent over, pushing on their thighs with their arms as the hike uphill. I am not a fan of that technique. That closes off your hips, limiting your stride, and tends to compress your lungs, limiting your oxygen intake. Instead, I prefer staying tall, keeping your hips and shoulders open. Pump your arms back to help drive your legs forward, and keep your stride relatively short and quick.

Practice switching between hiking and running. You want to make the transition smooth and quick. Learn to feel when to switch, what it feels like when the walking is too easy or the running too hard.

If you live where there are no or few hills, you need to be creative. For uphills, you can use a treadmill and stair climber. Focus more on short, uphill sprints than long grinds. For that, there are lots of options including bleachers, building stairwells, highway overpasses, multi-level parking garages, and berms.

Downhill training can be more difficult to accomplish without hills. I’ve heard of people putting the back of a treadmill up on blocks. Run down stairs. As said above, you don’t need a lot of downhill training, so if you can drive to a hill once a week or two, that will help. Some more tips from last year’s Pike Peak Marathon female masters winner, a flatlander.
https://trailrunnermag.com/training/trail-tips/training-for-mountain-running-from-sea-level.html

Equipment
Shoes, shirt, pants. Everything else depends.

Road or trail shoes? It’s a personal preference. The terrain isn’t that technical (see my course notes above about the downhill), so some might do better with something like a cushioned marathon training shoe to reduce leg fatigue on the descent. This depends on how comfortable you are on dirt.

Hat, gloves and jacket depend on the weather and how fast you are. High mountain weather can be unpredictable. Even though it may be clear at the start, severe conditions may show up by the time you get to the summit. However, by checking the last possible forecast, you may get an indication that severe weather is very unlikely, allowing you to consider leaving some gear at home or going lighter. I typically start with a long sleeve over a short sleeve (I hate being cold), then tie it around my waist several minutes into the race. Only once, in four times, have I needed to put it back on higher up.

Water – carry as little as you need. Water is heavy. 70oz, ~2 liters, weighs ~4-1/2 lbs. Weight will have a bigger impact uphill than on flats. If you’re planning to carry a hydration pack, consider not filling the bladder or bottles all the way, using the aid station fluids, and filling yours as needed. Bladders are harder to fill on the run than bottles.

Personally, I carry a bottle near empty from the start (just enough at the start to keep my mouth from getting dry) in a hip pack. I’ll primarily use the aid stations on the way up. At UCB, I’ll fill the bottle ~½-way and transfer it to a hand strap. Even towards the front of the pack, it’s a long trek from there to the summit. I’ll put a little more in at the summit so I don’t have to slow or stop on the way down.

Should you carry a pack? It depends on how much gear and clothing you need to carry. Some things to consider before deciding to use a pack. Gloves, light hat, and gels/bars can be carried in a pocket fairly easily. I’ve use a bike jersey at the race. As long as what you’re carrying is light, it won’t bounce. Long sleeve and jacket can be tied around your waist. To tie a full zip around your waist, unzip it not quite all the way, tie the arms, then zip it up as much as possible and tuck the arms under the zippered part.

Strategy

Crowding is minimal, so you don’t have to rush the start to avoid getting bogged down. Run your own race.

Although they say that your finish time will be similar to a road marathon, that can vary widely. Good hill runners, both up and down, should be able to run significantly faster here than in a road marathon. For example, Matt Carpenter’s course record of 2:05:56 is a lot faster than his road marathon PR (and faster than the marathon world record at that time). My slowest time at IPR (2:45) is faster than my marathon PR (2:53).

Take advantage of the aid stations. Take a little extra time to eat and drink, then carry just enough with you to get to the next aid station. Water is heavy. You don’t need to carry enough for the whole race.

Minimize switching back and forth between running and hiking. Switching takes extra energy. It’s not worth switching if it’s just for a few strides.

Run as much of it as you can. A slow 18min/mi run is faster than a brisk 25min/mi hike.

Practice power hiking. Practice running downhill.

Make sure your laces are snug for the descent. Consider using lace locks or similar with static, non-elastic laces, and pulling them snug at the top.

Most important:

  • Have fun.
  • Smile.
  • Soak in the scenery.
  • Gain strength from your fellow racers.
  • Embrace the challenge.
  • Embrace the weather.
  • Thank the volunteers.
  • Smile some more.

Start Training Now

You have a big race coming up, and a training plan that’s maybe 20 weeks. When should you start training? Should you count back 20 weeks from the race to start?

When was the last time you made it through a training cycle without something interfering with your training – injury, illness, life, loss (temporary) of motivation? Chances are rarely, if ever.

Then, what do you do? You could double up to make up for missed days or try to cram three weeks into two. That only increases the risk of further illness or injury. Maybe you go into the race underprepared. This also can lead to injury, an unenjoyable experience, and much longer recovery. Perhaps you adjust your time goals or, even skip your goal race as a last resort.

A better approach? Don’t wait. Start training NOW! Give yourself extra time to:

  • Take and come back from time off;
  • Adapt to increasing training volume and intensity;
  • Spend more time working on weaknesses; and
  • If all goes well, get into even better shape.

StartTrainingNowI know the idea of a longer training plan may not sound appealing. However, adding time to your training plan can reduce stress by allowing you to take a more relaxing and flexible approach.

Stretch out the start of training or the biggest ramp up period. Take four weeks to build go through three weeks of training progression, for example. This allows for greater adaptation, and reduces the risk of injury and psychological burn out.

Take an extra easy or rest day during the biggest ramp up period. This also allows for greater adaptation, and reduces the risk of injury and psychological burn out.

Break away from your plan for a bit to give extra focus on your weaknesses, the things that are limiting your improvement.

If it goes well and you avoid significant time off, you can repeat peak load (volume and/or intensity) training an extra week or two, or spend more time working on your weaknesses. This will get you into even better shape, and better solidify your fitness.

Currently (May, 2018), I’m on a multi-year plan to run Boston in 2020. This is allowing me time to gradually build from running weekly mileage in the teens last year, to the 60s and 70s I’ll want to hit my marathon goals. I don’t have to rush my training progression. I don’t have to force training when my body is telling me to back off. And, it’s giving me time to be able to get a lot of repetition of both the desired distance and intensity training. I know the more training I can put in at those peak levels, the better my race will be.

Train smart. See you on the roads and trails.

Adam
http://www.runuphillracing.com/

Benefits of downhill training.

Down hills. Ugh. They pound the quads and stress the knees. Most runners seem to dislike down hills (even many of my trail running friends). However, downhill running can build strength and endurance, and make you more efficient, even if you only race flat roads.

Dirt road downhill

Steep downhill

Another piece of The Wall
The wall, late race fatigue, traditionally is blamed on low glycogen (blood sugar). That idea came about before the advent of easily portable calories and fully stocked aid stations every mile. Sometimes forgotten is that muscle fatigue is another big cause of the wall, late race slowing. Eccentric contractions, the type prominent with downhill running, are a big cause of that fatigue.

Muscles are at their strongest when they are shortening. For example, when you do a leg press or extension, the bulge and definition you might see is from the shortening of your quads. Eccentric contractions are when your muscles work while lengthening. This happens when you land. Your quads work to stabilize and absorb impact while your knees bend, while your quads are lengthening. Even the most efficient runners have some eccentric contractions on flat roads. This is a major factor in late race muscle fatigue, and why, for example, it hurts to walk down stairs after a big race.

Downhill running exaggerates the impact of landing, the eccentric stress. Thus, training downhill is a great way to build eccentric strength and condition your legs to handle the impact in longer races, and to reduce late race fatigue.

Downhill running also magnifies flaws in your stride. Inefficiencies that you may not notice on flats or up hills are brought out when running downhill. Improving your downhill stride will make you more efficient all around.

Another benefit of downhill training is to improve your leg speed. A faster leg turnover can be easier to do on downhills.

Downhill Training
For most runners, downhill training should be added fairly early in the training cycle, after you have a few weeks of running on your legs, but before start adding a lot of intensity and other stress. The stress, the resulting soreness, so is likely to disrupt a rigid training schedule. You might want to consider adding a few weeks to your training plan for this.

To start, try training downhill every 1-2 weeks. It doesn’t take a lot of downhill training to adapt. It’s likely you’ll be extremely sore after the first downhill session, but this will lessen and then go away with subsequent sessions. Once you no longer have significant soreness after a downhill session, change to a maintenance mode where you train downhill every 2-3 weeks. This can continue until you start your taper

Downhill training is best done where you can get a good pace going. I like to do this on moderate to very steep, dirt or paved roads, or smooth trails, with good footing. This allows me to open up my pace and get some good quad pounding. If it’s too steep and/or technical, where you have to slow down and alter your stride, you lose some of the eccentric stress.

You want to get 10-20 minutes of cumulative downhill. One of my favorite nearby places to do this is on Lookout Mountain Road, Golden. There, I’ll run up the Chimney Gulch trail, ~1.5mi (700’, 9%) from the lower road crossing to Windy Saddle, then down the road, ~2.5mi (5%). https://goo.gl/maps/V4wWu6TfMXq

If you can’t find a long hill, you can do repeats on a shorter hill. Here are some Denver area hills that are good for downhill training:

  • I70 frontage road, Genesee – Golden.
  • Kerr Gulch, Evergreen.
  • Grapevine Rd, between Genesee and Idledale.
  • Oh My God/Two Brothers Road, Idaho Springs.
  • I-70 bike path: Loveland Ski – Bakerville, Silverplume – Georgetown.
  • Witter Gulch, Evergreen.
  • Magnolia Road, Boulder.
  • Sunshine Canyon, Boulder.
  • Repeats of the service road at Lakewood’s Green Mtn
  • Repeats at Bluffs Regional Park in Lone Tree. From the lot, stay left, clockwise. Jog up the long hill to the top. Continuing W, run the long (~1km) downhill. Jog back up the way you came. Repeat the same hill, or run hard down to the start (~0.45mi).
  • Repeats of dam roads at Bear Creek Lake Park, Cherry Creek, Chatfield.

How to run downhill efficiently
This is not a how-to article, and it’s hard to teach in writing, but here are some tips:

  • Focus on lifting your feet, not putting them down (they’ll come down on their own). Imagine you’re running on hot coals to keep your foot strike light and quick.
  • Lift your heals behind you, like butt kickers. Where it’s not too steep, you want to paw back against the ground. The steeper and more technical it gets, the less the amplitude of the paw back and butt kick.
  • Keep your body in alignment, heals, hips, chest/shoulders. Don’t lean back.

Here are some tips and drills to help with your downhill form:

  • Downhill butt kickers. Do this on a gradual hill. Exaggerate your heel lift in back up to your butt. This will help with your paw back, which reduces braking.
  • Run downhill with loose shoes, first with a normal stride, then doing butt kickers. Pay attention to whether your feet are pulling back into the heel of the shoe or you’re jamming your toes. The goal is to pull back.
  • Downhill striders – short, quick strides, paw back.
  • Run with a pack loose around your shoulders, with some amount of weight (e.g., a filled bladder). Practice leaning back to feel the pack pull away from you, and forward to feel it pushing you. You want it to rest lightly on your back, not pulling away from you, and only lightly pushing.

In 2004 (?), I did a snowshoe race that  finished with a 5mi, 2,500’ descent, mostly on a packed ski run with good footing. I was in a fierce battle for the lead, so I went all out, averaging 5:00/mi for the downhill. The tails of my snowshoes hit my butt with almost every stride. While my butt ended up black & blue, my quads did not get that sore.

Stories and interviews of champion runners on downhill training:
Camille Herron (world record 12:42 at the 2017 Tunnel Hill 100)https://www.polar.com/blog/camille-herron-uses-sports-science-to-run-farther-and-faster/
http://www.roadtrailrun.com/2017/11/a-world-record-racer-story-camille.html

Nick Clark (15:44 at Western States)
https://activeataltitude.com/interview-with-nick-clark-2010-review-and-prospects-for-2011/

The Folly of Mileage Goals

CalendarThis is what I sometimes call the Silly Season – where people report their annual mileage (and elevation) as if it matters. It doesn’t. Volume does certainly matter – running 2,000 miles/year will likely make you a better runner than running only 1,000 miles, all else being equal. However, it depends on how you get there. Miles/elevation are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. It’s what those totals are made up of that matters more than the totals themselves.

Mileage totals should be a byproduct of your training. Train to get faster, you’re A races, your time goals. Let the miles accumulate naturally, a byproduct of a sensible training program.

Here are some principles to guide you, and things to be aware of when tracking miles:

  • Increase your volume, and intensity, gradually. Don’t rush to meet mileage targets if your body isn’t ready.
  • Stress is cumulative. Pushing yourself far and/or hard may feel good for a while, but repetitive overstress and under rest will lead to injury and illness.
  • Include variety, in speed and terrain. Don’t pad your totals with easy, flat miles, when what you need is speed and/or hills. Total heart beats might be a better measure of training volume/stress (don’t rely on any single measure).
  • Include breaks and downtime in your training. It’s important to include some off or low stress time within a training cycle to let your body catch up, and between cycles to better recover before ramping it back up again. Don’t neglect important down time to meet mileage goals. Remember, stress is cumulative.
  • Listen to your body. When you’re sick, beginning to feel a potential injury coming on, stressed, fatigued, hit a plateau, etc., back off to let your body recover and refresh, rather than pushing through to hit mileage targets.
  • Don’t add an extra run, or a few extra miles, just to meet an artificial mileage target. Run them only if they value to your speed and endurance, without overly risking illness and injury. Use mileage targets to motivate you – to get you out the door when you’re feeling lazy – but don’t become slaves to them.

If you have 2018 mileage goals, write them down, then put them away and don’t think about them again until the end of the year. After your race and time goals are past, and after some recovery/down time, then go back and look at your annual goal. See if you’re within reach of your goal, or any milestones. Within reach means it’s OK to push yourself a bit, but don’t overextend yourself to the point where you risk injury, continued improvement, burn out, and your next years’ goals.

The mileage, and components thereof, are a means to an end, and should not be an end unto itself.

Train smart. Run happy. See you on the trails.

Adam

Injuries – a philosophical pondering

When we get injured, it’s often easy to point to a specific cause, e.g., overtraining, speed without enough warm up, twisting your ankle on a rock. However, maybe those causes and the injuries are just the manifestation of deeper meanings.

Sometimes, your body, the universe, etc., sends you signals that you need to back off, not press so hard so quickly, or that your priorities are out of whack. Sometimes, we miss those early signals, or choose to ignore them. Perhaps, when you get sick or injured, that’s your body’s way of shouting, “PAY ATTENTION IDIOT. You didn’t listen earlier. Now I’m going to make you listen!”

Next time you get sick or injured in the middle of a training cycle, after your anger and frustration settles, take a deep breath, step back, and contemplate your whole life. Ask yourself:

  • What else is going on in my life?
  • What/who is really important?
  • What/who have I been neglecting?

Then, before you get back to training, look for ways to rebalance your life, your priorities. Training, life, should be sustainable. There are times when it helps for life to get out of balance; e.g., when you have a child, finals week, very brief periods of training. However, running is just running, it’s not life (unless you’re a pro). In order to maintain a long term, sustainable, and healthy relationship with running, I think it’s important to keep it in perspective and life in balance.

So, before you get sidelined, step back, take a few deep breaths, see how running fits in your life – whether it’s in balance, or crowding out other important things. Listen for subtle messages before they start screaming at you.

 Have fun. Train smart. Stay healthy.

Muscle Cramping

I recently listened to a very good podcast (https://soundcloud.com/user-562497687/fast-talk-ep-26-busting-myths-about-cramping) on muscle cramping. From the website, “For decades (almost a century, in fact), we’ve been told that cramping is caused by electrolyte imbalance or bad hydration. But new science suggests that this probably isn’t why you cramp during exercise. So why do you cramp? It all comes down to something called altered neuromuscular control.” Briefly, fatigue is the main component. However, it’s more complex than that (as with most things).

The podcast is long, 70 minutes, but is both informative and entertaining. It gets deep and technical at times, but they do a good job at bringing it back to an easily understandable lay level. I encourage you to listen. However, it you don’t want to, or as a preview, here’s a synopsis and my take-aways.

Muscle cramps defined – A muscle that contracts without relaxing. Cramping is a syndrome that can have multiple causes.

Altered Neuromuscular Control

Historically, the theory that cramping is due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, comes out of observations from workers on the Hoover dam, and coal shovelers in old steamships. That became the predominate belief for endurance athletes too. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists started to look at cramping.

Ironically, it was attempts to prove the electrolyte/hydration theory that led to the altered neuromuscular control theory. Sampling of athletes in competitions found no difference in electrolyte balances or plasma levels between cramping and non-cramping athletes. Cramping almost always happens at the latter stages of races, often just before or after the finish, another strong sign that fatigue is the key factor. Also, questions of athletes showed that those who were injured, sick, or fatigued (i.e., not adequately tapered) going into the events were more likely to get cramps.

These types of observational studies seem to be the best for studying cramping. It’s hard to study cramping in the lab because electrically induced cramps are not the same as cramping during exercise.

There are two key organs that control the contraction and relaxation of muscles. The muscle spindle organ excites, or contracts the muscle. The golgi tendon organ relaxes the muscle. Muscle fatigue can cause the spindle to send excess signals, and the golgi tendon to send fewer. This imbalance can cause twitching or cramping.

Not all fatigue is equal. Cramping tends to happen when competing at a higher level, or in different conditions (e.g., racing in a hot spring race when you’ve trained in the cold, or racing hills when you’ve trained mostly flats) than which you are trained. Cramping tends to happen at the latter stages or after the race. Intensity. It’s also more likely in the early season, when you are racing at intensity before you have adequately trained at intensity.

Other factors that contribute to cramping:

  • Pre race muscle damage, such as from an injury or inadequate taper. This can be tested with high creatine kinase (CK) levels, which indicate muscle damage.
  • Not feeling well, which can lead to early fatigue.
  • Heat and humidity may be a factor, but only because they lead to early fatigue. There are no studies that show a correlation between heat and cramping. Cramping can happen in cold too.
  • Males are more likely to cramp than females. Older athletes are more likely to cramp than younger ones. The reasons are unknown.
  • Certain medications can contribute to cramping, e.g., statins and Beta2Agonists. Also, some underlying medical conditions, e.g., hypothyroidism.
  • Weakness in supporting muscles; e.g., lower back, core, abductors and adductors.
  • Family history of cramping. People tend to have different cramping thresholds. There may be a genetic component.

Other interesting info on cramping. Camping is more common on muscles that cross two joints; e.g., calf, hamstring. Cramping happens when muscles are in a shortened, contracted state; i.e., when the spindles are engaged. So, cramping can occur after a race, for example, when you bend your leg while sitting.

Repeated cramping may indicate some underlying medical or physical issues. In that case, it might be worth getting a CBC blood test and consulting a physician, one who is familiar with endurance athletes.

How to Prevent Cramping

The best way to avoid cramping is to train, to be adequately trained for the race and intensity you are planning to do. There are not magic bullets. While most speed workouts are done when relatively fresh, you should also add Intensity when you are fatigued. This will prepare you to push through the latter stages of a marathon, or to make that finishing kick without cramping.

Back in the day, one of my favorite ultra workouts was to run up Waterton Canyon to the Platte and back, ~31mi, along the northern end of the Colorado Trail. Towards the end of the run, coming back down the canyon, I would run progressively harder the last few miles, sometimes hitting 6:00 for the final almost flat mile.

Add strength training. Stronger muscles better resist fatigue and cramping. Strength training doesn’t necessarily have to involve weights or a gym. Plyometrics, or quick, explosive moves, such as box jumps, jumping rope, or 6-10 second hill sprints.

Don’t make your first race of the season your key race. Do some earlier, shorter, high intensity races, to prepare you for your big race.

Vary your stride. This is, perhaps, the biggest reason why trail running is easier on your body than road running.

What to do if you cramp

If you do get a muscle cramp, don’t try to run through it. That is likely to make it worse. Instead, you should slow down or stop. Muscle twitching may be an early warning sign of impending cramping.

Stretch, longer stretches. The initial stretch may activate the spindle, making it feel worse. If you hold it, typically longer than 10-20 seconds, the golgi tendons will activate allowing the muscle to relax and lengthen; i.e., settling into a stretch.

Put pressure on the golgi tendon cluster, jam your thumb into and vigorously massage. This is a theory, it hasn’t been shown in studies, but seems to be effective for some athletes.

Eat something sharp, pungent, and spicy. There seems to be something in the neural pathways in the mouth that can affect the whole body. The mechanism for this isn’t known, but it may be because sharp tastes overwhelm the neuromuscular signals elsewhere. Related, studies have shown that a sports drink rinse, not ingesting, can increase time to fatigue, meaning that just the sensation of taste can effect muscle control. Many of you may have seen ads for the product Hot Shot. The key ingredients in that product are capsaicin (the chemical in peppers that makes them hot) and cinnamon. You may able to get the same effect from biting on a jalapeno pepper.

Hyperventilating or drinking pickle juice. Studies have shown that increasing blood acidosis can relieve cramping. There is no evidence that electrolyte supplements help. The reason pickle juice may work is because of its acidity or pungent taste, not the electrolytes.

These may fix the immediate problem, but don’t address the underlying causes. Long term, better fitness reduces the likelihood of cramping.