Race day arrives, and your nerves are getting the best of you. You’ve trained for so long and can’t wait to cross the finish line but have one fear in mind: cramps. Let’s face it: it’s not pleasant. Whether it’s side stitches or Mother Nature’s calling, you certainly want to avoid it and finish the marathon safely. So how to prevent cramps while running?

What Causes Cramps When Running? 

What causes abdominal cramps, side stitches, or muscle cramps is still debatable; however, there are speculations as to what might provoke it.

One possibility for abdominal cramps is that heavy breathing overworks the diaphragm, the muscle that pushes air in and out of your lungs, and that combined with the force of each stride may cause the diaphragm to spasm, resulting in pain.

Another plausible reason could be the irritation of the lining of the abdominal and pelvic cavity because of intense physical activity. And eating a large meal or drinking lots of sugary fluids can push the stomach against the abdominal wall, causing rubbing, and eventually, side stitch pain.

On top of that, insufficient carb intake, dehydration, or lack of stretching can cause your legs and calves to cramp mid run, which is likely to stop you from finishing the race. 

Add the imbalance of electrolytes and bad breathing, and you’re basically putting yourself out there for all the risks. 

Undeniably, none of these are fun. So, what can you do about it?

How to Prevent Cramps While Running

Ideally, you want to avoid any cramping troubles altogether. This means not trying any new foods or new running gels on the race day. We’ve also got a few tips below to help you stay on track and limit any obstacles during your big day.

1. Don’t run on a full stomach

A large meal can quickly lead to an upset stomach or the aforementioned abdominal cramps. And race day isn’t a time to test out how big of a breakfast you can have before running. 

Stick to a small and light meal. If you keep experiencing side stitches while running, ensure you digest food before running for at least 3–4 hours. This will make sure your body rests before the big go, and your run will feel lighter altogether.

2. Warm up before running

It’s a no-brainer that you have to warm up before any exercise to prepare your muscles for the workload. By doing a few warm-up exercises and stretches, you supply your muscles with oxygen, boost your blood flow, and adjust stretching ligaments.

Having a quick stretching routine before each run is a surefire way to help prevent you from stopping before the finish line.

3. Pace yourself

Don’t hit the gas pedal right out of the gates. Decrease the pace and breathe deeply; the ideal pace is when you’re still able to keep a conversation while running.

One of the most common beginner mistakes is running too fast too soon, which hinders your breathing, thus leading to muscle cramps. By slowing down and finding your average pace, you will make sure your breathing is normal, your heart rate is steady, and your endurance will improve as well! 

4. Practice jumping drills

Jumping exercises can be both a good warm-up and a serious workout. It’s essential to work on your leg muscles if you want to prevent cramping as jumping promotes muscle strength, increases bone density to prevent stress fractures, and even boosts coordination, among others. There are a plethora of jumping exercises to choose from: squat down jumps, standing broad jump, elevated surface jump, you name it. So start jumping and say goodbye to cramps!

5. What to eat and drink

Okay, so it’s clear now that you should let your body digest food a few hours prior to the run and drink lots of water, but what to actually eat before a run? The answer is more carbs and protein. Carbohydrates are essentially fuel to your body, and proteins are muscle builders, so it’s a perfect combo for every athlete before and post-workout. Try to avoid sugar-free foods and gum as these have sugar alcohols that could upset your stomach. Also, try to cut down on fiber-rich and fat-rich foods as well as dairy, as they can only hinder your digestion and lead to cramps or even diarrhea.

6. Hydrate properly

During exercise, less blood flows through the digestive system as it’s concentrated on the muscles, so add dehydration, and you can get severe consequences such as muscle cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea. Try to stick with nice and cool or room-temperature water. Warm liquids may cause food to move through your digestive tract faster. Sip on water, but don’t chug it! You don’t want to run with a stomach full of water!

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7. Electrolyte balance

A recent study showed that electrolyte imbalance is actually more essential when it comes to dehydration to reduce muscle cramps. While water is required at any time, drinking electrolyte beverages can actually be helpful to prevent muscle contractions or reduce the pain when they happen.

It’s also a good idea to consume electrolytes before your race since you’ll be sweating them out. It can not only help keep muscle cramps at bay but also settle your stomach.

8. Avoid NSAIDs

NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are quite common medications taken by athletes to relieve pain and inflammation. In reality, it can lead to an upset stomach and cramps. As it can also hinder muscle recovery, try to avoid them before and during your run unless advised by your doctor otherwise.

9. Reduce caffeine

Drinking coffee before or post-workout is pretty common as caffeine naturally gives you more energy and endurance, especially in longer workouts. However, you should also remember that coffee acids can upset your stomach, especially if consumed with additives like milk, cream, sugar, or other sweeteners.

10. Check for any medical conditions

If it seems like you’ve eliminated all possible causes and still experience cramping, it’s best to visit your doctor to get checked for any underlying health conditions. It could be that you have irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies or intolerances – such as lactose – or other digestive issues. 

11. Relax your upper body

It goes without saying that a relaxed mind and body can do wonders for your physical performance. Try not to tense your upper body while running and focus on your breathing if you want to avoid side stitches.

12. Shorten your stride

In other words, take more steps per minute. This way, you will protect your knees and hips from too much force and avoid pain or even injury along the way. By shortening your stride, you will also ensure that your run is smoother and longer, as you will save energy. It all comes down to body mechanics in the end!

13. Check your running form

The last but definitely not the least important tip is knowing your body and how fast and long you can run. If you overexert yourself and try to run more than you’re physically prepared to, it will certainly lead to muscle cramps or even more severe injuries. Evaluate your running form, find a comfortable pace, and enjoy the run!

While you might not stop cramping issues on race day altogether, you can limit them and reduce the risk. Cramps don’t have to get in the way of your race goals. It’s all about finding the right equation that works for you, which you should figure out while you train.

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Written by

Chris Zibutis

Chris Zibutis is the Head Running Coach and founder of Joggo – that one person on earth who loves interval runs.  He holds a degree from Copenhagen Business School and is an avid runner – having participated in numerous marathons and triathlons, Chris brings substantial fitness and running experience to the Joggo team.