Has this ever happened to you? You had a great long run or race in the morning and when you go to bed, you quickly drifted off into a deep, deep sleep. You’re right in the middle of some fantastic dream, when all of a sudden, a cramp slams you right in the belly of your calf. Instead of enjoying the dream, you’re lying in bed writhing with intense leg pain that feels like someone is stabbing you in the calf..
Fortunately, the cramp passes as quickly as it appeared but your peaceful, restful dream is forever lost.
Unfortunately, leg and foot cramps are fairly common, but painful occurrences that trouble many runners. Just ask Lebron James after his recent cramping issues in the NBA Finals against our San Antonio Spurs how much a cramp can hurt.
Although these cramps can trouble anyone, including an NBA superstar at an inopportune moment, the older you get, the more prevalent they become. More than half of those over 65 years, periodically have nighttime cramps.
The reason cramps are more common as you age (especially, if you are a runner) is because fatigued muscles don’t get the same blood supply they used to when you were younger. As you age, the blood supply to the legs is decreased and if the muscles don’t get enough blood and nutrients, they spasm or cramp with short-lived but intense pain.
There are other causes of foot and leg cramps such as poor circulation, dehydration, abnormal mineral levels, pinched nerves or some nutritional deficiency such as inadequate potassium or sodium. Runners who have just completed a marathon that day or a very long run in the morning—especially in the summer–may suffer from calf cramps because they became so dehydrated, they never caught up by hydrating enough.
If this sounds like you, the best possible way to prevent leg cramps is simply by hydrating properly after a hard, hot run or race. If you suffer from nocturnal cramping, before you go to bed drink additional water or sports drink. Also avoid alcohol, caffeine drinks and sugar). Eating a banana (for the potassium) can help as well as doing some light leg stretching after running and/or before retiring for the night to increase the blood flow to the legs and feet. A simple foot and calf massage may also help. An ice massage is also helpful as is a short postrun walk.
One other possible solution are compression sleeves or socks. If cramping of the calf muscles is an issue, compression sleeves can help alleviate the problem. Some runners even wear them at night.
If cramping at night is a chronic problem, you may also need to take a calcium supplement before going to bed. It may also help to take magnesium with the calcium. Or eat such magnesium-rich foods as nuts, apricots, soybeans and whole grains. Potassium-rich foods that may prevent camping include bananas, orange juice and potatoes.
Some other preventive measures are sleeping with your legs bent. Placing a small pillow between your knees to ease the pressure on your back can also help. Or place your feet on top of the pillow. Avoid high heel shoes at all costs.
Before going to bed, you can also soak your feet or legs in warm water or use a heating pad for a few minutes to increase the circulation. Again, avoid alcohol, sweets and caffeine for at least a couple of hours before bedtime.
If a cramp should strike in your calf or foot in the middle of the night, the best thing you can do is to stretch the muscle by flexing the foot. Try to relax the cramped area and sit with the leg stretched out in front. Use a towel or rope by wrapping it around the ball of the foot and pull the toes toward your chest for a maximum stretch. The cramp should pass in a moment or two. If it’s extremely sore, place some ice on it for a few minutes for relief.
Afterward, massage the cramped area. Walk around to increase the circulation and drink a cold glass of water.
Hopefully within minutes, you’ll be back in dreamland.