Quad Cramps –How to fix them and avoid them.
For runners and triathletes, fewer things are more painful than quad cramps. During my first Ironman 70.3, I personally suffered from agonizing quad cramps during the first 10k of the run. There was a brief time where I did not think I would be able to make it through the run. Quad cramps can be debilitating, and in this post, we will discuss ways to fix them and keep them from coming back.
First, it’s important to know that there are several things that can cause quad cramps. The most common cause is improper nutrition – you’re dehydrated or don’t have enough sodium (salt) in your body. Other causes for cramps can include fatigue, and working a muscle when it is “short”, or contracted, and not fully extended.
Whatever the cause, muscles can anticipate contraction, and can simply contract on its own. This is one of the primary reasons that muscles often cramp towards the end of a race or long training session.
There are four muscles that make up the quadriceps. Of these four muscles, the rectus femoris is the most prone to cramping because it attaches above the hip and below the knee and crosses both joints. This muscle works harder than it’s other quadriceps counterparts. As a result, the rectus femoris has the greatest opportunity to contract when it is short because there are two things that can shorten it – knee extension and hip flexion.
So how do you fix a quad cramp? Remember that when a quad muscle cramps, it is shortened or contracted. The key is to stretch out the contacted muscle so it extends. BUT BE CAREFUL. A contracted muscle needs to be slowly stretched and extended. DO NOT yank it. It needs to be carefully and gradually stretched. You can do this by holding your foot and slowly pulling it up towards your butt in order to stretch out the quad muscle.
There is the possibility that reciprocal muscles can cramp. In other words, if you quad cramps, there is the possibility that the opposing hamstring muscle can also cramp. This is exactly what happened to me at Ironman 70.3 in Tempe. The cramps were so debilitating because my quads and hamstrings were cramping at the same time. In an effort to avoid this, as you are stretching the quad muscle, be mindful not to hastily contract or fire the hamstring muscle. Take precaution to keep your entire leg as relaxed as possible while stretching the quad muscle.
Once you have sufficiently stretched and extended the quad, it is time to get hydrated. Make sure you take in plenty of fluids and increase your salt intake. Increasing your salt intake and keeping your electrolytes up, will also help to prevent additional cramping elsewhere.
Prevention of cramps is also key. This certainly does not mean that you will suddenly be immune to cramps, but there are things that you can do to help prevent cramps. First, make sure your muscles are properly trained so they are less prone to fatigue. For quads, incorporate exercised into your strength training routine such as squats and lunges. Also, stay hydrated. This applies to training and not just racing. Hydrate before, during and after workouts, and make sure that you maintain proper electrolyte levels. You can also employ dynamic warm-ups such as knee-ups, skips, etc. This will gradually warm the muscles up in preparation for a hard workout. Regular stretching can also help keep your muscles loose and limber.
Employ these simple concepts into your training and racing, and you should lower your risk for cramping. Stay safe and enjoy?
Brent Holderman is an ITCA certified triathlon coach, host of the Tri-Experience podcast, owner of Rockit Sports Online, and an Ironman 70.3 triathlete.