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Home arrow Fitness arrow Running arrow Running Cramps: Understanding the Causes and Solutions

Running Cramps: Understanding the Causes and Solutions

Written by Isabel Mayfield
Fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Last update: March 4, 2023
5 min read 855 Views 0 Comments
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Running is a great sport for your physical and mental health, but when cramping hits, it can turn problematic. This article explores cramps while running and how to stop them from occurring for a smoother run.

Running cramps

Running can heighten your mood, relieve stress, and keep your body in tip-top shape.

Unfortunately, your run is easily disrupted when cramping occurs. Cramping will stop you in your tracks and quickly end that euphoric runner’s high. Nobody wants this experience while running. So, how do you prevent cramps, and what causes them in the first place?

This article discusses all things running cramps, including how to prevent these unexpected ailments from ruining a good run.

Running Cramps: What Are They?

Running cramps are muscle spasms that occur in the body during or after a run. They tend to emerge suddenly and without warning and may be short-lived or last the duration of your run. Muscle cramps in runners typically occur in the legs or abdomen.

Muscle cramps or spasms are temporary, intense, and painful contractions that happen during or shortly after physical activity. The condition is known as exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC), and this muscle cramping can arise during or after any form of exercise, not just running.

They don’t just affect beginner runners, either. Even professional runners experience cramps while running from time to time.

While extremely common, any runner will want to avoid cramps as much as possible. Muscle cramps force you to stop running and, if severe, might leave your muscles sore for days. You don’t want to interrupt your training plan, so how do you prevent these nasty muscle cramps?

You might develop a muscle cramp for several reasons, and identifying the cause can help you take preventative action. Keep reading as we dive into some primary triggers.

3 Possible Causes of Running Cramps

Muscle cramps are all too familiar among runners, but how do you avoid them?

One or more problems might be causing those pesky cramps. You might be uncertain of what’s responsible, but some common triggers exist. Consider the following possibilities and whether you are guilty of some of them or can improve in certain areas.

Here are three likely causes.

#1 Poor breathing techniques

Poor breathing is a primary cause of cramping in the body, particularly side cramps.

Shallow breathing means you’re only breathing from the top of your lungs rather than breathing deeply from the lower lungs. With shallow breathing, you don’t get sufficient oxygen, which can cause side stitches and pain in other areas, such as the neck or shoulder.

#2 Poor stretching

Skipping your warm-up or not stretching properly is a common cause of cramping in the legs. When your muscles are tight or inactive, they might contract involuntarily. You should also stretch post-run to prevent cramps, stiffness, and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

#3 Poor digestion

Stomach cramps while running may result from poor digestion.

Your digestive system can act up if you eat or drink too much before your run. You might develop indigestion, stomach cramps, and gastrointestinal distress if you run on a full stomach. Schedule your training session around meals to avoid stomach cramps and general discomfort.

Your diet can also contribute to muscle spasms that interfere with your run. For example, those following the ketogenic diet may experience leg cramps due to dehydration or a lack of important electrolytes.

How to Prevent Running Cramps

Muscle cramps are usually unexpected. While you can’t control these events, there are some things you can do to prevent muscle cramps while running. Some general rules ensure proper running form to mitigate leg cramps, injuries, and other complications on your route.

Here are three prevention strategies.

#1 Improve your breathing

As improper breathing might be the culprit of your stomach cramps, you can start by improving your technique. Not only will it prevent muscle cramps, but it can also increase exercise tolerance, improve mental well-being, and increase long-term training adherence.

Practice deep breathing exercises to correct your form. Diaphragmatic breathing is slow, deep breathing that benefits runners as it allows you to maximize your oxygen intake. It can help improve muscle function, prevent strain, and decrease your risk of side stitches.

#2 Stretch properly

Stretching your body before a run ensures your leg and core muscles warm up and prepare for the upcoming activity. These movements can enhance your running performance by increasing flexibility, encouraging better blood flow, and preventing muscle contractions and injuries.

Your warm-up routine should include stretches that target the quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles to stop leg cramps.

#3 Build your pace gradually

Picking up the pace too quickly can overexert your muscles, causing muscle fatigue and cramps. It’s better to start at a slower pace and gradually work up to full speed to prevent cramps and remain injury-free. You can practice your pace with different types of running.

For instance, a progression run is a speed-endurance workout that starts slow and increases incrementally. Experimenting with different running styles can help you improve different aspects of your performance, which may help you run longer distances without getting tired.

Why Does My Side Hurt When I Run?

An uncomfortable pain in the side of your abdomen (most often the right side) when running is called a side stitch or side cramp. Side stitches or side cramps are also known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP) and are a well-known occurrence among runners.

A side stitch can come on suddenly during exercise, and the pain might range from a dull ache to a stabbing, sharp pain. Although they are not harmful and do not require medical attention, side cramps can be extremely debilitating. Fortunately, the pain persists for only a few minutes.

Several theories explain the causes of a side stitch, although it may result from a combination of factors. It may revolve around blood flow to the diaphragm or repetitive torso movement, while other studies suggest that irritation of the parietal peritoneum is the best explanation.

Side cramps go away on their own, but you can help ease a side stitch when running by slowing down and taking a break. Try to take care of your breathing; breathe deeply and exhale slowly, and the pain should soon subside.

A Word From MD

Muscle cramps are every runner’s nightmare. Any cramping can interrupt your run, whether it’s a stomach cramp or side stitch that emerges below the rib cage or a muscle spasm that hits the calf muscle. You may experience mild aching or more severe, painful cramps.

Staying hydrated is vital for any sort of hard workout, like a long race or long-distance run. Water and sports drinks restore electrolyte balance to dodge those cramps. Preparing your body with a warm-up routine helps by increasing blood flow and oxygen to your muscles.

Practice different running techniques to determine a page your body is comfortable with. This allows your muscles to adapt, preventing fatigue. Mastering prevention strategies will make your runs more enjoyable and free from pain and injuries as you build your cardiovascular fitness.


Cramps while running are unwelcome and a tiresome ailment for runners. Now you know the possible causes and solutions, you can prevent muscle cramps as best as possible. 

Running is the perfect sport to keep your body and mind healthy; you just need to prevent cramps by staying mindful of breathing, stretching, and eating times.

Written by Isabel Mayfield
Isabel Mayfield is a certified yoga instructor with over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. She is passionate about self-improvement and loves to help people improve their sense of self-worth through education and support in meeting their fitness goals.
The article was fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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Written by Isabel Mayfield
Fact checked by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Last update: March 4, 2023
5 min read 855 Views 0 Comments

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