Wednesday, September 23, 2015

STOP CRAMPING MY STYLE! - My continuous battle with the Charlie Horse

I’m on a run, well into the run, I’m on a great pace, and everything is feeling absolutely terrific.  I’m fueling perfectly, hydrating the way I'm supposed to and then I get a twitch in my left calf.  Here we go again.  I know that in just a few miles, my calf or maybe my quad will completely seize up, causing excruciating pain.  If it’s a training run, I probably will cut the run short.  If it’s a race, especially a marathon, I can go ahead and hang up getting a P.R. if that is what I’m after, even after the first twitch I feel in my leg.  No amount of hydration, salt pills or consumption of anything- pickle juice, mustard, whatever will salvage this run. It’s going to be a done deal, when (not if) something cramps up unless I’m pretty close to the end of the run.  And after my muscle completely clutches up, it’s going to be sore for a few days and difficult to run on.  I have avoided registering for several different races which I really wanted to participate in and have cheated myself by cutting training runs short out of fear because the experience is so unpleasant when it happens. 
Cramp at around mile 12.5 during 2012
Dallas Rock N Roll Marathon (It's OK to laugh)
I am pretty sure now that I am part of a unique set of individuals.  Lots of times when on a group run, I hear someone complain that they have a cramp,I look over and they are still running.  This isn’t a real cramp, they don’t know cramps.  Or really, it’s not a Clay cramp.  When I cramp, it completely shuts me down, there is no running on whatever it is that is cramping.  It’s not at all possible. Maybe a fast limp, that is about it.  I know of only two other individuals who have it is bad as me-  my sister Lisa and my online running buddy friend in Florida, Michelle, who runs in just about as much humidity as we North Central Texas folks. Humidity and a few other things I have found, plays a part in initiating these cramps.  And all three of us sweat rivers when we are active.  So it has to be hereditary.  I’ve researched quite a bit and most articles and books, say that the reason for leg cramps is unclear.  It’s pretty clear to me now.  The cause is simply fatigue.
Charlie Horse knot caught in the act on my thigh
These leg cramps have happened for as long as I can remember.  My most memorable child experience with them was when I was maybe in 5th grade and me and a couple friends decided to ride our bicycles from our neighborhood Hamilton Park, which is just southeast of the High Five interchange to Town East Mall which may be about a 20-25 mile round trip I’m guessing.  For what reason we rode our bikes that far I can’t even remember.  But before then, I had never ridden a bike further than 5 miles at the most in one day.  For an 11 year old, that was a lot of stress on the legs all at once.  On the way back maybe just a couple miles away from home, my calf seized up.  I had no idea what it was, but I know it hurt like hell.  I ended up walking, crying the rest of the way home.  And that cramp came back and woke me up in the middle of the night.  I told my sister about it and she informed me that I had a ‘Charlie horse’ and that she has them often as well.  I remember thinking “Well if horses get these, that’s obviously why they hurt.”
Other times in my childhood remember the onset of these being caused by excessive swimming.  I cramped up pretty easily in the pool.  Once I became an adult I slowly became inactive over time, so there weren’t really any physical activities I would involve myself in which would cause any cramping until I started running years later.  However, whenever I would write or type for a long period of time, my hand would cramp up, and I do remember once when I was moving and had to transport a refrigerator, washer, dryer, deep freezer, two couches and a bunch of items unassisted within a four hour period produced back spasms and hand cramps by the end of the day.

So here is my hypothesis.  Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, lack of stretching, etc does not cause cramping. But they can cause excessive fatigue, which does cause cramping.  One of my running sisters, Jacqui introduced me to Endurolytes which replenish your salts quite nicely, as I sweat excessively and they have helped me some.  But they will only work for so long for me.  After my muscles become so fatigued, they cramp.  High humidity causes you to work harder, which causes fatigue.  After my muscles become overly fatigued, they cramp.  Lack of hydration or lack of salts cause you to fatigue. Excessive hills cause fatigue.  When I fatigue, I cramp.  Most of you know about my “Claying out” incidents.  In those situations, my electrolytes were so imbalanced that every muscle in my body was beyond fatigued, so they cramped in dramatic fashion from my neck down to my toes and sent me to the E.R.

How do you fix it?  Just don’t get tired.  Sounds a lot easier said than done right?  Well this is the solution.  I have already proven it to myself, most recently when I raced El Scorcho 50K and Cowtown 50K in 2014.  Both races, I trained running a ridiculous amount of miles per week.  I built up my endurance and it worked. Simply get stronger. I had muscle twitching toward the end of both races, a lot of twitching.  Both races I was good for just about 31 miles, no more.  Any more and I would have folded into one big Charlie Horse and looked like a pretzel.  Also, do more runs which simulate what your race will be.  This year I’m running the Route 66 Tulsa Marathon again, which has quite a bit of rolling hills.  I caught a Charlie Horse 100 feet from the finish line when I ran it in 2013 and missed my marathon P.R. by exactly one minute.  That it was between 20-25 degrees out the whole race may have played a factor as well.  Speaking of this P.R. which is 4:13 something and is my first marathon and hasn’t fallen after running 10 of these, I remember doing a lot of fast tempo runs during training.  At the time my vehicle was not running and I commuted from work to home 5 days per week 7.5 miles via fast training run for probably 3 weeks or so.  I hit the infamous ‘wall’ around mile 23 during that marathon and ran/walked the rest of the way. I’m thinking I lacked some strength training.  I may have had at least a 4:05 with a little more push.  Last years Ragnar Relay 50K, I half trained for it not knowing how difficult the course would be.  There were a lot of rocky ups and downs and for the last leg I ran it was about 85 degrees and during mid afternoon and about 12 miles. About 8 miles in I started catching cramps everywhere from the waist down.  I was well hydrated and well 'electrolit'.  Didn't matter.  The fatigue from running all night long the night before got me.  I fought through the cramps for about 2 miles but they ended up winning.
But here's what running more miles and gaining extra endurance does for me.  When I first started running, in my first three half marathons I always caught a Charlie Horse in my calf at around mile 12 or 12.5.  When I started training for a full marathon and running more miles, and I participated in a half marathon, these leg cramps did not occur, however I would get them during full marathons between miles 17-22.  When I trained for my first 50k at Cowtown, I ran the first 28 miles without even a hint of a cramp.  I finished the last 3 with lots of twitching, but my muscles never fully Charlie Horsed up.  This shows that the more weekly miles I have during training, the more endurance and for me, the later the cramps will occur.

So this training season, there have been more tempo runs, more strides, more runs at marathon pace. More miles, more strength training, more hills, more time on feet. More, more, more.  Just get the body used to being battered, get stronger, and gain endurance.  I know now that my issue is unique and hereditary.  Where most folks can follow the training plan to a “T” and get results, my body requires just a bit extra.  But that’s O.K.  I’m no stranger to hard work.