You're in the middle of your long run for the week, and you're doing just great! You feel strong, your time is right on target, you're moving breathing easily and you feel confident. Suddenly, your calf muscle cramps, so suddenly that you almost fall in your tracks. Limping to the side of the road, you collapse onto the grass, your leg is throbbing so severely that you can't even think ... you try to stretch it out ... it gets worse! What do you do now?
This is a runner's nightmare, and one that any serious runner has either experienced personally, or has watched another runner suffering.
Before we get into a self treatment for this painful situation, let's take a look at some basics. We are assuming that you know about keeping yourself hydrated, (and you do it, right?), and replacing lost electrolytes. You have read about carbohydrates & protein, and you eat properly. But what about stretching and working out muscle spasms as they develop?
I've watched serious athletes finish up a long run, stretch for 1-2 minutes, and leave. This is a big mistake! You need to take the time to stretch all of the muscles of your legs, and hips, after you finish your training run. It takes one full minute for a muscle to have a permanent stretch. That's 60 seconds per muscle, not for the entire stretching process. Do your stretch slowly, allowing the muscle to lengthen gradually, and by all means, don't bounce.
There are specific self treatments you can do for all the muscles of your legs, however this article will address the calf muscles. In your calf you have two muscles, the gastrocneimus ("gastroc" for short) and the soleus. Most runners faithfully stretch the gastroc by either keeping their foot flat and then bending their body forward and keeping their leg straight, or by standing on the curb and dropping their heels toward the street, while keeping their legs straight. I always advise against this second method of stretching because it is too severe, until after the muscle has lengthened, for the muscle to tolerate this much of a stretch. Stretching should be done gradually, increasing the stretch every 15 seconds until you are stretching as far as you can anatomically bend your ankle, then hold it static for 60 full seconds.
The stretch that most athletes miss is the one for the soleus. Both the gastroc and the soleus insert into the Achilles Tendon, and either one can cause the tendon to tear if it is severely contracted. To add the soleus stretch is very easy. Assume the same flat foot position as you have for the gastroc, and move forward (bending the ankle), but now move your body back so you are also bending your knee. You will feel a totally different stretch. Do the same thing, increase the stretch every 15 seconds until your knee and ankle are bent as far as they can anatomically go, and again hold it for 60 seconds.
By the way, I see people leaning up against cars, fences, and trees. It isn't necessary to bend from the hips up, that isn't doing anything for your legs. Keep your body upright, put one leg out front with the knee bent, and the other leg back, with the knee straight. It's the exact same leg position as when you are leaning against something, you just move your body straight up. It's actually a lot easier to do, and more convenient because you don't need to find a tree!
It has been my experience, while working with hundreds of athletes, that it is the soleus that will cause you the greatest amount of trouble. This may happen because everyone stretches the gastroc, and not the soleus. Stretching properly can help you to prevent the painful experience of a cramp while you are running ... but here you are, on the side of the road, ready to scream out in pain. What to do now!
To begin with, DO NOT try to stretch it out until you help the muscle complete its severe contraction. This may seem like the exact opposite thing to do, but let's talk about the logic of the body.
When your muscle goes into a severe cramp, sometimes called a "charlie horse", the muscle is trying to contract violently. Muscles will never stop a contraction in the middle, it has an "all or nothing" system. A muscle fiber contracts fully, or not at all. If you try to stretch it out, while the muscle is trying to contract, you will tear fibers. You need to assist the muscle in its contraction BEFORE you can stretch it without injury.
When the muscle goes into this cramp, tightly grab your calf with your hands: one hand at the top of the calf, just below the knee; and the other hand at the bottom of the muscle, at the top of the achilles tendon just above the ankle. Now, help the muscle complete its contraction by pushing your hands together. This will be extremely painful, but only for a few seconds. Next, just release your hands, and then replace them in the same positions. Now, again push your hands together, this time it won't hurt nearly as much. You are now assisting any last fibers to finish their contraction. Take a few breathes, get back your oxygen that was lost while you were breathing heavily during the pain.
Now you can safely stretch the muscle. Begin by rubbing the muscle with a gel and then squeezing your calf, like you were squeezing bread dough. I always recommend to my athletes that they have a tube of gel or oil in their pouches. After you have put on the gel, and quickly squeezed the muscle (which brings blood into the area and also helps to heal the muscle), go into the gastroc and soleus stretches.
A muscle cramp, which is a severe spasm, can certainly stop you in your tracks, and not treating it properly at the time will mean you will limp for the remainder of the race, not only having a negative impact on your time, but on your muscles health. The few minutes you will lose in your training time, or in the race, to do these treatments will be rewarded by the minimal damage that has been done to the muscle fibers.