Tips on Preventing Leg Cramps while Racing (or Training)

Last year, I wrote about Tips on Preventing Leg Cramps while Sleeping.  I also covered this topic briefly in Sports and Energy Drinks: The Complete Guide (start with Part 4 and go backwards from the links). 

But what about leg cramps while racing?

First, what is a leg cramp?

It’s a muscle cramp with an involuntarily and forcibly contracted muscle that does not relax.

The recent number of leg cramps at the 2011 WMA in the broiler oven of Sacramento was not alarming. (See videos of Willie Gault cramping just 20 meters from the 200 meters finish line on Ken Stone’s MastersTrack Blog).

Extensive heat, or exertion, or both, will lead to fluid loss and cramps which will result from an electrolyte disturbances and/or dehydration.

But is this the only cause?

Possibly not. 

Muscle Excitation and Relaxation

Cramps can be caused by muscle fatigue from sports.  Moreover, exercise related cramps can also stem from a malfunction in control of the muscle by the nerve, or an abnormality of neuromuscular control due to fatigue, which results in disruption of muscle coordination. 

Thus, overworking will result in the nerves to fire impulses, resulting in a spasm and tighter and tighter muscles.

And runners are not alone in this category.  The recent boxing fight last May between Manny Pacquiao and past-his-prime Shane Mosley was also a subject of leg cramps.

From USAToday:

After the fight, [Manny] Pacquiao revealed he was struggling with leg cramps during the fight. "I couldn’t move because my left leg got tight. It’s a problem I have been having," he said. Added trainer Freddie Roach: "He came back in the fourth round with muscle cramps in his left leg. … It was a very gutty performance in my mind because of his leg."

Decades ago, it was all about potassium preventing leg cramps. Marathon runners and Tour de France cyclers were known to munch down bananas during their race, for the extra caloric energy as well as for the potassium.

Why?  When was the last time you saw a monkey get a leg cramp running a marathon or cycling?  Ahh, so it must work!

Not Potassium, but Magnesium is Key

But we’ve come a long way with research.  Victor Conte of SNAC has been studying muscle tightness and cramping of elite athletes for over 25 years.  Conte quotes, “The training of explosive strength and speed athletes, such as boxers, causes retention of sodium and calcium.  Both of these minerals are competitive with the absorption and utilization of magnesium.  This leads to a depletion in magnesium stores.

Conte continues, “It’s my opinion that many elite boxers are depleted in magnesium and that this can promote tightness and cramping.  In the late 1990s, I tested the serum and red blood cell magnesium levels of over 250 NFL players.  More than 70% of the players were found to be depleted in magnesium”

The end result?  ZMA was born in 1988, which not only helps restore magnesium levels, but also promote a better sleep and increase in natural testosterone while sleeping.  The exact formulation of ZMA is now sold through over 40 supplement companies.


So until you figure what is causing your leg cramps, start with proper hydration (and not only just plain water, see my Pedialyte article), proper electrolyte balance, and look into ZMA for better sleep and extra magnesium.

A couple of bananas won’t hurt either, unless you are allergic to bananas.  And that would be bad.

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee