The Obstacle Course Racer's Guide to Fixing Muscle Cramps

Thanks to the popularity of obstacle course races, muscle cramps are a hot topic. STACK Expert Joe DiStefano tells you how to avoid them.

Tough mudder obstacle course race

Thanks to the recent explosion of obstacle course racing, muscle cramps are a hot topic. Participants in events like the Spartan Race are an odd combination of bored triathletes and adventuresome couch potatoes. But both groups, besides consuming plenty of salt, share some surprising compensatory issues that can cause cramps.

Bored triathletes have trained their bodies to be incredibly efficient at straight-ahead locomotion, typically at a lower, more consistent intensity, requiring limited ranges of motion and not a lot of reflexive or functional core stabilization under varying circumstances.

Couch potatoes have trained their bodies to be incredibly efficient at straight-ahead sitting postures, at a very low intensity, with extremely limited ranges of motion and zero need for reflexive or functional core stabilization. On top of this, they are often 10 to 50+ pounds overweight, which magnifies everything we're about to dive into.

So in both cases we have people who are accustomed to moving almost exclusively straight ahead, at very low to moderate intensities, without a lot of demand for extreme ranges of motion—especially under load—and with limited exposure to variation in core stabilization patterning.

So what happens when these folks jump into a multidirectional, moderate- to high-intensity event that requires extreme ranges of motion, carrying awkward loads, and a ton of diverse core stabilization? The short answer is: musculoskeletal panic and inevitable cramps in the hamstrings and calves.

How to Prevent Cramps

Ankles

Work ankle mobility by sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, and your hands behind you helping to prop up your lower back.

  • Pull up on your toes as hard as you can, hold for 10 seconds.
  • Point your toes forward and hold for 10 seconds.
  • Draw three circles in each direction with your toes.
  • Repeat 3 to 5 times.

Hips

The most common pathology here is that the glutes become weak, whereas they should be the strongest muscles in the body. That's because the glutes are not the most important muscles to train for the couch, long distance running, distance cycling and swimming. But without strong glutes, you sacrifice your ability to extend and move your hips fully, and your hamstrings must pick up the slack.

To get your glutes back, once you complete the ankle mobility exercises, lie down.

  • Flex your knees with your feet flat.
  • Pick up your glutes so your heels and shoulders are the only things on the floor.
  • Punch your glutes five times on each side to "wake them up."
  • Hold the top position for 20 seconds.
  • Repeat 3-5 times.

Core

The word "core" has been used and abused over the years, but here's the real deal: strengthening your "core" takes more than Sit-Ups and Planks. In fact, both have the potential to ruin proper core function. Core training needs to be reflexive, and given the extent to which diaphragm function impacts proper core and hip function, it must include cueing and training on breathing.

Therefore, the first core exercise incorporates breathing.

  • Stand tall.
  • Place your fingers beneath your lowest ribs and apply some pressure.
  • Take a large breath in through your nose and push your fingers out.
  • Do not let your chest rise until the end of the deepest breath you can take.
  • Rest 5 seconds, repeat 3 to 5 times.

The next core exercise is the Bear Crawl.

  • Begin on all fours with your knees directly under your hips and your hands directly under your shoulders.
  • Your back should be flat; balance a roll of toilet paper on your lower back to ensure it's flat and square.
  • Corkscrew your shoulder blades out and back to ensure your elbow creases face more forward than backward.
  • Lift your knees one inch off the floor and hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3-5 times.

Once you can do 30-second holds for five reps without the roll of toilet paper falling off, slowly crawl forward 10 to 15 inches in a coordinated rhythm, left arm with right leg. After 30 seconds, hold still with the toilet paper in place. This trains core stabilization far better than a 60-second Plank, especially when you hold your breath behind your eyeballs for the entire rep.

Sport-specificity

As mentioned above, to perform in a Spartan Race, you need more multidirectional, higher-intensity training. So instead of your next training run, find a rugged trail or mountainside with really steep, rocky, tough terrain. Find a nice intimidating section that ideally takes 15 to 20 minutes to run up, and carry the heaviest rock or log you can handle. Once you reach the summit, toss the rock or log down and sprint to the bottom as fast as you safely can. This trains eccentric muscle contraction, which in numerous studies has been shown to cause significantly more muscle damage than concentric contraction—which is what got you up the mountain. Repeat 3-5 times.

And that's all, folks. Enjoy! Feel free to post your questions and/or concerns in the comments section.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: MUSCLE CRAMPS | EXERCISE | TRAIN | INTENSITY | CRAMPS