Marathons and Muscle Cramps

Jannine Myers

In past marathons that I have run, I’ve experienced severe muscle cramping during the final few miles. The cramping has always been on one side of my leg, and has either affected my lower leg muscles, or my hamstring and/or IT band. I used to think that my cramping must have been due to electrolyte depletion, and with each new race, I would take extra care to ensure that I had a good fueling strategy in place. But, despite my efforts, I continued to be plagued by muscle cramps that forced me to drastically reduce my pace and of course, cause disappointment.

In pain after the Okinawa Marathon – hamstring and IT band cramp started around mile 21

In an article I read recently, I was surprised to discover that there may actually be another cause for my muscle cramps. The article cited literature published by the American College of Sports Medicine (Bergeron, 2008), in which the author suggested that another cause of muscle cramping, besides that of electrolyte depletion, is “skeletal muscle overload and fatigue.”

This type of cramping is unfortunately, not easily remedied. In fact, it is often so severe, that even if an athlete is just a few miles out from the finish line and on target to achieve their race goal, it’s highly unlikely that they will do so. The reason for this, is that the neuromuscular system, due to overload, essentially stops doing it’s job and the affected muscles stop contracting the way they should. In this instance, there is little an athlete can do to reverse the cramping, except to cease all activity, or literally walk, hobble, or slow run (in pain) to the finish line.

A further point of interest regarding this type of muscle cramping is that only the muscles that are specifically fatigued are affected. Muscle cramping caused by electrolyte loss often results in the athlete feeling an overall sense of muscle cramping. And unlike the athlete who has fatigue-related muscle cramps, a dehydrated athlete with muscle cramps can often continue to run by stopping to re-hydrate (with an electrolyte drink), as well as stretch out the opposite muscles to cause a contraction in the pulled muscles.

So what makes me, and other runners, more susceptible to experiencing fatigue-related muscle cramps during the last miles of a marathon? Supposedly, such factors as:

  • older age
  • poor stretching habits
  • insufficient conditioning
  • cramping history
  • excessive exercise intensity and duration
  • metabolic disturbances
Note: these factors are different from those which are related to the type of muscle cramping caused by electrolyte loss
As I look at the factors above, I wonder if, apart from improving my stretching habits and ensuring that I train properly for each marathon, the onset of muscle cramps might just be inevitable for me, especially once I reach a certain level of exercise intensity and duration. And maybe that’s the case for some of you too. 
While I’d like this to be one of those posts where I could easily leave you with some practical tips and advice, I’m not so sure I can. But I don’t want to leave you feeling completely discouraged – let me add that not all of my marathon races have ended terribly for me. And, being hopefully optimistic, I still think that one day, I’ll put my finger on that “magic” component of training and fueling that may directly determine whether or not I’ll make it to the finish line free of cramps. When I do, you can be sure I’ll share the secret with you. 

Food For Thought – The Okinawan Diet

Jannine Myers



The festive season is here and with it comes an atmosphere of jubilant anticipation, or for some, reservation as they worry about how much weight they’re likely to gain! If you happen to be among those in the latter category, then this post may be of interest to you. But before I continue, please note that I neither support or oppose the following viewpoints; I’m merely sharing with you some data that has been extensively researched and reported on.

Ever heard of the Okinawan Diet? The diet that promises to get you leaner, healthier, and add more years to your life? If you have, then chances are that you’ve delved into it a little (or a lot), in the hopes of learning how to eat like your much slimmer Japanese friends and neighbors. But if you haven’t heard of it at all, it’s essentially a commercially promoted weight loss diet modeled on the foods that were typically eaten by Okinawans before many of today’s convenience foods were introduced.

Several decades ago, the Japanese Ministry of Health began to study older Okinawans, many of whom not only lived beyond the age of one hundred, but also lived relatively free of debilitating diseases. Intrigued by this phenomenon, a number of studies pursued, including one by researchers Bradley and Craig Willcox, and Makoto Suzuki. The results of their findings were eventually transformed into what is now known as the Okinawan Diet, or the Okinawan Program.

Adherents of the Okinawan Diet believe that they will be able to lose and maintain their weight, as well as improve their health and potentially add years to their lives. So what exactly is the Okinawan diet and how does one eat like an Okinawan? Check out the following Okinawa Diet Food Pyramid, and below that, some tips by ehow.com:


Compare with the USDA Food Pyramid to see how it differs

Step 1. Fill up on whole grains……such as brown rice bulgar, oats, barley and buckwheat. Aim to eat 8 to 10 servings of whole grains a day.

Step2. Try to eat a wide array of fruits and vegetables each day, choosing colorful ones that are rich in antioxidants. Popular fruit and vegetable choices in Okinawa are cabbage, sweet potatoes, watermelon, bean sprouts, bitter melon (goya), and carrots.

Step 3. Eat heart-healthy foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Good sources include salmon, mackerel, and tuna. Other sources of omega-3s include flaxseed and walnuts. Monounsaturated vegetable oils are other good fats to incorporate into your diet. These healthy fats come from sources such as olive, flaxseed and canola oil – the latter of which is commonly used in Okinawan cooking.


Step 4. Say yes to soy foods. Soy has been shown to potentially lower one’s risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast and prostate cancers. 


Step 5. Include in your diet bone-building, calcium-rich foods such as calcium-fortified soy milk and tofu as well as leafy-green vegetables such as spinach, kale or broccoli. Orange juice fortified with calcium is another good choice.


Step 6. Get fluids into your system….drink plenty of water……Green tea, jasmine and oolong tea are rich in disease-fighting flavanoids. Miso soup is another good way to get healthy nutrients in liquid form.


Step 7. Adopt the “hara hachi bu” principle. It means that Okinawans stop eating when they’re 80% full, not stuffed.


So there you have it – the Okinawan Diet. Does it work? I don’t know. But like the Mediterranean diet, it definitely offers some healthful tips and provides insight as to why some cultures have tended to enjoy longer and healthier lifestyles in generations past. And one thing is for sure, the Western diet is not doing any of us any favors when it comes to good health.

On a lighter note (no pun intended,) there is one final tip I’d like to leave you with, or rather a fun recommendation. Try taking the Blue Zones Vitality Compass test (www.bluezones.com/vitality-compass).

The Blue Zones represent five world-wide regions where people supposedly live the longest and healthiest lives (Okinawa is a blue-zone region). The Vitality Compass estimates how many years you can expect to live, as well as how many years you should live free of major diseases. I took the test myself, just for my own amusement, and even though I was neither shocked nor encouraged by the results, they have nevertheless given me something to think about, or should I say, more food for thought!

Running Form – Moving Your Body

Anna Boom

Moving Your Body:
Leaning tower of pizza :)
Years ago, I traveled through Italy. As goofy American tourists, we asked which train to take to get to the leaning tower of Pisa. The Italian train ticket person said indignantly, “Pizza?! No, no, no! We
have no Leaning Tower of Pizza.” And then laughed heartily at his own joke.


So nothing to do with pizza and everything to do with leaning, let’s talk about running posture. Sometimes, I notice a female runner, very straight running up and down. I love that long lean look too but running this way may lead to back or other injuries. The force of coming down after pushing up may add extra stress on your joints. As runners, we want to avoid any extra stress on those important areas.

What is the correct form then? Looking at pros, you notice they glide along seemingly effortlessly. They all have straight back, shoulders back, big lungs, but are also leaning forward slightly.


Try this on your next run. Start walking. Then begin to lean your body forward and you pick up speed as your feet move under you to stop you from crashing to the ground. The amount of lean is up to you and what you feel comfortable with. As you begin to run faster, your lean will increase.


In CrossFit Endurance, we coach leaning from your ankles. You want your whole body going together, not bending at the waist. Your head should remain in the same plane, not bobbing up and down. You want to use gravity to your benefit to pull you forward and make you a faster runner. 


Try the lean on your next run. And don’t forget the arm swing and cadence.

Running Form – Cadence

Anna Boom


Moving Your Body:
Pick up those feet!
Metronome – a device that produces regular, metrical beats or clicks , settable in beats per minute

Previously, I mentioned that as a running coach, I often get questions on running form. And now you know that I am hesitant to change another runner’s form. It is because we each have developed our own style, unique to us as our personalities are. Running form takes in all the physical aspects: height, weight, skeletal build, that are you and only you.

Last time, I wrote about arm swing. I hope you got out and thought about your arm swing and that it will become a normal part of your form. This write up, let’s talk cadence. This is one of the biggest pointers I work on with my clients.

Cadence is how quickly you pick up your feet. Pros are running anywhere from 180 footfalls per minute on up. Some have counts of over 200. From the beginning of their warm up all the way through the run, they maintain a fast, light foot and quick pickup.

For many of the rest of us, a quicker cadence will lead to faster times and possibly, fewer injuries: ( fromhttp://sciencebasedrunning.com/2011/07/the-basics-cadence/ )

…beginning and recreational runners typically have a cadence closer to 160, which Daniels says puts them at risk for injury because the longer strides necessitated by a slower cadence take runners higher off the ground. This in turn means that each footfall is harder, and many running injuries are associated with the shock of landing.

Faster times and less risk of injury, where do you sign up?! If you dare, take it to the tread mill. Yes, you may hate the treadmill. It may be the last thing you want to do in this glorious fall weather. But it will give you the opportunity to focus on one thing, counting foot falls. The track works too.

Set your timer for one minute. Then count the steps for your right foot. See how you do.

You strive for at least 90 right foot falls in that minute. This is a great tool to add to your warm up and cool downs. The more often you incorporate it into your training, the more comfortable you will feel, just as with the arm positioning. There are also music tracks you can find that have a BPM or beat per minute to help you keep those light fast feet flying.

Fast cadence, fast turnover, more ground covered in less time and waaalaaa, faster times. Yes, there are other components and it all works together so stay tuned, please!