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ATC – Ask The Coach: Marathon Cramping on Race Day

26 December

Coach Note: Coach Patrick enjoys answering questions from runners of all ability levels. If you’d like to submit a question for him to answer on the MN blog or by video, please email it to askthecoach [at] marathonnation [dot] us.

The Question…

Hi Patrick. I just ran my first full marathon at age 42.  I’ve been running consistently for about 8+ years.  I’ve trained religiously and done many half marathons and many 18-22 mile long runs in the past while training without ever cramping in my calves or quads, or anywhere for that matter.  

However, in both the Philadelphia half marathon in September and the full marathon in November, I cramped up tremendously.  The only difference I can attribute this to is the power gels I took during the races, which have caffeine in them.  I’ve been caffeine free about 98% of the time the past year or so, so my guess is the caffeine in the gels caused the cramping.

I hydrated plenty before the races for days, and truly drink only water and one cup of decaf coffee a day.

Any other possible reasons for the severe cramping or are the gel packs the culprit?

I only planned to run one full marathon in my life, but can’t let it rest after the cramps caused me to miss my goal time and I was headed to beat my time easily without pushing myself too much.

Any thoughts?


The Answer…

Thanks for the email! I see two potential causes…one would be the caffeine that you have only tried on race day. I suggest that you practice that in the weeks leading up to your next race so you can adapt/adjust accordingly. Every long run is a chance to practice your nutrition plan; it’s easy to get sucked up in just logging miles…don’t miss out on this important step! I personally have been using Powerbar Gels and Clif Shot Bloks as my fuel of choice.

The other is how you ran, which is more likely the bigger culprit. I wonder how you paced the races vs your average run. Most folks race much faster than the average training day, and some even run faster without “knowing” it until they go back and look at the data afterwards….if you can honestly say that the shoes were the same and that your pacing was similar to several training runs (or a race simulation run) then it really only leaves the caffeine!

Let me know in the comments below…and if anyone else has some input, I’d welcome it.

Coach Patrick

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