Charley Horse – the Runner’s Cramps


Muscle cramps (Charley Horse)

The old leg cramp, charley horse is a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction or over shortening. They may occur in real time, just a few seconds or in minutes. They can cause acute pain and immobility of the affected body organ or muscles.   Almost every runner has experience muscle cramps at some point in their practice. Usually, runners get it after running a marathon or in summer. When they get it, athlete’s report that it was extremely painful and they were rendered unable walk.

The mechanisms that cause muscle spasms and muscle cramps may be a complicated mechanism. In a simplified way, scientists describe it as a scenario where the skeletal muscles contract and they fail to relax. It is good to note that the skeletal muscles are a vital element in the human body, they are attached to the bones and are used to make involuntary movements in the body. Without them, we would not be able to run or do other activities.

For the runners, the body parts that frequently get cramps are thighs, hamstrings, and calves. However, experts warn that any part of the body that has skeletal muscles can cramp. Therefore, cramps and spasms can affect almost any part of the body anytime. Other parts that can get cramps are the foot, abdomen and the back.   Muscle cramps are also known as the Charley Horse, and they can ruin a runners day in the field.

History behind the name Charley horse

The term “Charley horse” is widely used in American sporting, though informally. The term is thought to have emerged at around 1880’s. There is a narration of a baseball player who was talking about a lame horse. That is how it found its popularity among the baseball players. By then horses were vital means of transport, and they undertook groundskeeper jobs. These jobs are now handled by machines.  The reference of muscle cramps as the charley horse got a boost in around 1907. The Washington post used it often to refer to a situation that a famous baseball pitcher was going through. His name was Charley. The Fort Wayne Gazette used it to refer to the muscle cramps. This cramp has been closely associated with baseball exercise and activities. It is here that the name was coined.


What causes a Charley Horse?

There are many complications to what might be the real course of cramps and muscle spasms. Non-disease muscle cramps tend to be widely misunderstood. It is observable that they are caused by a certain muscle nerve serving the leg. Scientists have hinted that it is nerve supply to this muscle that is firing off during the painful squeezing up, but not really a problem with the muscle tissue itself.   Ideally, scientists have described the charley horse as the result of a nerve going off at high rates – that reach to rates of 150 electrical discharges per second. This makes the muscle experience a tight squeeze that may be quite painful.   Most excessive sporting activities can cause leg cramps. When a runner is on the field, he or she can have cramps due to dehydration and overuse of the muscles.

Additionally, cramps can occur due to an underlying medical condition. There is also fears that cramps occur through the DNA when they are genetically passed on from generation to generation. Inadequate blood supply can also cause leg cramps. Medically there is tissue that goes hard hence called cramp; these causes sharp pain. This pain tends to appear and disappear during the relaxation and contraction which brings about movement, people with peripheral arterial disease such as kidney, thyroid and multiple sclerosis.  Muscle cramps may also occur when athletes engage in sporting exercise, but they have not prepared well. This happens because the muscles fail to adopt to sports rhythm when they are needed to. in this context there will be less white blood cells that supply the oxygen. This leads to an increased carbon dioxide levels in the tissues and this, in turn, causes cramps to the muscles.

There are also indications that if runners are exposed to cold temperatures they can also suffer leg cramps.   Potassium and calcium is very important to the body, so the lack of these components is known to be one of the causes of leg cramp.  Improper prescription of medication such antipsychotic medicines, birth control pills, diuretics, statins, and steroids can cause the leg cramps.

Most common causes of leg cramps:

• They occur when a runner pushes muscle endurance in a sporting activity
• Can be caused by some medical conditions or use of prescription drugs.
Physical exertion in hot weather. Cause by exercising when the is extreme heat
• Overexertion of the calf muscles while exercising
Electrolyte imbalance
• Physical deconditioning
• Muscle fatigue
• Calcium deficiency
• Poor blood circulation in the legs
• Insufficient stretching before exercise
• Magnesium and potassium deficiency
• Malfunctioning of nerves due to medical conditions like the spinal cord injury or pinched nerve in the neck or back.

Symptoms of leg cramps

Most leg cramps occur in the calf muscles that happens involuntarily, less commonly in the feet and thighs.  During cramp attack, the affected part or muscles will become tight and painful, and the feet and toes will be stiff after the cramps pass one may have pain and tenderness in the legs for several hours.  When one can’t lift their legs, and there is sudden pain that appears and then disappears then these could be cramp symptoms. When one could be having headaches that comes and go, pale legs and low blood in the body, these can be as a result of the cramps due to physical labor hence dehydration and resulting low and insufficient fluids in the body.    When a runner experience charley horse they will experience their muscles suddenly tighten up. This will make the muscle to experience pain and cramping. The calf muscle is often affected by this-this.  Cramps are common among sports persons. It is not necessary that they are related to some disease.  Older adults tend to get them more,  as well as pregnant mothers get them even when they are at rest.   In sports, they occur when the athlete pushes the muscle endurance. They may be related to medical conditions or use of prescription drugs.  It is advisable that a runner should get doctors advise when he or she gets cramps after using some drugs. The doctor may suggest a change of the prescribed drugs.

When and why cramping occurs

Medical experts have clarified that cramping occurs in two ways. It may occur when you are at rest, sleeping, sitting, or standing. These cramps are usually caused by a deficiency of key nutrients in the tissues or blood.   For athletes, cramping occurs during lengthy exercise such as running, fast walking, or other related activities. Exercise-induced muscle cramps are common in high-intensity sports. Cramping may occur when the performance is of high-intensity exercise such as sprint running or marathon.

Immediate response that can ease cramps when it happens

• Immediately you experience the cramping you should stop running
• Apply pressures on the affected muscles using your fingers or thumb
Ice the muscle
Drink more water to reduce the dehydration
• Warm the muscle
• Gently stretch the affected muscle. Do it with great care not to cause movements that can worsen the cramping.
• Take a bath with some Epsom Salt
• Find someone to massage you
• Eat a banana to boost your calcium levels
• When you have it in the calf or thighs (hamstrings) you should lie down with the leg spread out straight, then pull the top of the foot towards your head. It is recommendable to have a friend help you with this exercise.
• When the cramps subside try moving in a slow walk to avoid more stress on the affected area.

How to prevent charley horse and minimize risk when running in hot weather

Drink more water and much frequently to keep your body hydrated
• Avoid running when temperatures are extreme
• Be careful to identify heat illness and associated discomforts
• When you experience discomfort in the legs thighs or other body parts be sure to stop running
• If you are under medications be careful, they might affect your heat tolerance ability and therefore increase the risk of cramping
• Its recommendable to wear light colored tech running clothing.
• It is good to have a schedule and a planned route. This will help avoid risky street and help one in accessing water stops along the track. If running in a location that has no water fountains, a runner should carry their own water to help keep hydrated.
• Have a partner or a colleague accompany you in the course of running. If you can’t find company lets someone know of the route you are running and how long you will be running. If you fail to be back in the expected time, they will know where to find you.
• Its good to run at you owns pace. Experts recommend that you focus on covering the mileage rather than adhering to a challenging pace. Slowing down when it is hot and humid will help you avoid heat illness and cramping.

Types of leg cramps

Hamstring cramp:

• When the upper body rounds forward
• The low back sinks into a default arch
• Hip sink back
• The glutes turn off
• Then the hamstrings are left to drive the strides alone

Quads cramp

• They happen when the foot strike become a shuffle
• The cadence becomes heavy
• The hamstrings aren’t working to pick the feet up off the ground
• The feel like they are spending more time pounding into the ground than they are lifting off it.
• In this case, the quads are made to bear with all the impact

Calves cramp

• It occurs when hips fail to push forward
• The hamstrings stop working to pull the feet off the ground
• The cadence slows down
• The feet begin landing in varying positions
• The calves are forced to bear with the impact

Who is Prone To Getting Cramps

Most athletes are most prone to cramps. It is involuntary to every athlete and therefore sports persons are prone to it. People who work in hot weather and tend to be under physical labor can be vulnerable cramps. This person tends to have fewer fluids in the body as a result of excessive sweating and dehydration.
Fluids alone are not able to maintain body fluid balance, electrolyte controls the shifts of fluids in and out of the cells. The electrolyte most common during exercise is sodium. When undertaking sporting activities both water and sodium are lost through sweating. This is the reason cramps are common among athletes.

Pregnant ladies are also prone to cramps because of decreased amounts of minerals such as calcium and magnesium especially in the later months of pregnancy. Athletes who work and train in cold temperatures can also be prone to cramps especially if they use cold water. People with less calcium and potassium in the blood can also be prone to cramps.   Diabetes persons can also be prone to cramps because these persons dehydrate more which means they loose much body fluids.

Risk Factors Associated With Leg Cramps

These factors include certain medication such as limited exercising, rehydration, and even blood transfusion process. During such processes, the muscle cramp may occur causing local pain, tenderness, and firmness of the involved muscle. This disturbs the function of the involved muscle extremity when leg muscle is involved, that can lead to difficulty in walking.   Severe pain can also cause well-being of the involved person and activities can be altered as normal functioning of the muscle will be firm or still.  Discomfort is most risk factor especially when lumps appear, which can lead to deep vein thrombosis which is a serious medical condition, this deep vein thrombosis involves pain, swelling and redness, warmness and engorged superficial veins, then it will lead to low blood supply to the muscle, and these can lead to career end.  Other risk factors caused by leg cramps or it can lead to:

  • Hypothyroidism (inflammation of the involved muscle )or secondary hypocalcemia.
  • Prolonged leg cramps which are severe can also lead to amputation if the muscle can cause or threaten life at some point,
  • Aged people can also lose mass muscle can get overstressed more easily, Its also more often to pregnant ladies,
  • When someone feels strains and sprains during physical sporting, it is recommended to see a doctor. Such indications of sprains, pain, spasms may point out to a leg injury and calls for medical diagnosis
  • When peripheral nerves malfunction due to damage this may lead to a disorder called peripheral neuropathy
  • When the runner is exposed to extreme heat, he or she may suffer from heat cramps
  • Low potassium in blood can also be a diagnostic of factor due to abnormal heart rhythms then causing fatigue,
  • When headaches start to be on and off, the athlete may be having low blood sodium or hypernatremia. This occurs when water and sodium are released from the body inform of sweat as a result of physical activity such as running. It’s good to hydrate yourself frequently to avoid such a case.

  • Lack of calcium leads to cramps and rickets. Having low parathyroid glands causes low-level calcium which can lead to leg cramps.
  • Kidney failure can also be a major diagnosis of leg crump these are due to un purified blood to the blood cells because these kidneys have no ability to sufficiently filter toxins and wastes sometimes even cause severe dehydrations leading to blockage of the vessels hence leading to a leg cramp.
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a chronic disorder that causes loss of control of voluntary muscles, this disease degenerates brain and spinal code,
  • Gluten intolerance is digestive disorder caused by abnormal immune reaction to gluten, these lead to lower abdominal pains hence muscle cramp,
  • The adrenal cortex makes hormones that regulate metabolism and blood pressure, due its blockage or interference it causes a disease called Adrenal Cortical
  • Carcinoma if more severe it causes the muscle not to function properly leading to cramps due to long hours of standing or sitting in the same position too.
  • Venom due to bites from insects such as spider especially the black widow spider, the type of the spider can be easily recognizable they plump black and shiny. The spider got its name from its mating behavior. After mating the female kills its male counterpart and eats it, hence leaving them as widows. Their poison can make one have cramps.

When To See A Doctor

Usually, the leg cramps disappear on their own after a short time, and they do not cause any damage to the tissues. In this case, you might not need to see a medical doctor. However, if they become more severe, the athlete may get discomfort. An athlete then will need to visit your doctor.


Leg cramps are closely associated with leg swelling (edema) redness or skin changes. Runners might also experience a feeling of muscle weakness.   If there is no improvement, an athlete might need to consider seeking the attention of a medical doctor. Be informed that in this case, it could be beyond mere physical and strenuous exercise. A medical assessment will be necessary to establish what might be the real issue.

Drugs that are usually associated with cramps are

• Drugs used in removing excess fluid build up in serious conditions
• Domperidone for stomach problems
• Donepezil for dementia treatment
• Some asthma drugs when directly induced into the blood such drugs include Salbutamol and terbutaline.
• Blood pressure drugs such as the ACE inhibitors
• Celecoxib
• Drugs used to tackle high cholesterol such as the statins are seen to be associated with cramps.
People using stimulants are also at the risk of getting cramps. Some known stimulant drugs that cause cramps include
• Cocaine
• Caffeine
• Nicotine and
• Amphetamine


Diagnosis for Leg Cramps

When a runner visits a doctor, the first thing he will do is to check the history of the patient. The patient will be required to answer some of the questions listed below:

• What cramps symptoms did they suffer from and where did they occur
• When did it happen
• How long did the cramping or the pain last
• How severe was the cramping
• Have the patient had them in the past
• Does the patient have any factors related to diet exercise or any symptoms and medical problems that are associated with muscle cramping?
Diagnosis may include:
• removing or managing any causes of muscle cramps
• diagnosing or treating any medical problems related to cramping
• giving advise on how to prevent cramping in future

Leg and Muscle Cramp Treatment

Most times the cramps and spasms in the muscle can cause tingling of nerves and clumsy feeling in the muscles. This can be treated by using Vitamin B Complex to create or increase the activity in the body.   Some elderly people prefer to use the cartiflex forte with calcium called Cox B 200MG every month to ease the situation.   Some prefer strong pain killers such as diclofenac intramuscular (IM) to make them feel normal and reduce the pain completely   If the lump or deep vein thrombosis is so severe, one can always treat these by surgery correction. This is an alternative way to treat severe cramping.

Remedies for muscle cramps

Stretching and massage can help to relief the cramping. Rub it gently to help relax. If you have a calf cramp, put your weight on the cramped leg and bend your knee slightly. You can do it when seated o the floor or in a chair with the affected knee extended. For the front thigh cramp, use a chair to steady yourself then try pulling your foot on the affected side up toward your buttock.   You can ease the cramping by using a warm towel or heating pad or tight muscles. Taking a warm bath might help to relieve the cramping. Ice can also be used to massage the affected area; it will help to cool.   Cramps are usually treated by use of painkillers and taking exercises. Painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen would be necessary for runners.   If using quinine to treat cramps runners should never take more than the recommended dose. Quinine overdose is associated with permanent blindness and mortality. Quinine should only be used when other techniques have failed, and there are frequent leg cramps that are affecting the quality of life.   Doctors will do follow up to assess if the treatment is effective.

How to prevent muscle cramps


Having enough oxygen is important while you are undertaking sporting activities. Oxygen is said to fuel the muscles similarly as hydration and calorie intake do. If a runner overlooks any of this, he or she is at risk of getting muscle cramps.

When we are running and are exhausted there might be an inadequate supply of oxygen to the muscles. To avoid this scenario, it is good to force deeper breathing through the diaphragm. This can be achieved by having 5 to 10 deep nose breaths while the mouth is closed for every 30 minutes interval.

This will help the body to relax, and the diaphragm will be in a position to support the hip and allow more oxygen to reach the muscles.

Relax the upper body

When running a long race, athlete usually has their shoulders squeezed up to the ears, and the arms are bent right to the sides. This makes it hard to smoothly swing the hands and efficiently move the feet with ease. This can be solved by taking a few steps to shake the arms and shoulders out, maybe even raising the arms up above your head. This will improve the arm swing and improve the power of your strides.

Shorten the strides

Calves cramp usually occur when a runner has overextended strides. When the foot is forced to extend far away that the recommend stride, the impact may be greater. It is good to have a focused running, don’t overstretch, and go with your pace. Overdoing sporing activities might lead to muscle strain and cramping.

Other preventive tips for runners include

  • Athletes are often advised to focus on what they are doing and staying in control.
  • Having time to relax especially between eating and an exercise session
  • Replenish the amount of fluid and minerals lost
  • Be careful with footwear change
  • Observe weight loss and physical exercise
  • Avoid overdoing physical exercises
  • Take heat therapy
  • Observe healthy lifestyle such as having enough sleep
  • Heat illness tends to ruin runners’ day. Every runner should try to familiarize themselves with signs and symptoms of heat illnesses.
  • A runner should be cautious with headaches, overheating, gastrointestinal issues
  • Train properly: it is good to follow a training plan that suits your health status and fitness level. To ensure you follow this rule observe the following
  • Try building the mileage gradually by following the 10- to 20 percent rule of increasing the weekly mileage
    When doing long runs keep a conversational pace, but for shorter runs, you can increase the pace. Varying the pace will help train the muscle fibers and cut down on muscle fatigue.
  • Try running frequently; this will be useful in achieving running goals
  • Have enough recovery time between workouts this serves to reduce fatigue piling in the muscles.
  • Running on a treadmill would be necessary as it would serve an alternative running opportunity especially when the heat gets extreme.
  • Try cross-training to help boost cardio. This will be a good practice especially when accompanied by swimming and spinning. If undertaken 2 to 3 days a week it can serve to reduce the risks of cramping and training the muscles on intensive exercising.
  • When a runner has muscle weaknesses, he or she may tend to have muscle imbalances, injuries, inefficient movement patterns, and muscle fatigue. Strengthening weak areas will improve the running capabilities and reduce fatigue levels.
  • It is recommendable to have one or two days in a week for rest and recovery. Take a cool bath or ice bath after track running, or jump into the pool to help cool off the body.
  • Stretching daily will help to improve circulation, supply muscles with oxygen and nutrients and also facilitate recovery. Its good to have a routine of stretching after running when the muscles and connective tissues are warm and pliable. It is also advisable to stretch before running.
  • Warm up before a running session would be necessary to prepare the body and the muscles. Start at an easy pace and then advance to more vigorous exercise as you gain the rhythm. It is always advisable to have a warm up session before you start running.

Wrapping Up

Always be safe. When training familiarize yourself with the conditions of the race. You can do it by understanding the course, road surfaces, elevation and altitudes and weather changes. Remember, to have a balanced diet of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and some fats. Taking proper diet throughout the day is necessary for stabilizing blood sugar levels and controlling appetite.  Drink water daily and during your runs along with supplements to help restore lost electrolytes. They can also be taken as capsules. Lastly, remember the healing benefits of touch.  Therapeutic massage can help reduce cramping. Massage is recommendable because it increases the range of motion, softens the tissues restriction, ad circulation. When the muscle has good blood flow the recovery will be improved, help reduces fatigue, and improve the health of your muscles.

Information contained in the article is from credible sources. Use them as a guide to open a dialog with your health care provide. Each person is different. Check with them before using anything in this article.


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