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Cross Training For Runners

The Runners Guide To Treating & Preventing Charley’s horse

6 Mins read

Looking for ways to prevent Charley’s horse while running? Then you have come to the right place.

Charlie’s horse is a common name for muscle spasms and is a problem that plagues beginner and advanced runners alike.

In today’s article, I’ll share with you the full guide to treating and preventing muscle cramps.

Sounds great? Let’s get started.

What Is Charley’s Horse?

Charley’s horse is another name for muscle spasms, the kind of muscle cramps that are searing and sudden. It often strikes during exercise and/or at night.

The condition refers to an involuntary reaction that triggers the nerves in charge of the muscles to misfire. This, in turn, forces the muscle to freeze and lock into a contracted position.

Charley’s horse can be quite uncomfortable and can leave you hobbling around for a few days, which can hurt terribly. The pain can be serious if the spasm doesn’t go away for a few seconds or more.

Serious cases of Charley’s horse can cause muscle soreness that lingers anywhere from a few hours to a few days. This shouldn’t be a problem as long as the pain isn’t chronic or recurring.

The condition can strike in any muscle, but they’re most common in the legs. It often plagues the calf muscle at the back of the lower back but can also affect the foot and sometimes the thigh.

The condition is also quite common among pregnant women and people with certain health conditions.

Additional resource – Can you run with a broken toe?

The Story Behind The Name

Most sources suggest that the term comes from a baseball-players talking about lame horses. My research concluded that the term was used to refer to a muscle cramp from informal American sporting slang dating back to the 1880s.

The ground crew used a lame horse named Charley. When an athlete got injured, a teammate would refer to him as Charley, the horse.

In a different story, which was featured in the Washington Post in 1907, the term was claimed to originate from a baseball pitcher named Charley, who had muscle cramps during games in the 1880s.

Just keep in mind that Charley horse isn’t specifically related to baseball players—they can strike any athlete. Runners are no exception.

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Charley Horse Vs. Cramps

Charley horse is simply y another name for muscle cramps, especially those that strike the leg.

Even though the term is commonly used to refer to muscle spasms or twitches, these phenomena can vary.

In general, most health experts recognize the importance of differentiating between muscle cramps and similar conditions such as:

  • Myotonia—or the process of muscle tensing, which comprises both voluntary flexing and involuntary contracting.
  • Dystonia, which is a movement disorder in which the muscles contract involuntarily, causing twisting and repetitive movements.
  • Tetany, which consists of an imbalance caused by the low level of calcium
  • Myalgia, which refers to muscle aches and pain that can involve tendons, ligaments, fascia, and the soft tissue that connects muscles, bones, and organs.

Risk Factors

Research has reported that there are a few risk factors for legs cramps. The most common include the following:

  • Runners and those who engage in high impact exercise
  • People over 60
  • Dehydrated people
  • Women who wear high heels
  • People with certain medical issues such as cirrhosis, hypothyroidism, nerve disorders, and people who take some medications
  • Pregnant women
  • Diabetic people

Additional resource – Guide to big toe pain from running

Top Causes Of Charley’s Horse In Runners

According to research, most health experts do not know exactly why charley horse occur.

This is mainly because the condition can be blamed for a variety of reasons.

This is especially the case since charley horse can also impact healthy individuals and often occur at night for no apparent reasons.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common reasons behind the charley horse.

  • Bad Nutrition

If you tend to suffer often from muscle cramps, it’s key to check your hydrating level.

This is especially the case if you have got an imbalance of electrolytes—that includes potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium—which are key for the contraction and relaxation of a muscle.

  • Lack Of Stretching

Research shows that muscles that are too tight or stiff are more likely to experience cramps.

As a rule, your muscles need to be as supple and strong as they can be. Proper and regular stretching is key to this.

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  • Overload

If you log in more miles than usual or increase the intensity, this can lead to muscle cramps.

  • Weak Circulation

If you tend to experience cramping that gets worse the more you run, poor circulation could be the culprit. Some circulation issues may result in foot pain that feels like cramping.

  • Medication

Some medications, such as diuretics and statins, can result in muscle cramps.

So if you suddenly experience cramps just after taking a new medication, this could be to blame. Let your doctor know if this happens often.

How To Treat Charley’s Horse In Runners

According to research, the most effective drug that can help curb the frequency and intensity of leg cramps is quinine.

But, most doctors don’t like to prescribe this drug since its efficacy and side effects are uncertain.

In general, if you experience a charley horse, the following steps may help soothe what’s ailing you.

How To Soothe And Relieve Charley’s Horse

If you start to experience a muscle spasm, stop what you are doing.

In most cases, you can simply wait it out. Usually, the pain fades away on it for a few minutes.

You should also try massaging the affected muscle to bring some relief.

Next, gently stretch the affected muscle, holding it in a stretched position until the cramp ceases.

For example, if your calf muscle is cramping, try stretching it by pulling your toes towards your knees while keeping the cramping leg extended straight.

You should also contract the opposite muscle to make the stretch more effective.

Some useful stretches to use in the movement include:

Basic calf stretch

Standing Calf Stretch

Towel stretch

What’s more?

You should also try easing the pain of a sore muscle with a cold pack. This should improve blood circulation to the muscle and relax it.

Still in pain?

If the impacted muscle is still in pain, treat it like you’d an injured muscle.

This means applying the RICE method—or resting, icing, compressing, and elevating the affected leg to soothe pain and avoid any further muscle damage.

Additional resource – your guide to metatarsalgia in runners

How To Prevent Charley Horse While Running

The best way to manage muscle cramps while running is to avoid them. Some of the best ways to prevent cramps are specific training, adequate fueling, and strength training.

Let me explain more.

Strength Train

I hate to state the obvious, but strong muscles are more likely to resist cramping over time.

You should also strengthen the supporting muscles to take some of the load off your cramp-prone muscle, especially the calves and hamstrings. Here’s your full guide to strength training for injury prevention.

Warm-Up Properly

It should be no surprise, but unprepared muscles are likely to spasm during exercise. That’s why you should warm up thoroughly before a run. And the best warm-up is a dynamic one. Here’s the full guide to proper warm-ups.

Drink Plenty of Water

Another effective preventative step, especially if you run for a long time sweat a lot in hot weather, is to keep adequate fluid intake. Unfortunately, this is one of the most common causes of muscle cramps in runners.

Shoot for at least 8 top 12 glasses of water every day to maintain proper hydration levels. Drink more on intense training days. Here’s the full guide to proper hydration for runners.

Additional resource – Sore quads after running

Your Diet

Your food choices also matter.  Imbalances in electrolytes as well as in other nutrients could increase your risk of getting a charley horse.

Choose a diet that includes a variety of foods, including plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits such as leafy greens and bananas to add more electrolytes to your diet.

Remember to add as many magnesium and potassium-rich foods into your diet, such as

  • Bananas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Tofu
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Dark chocolate

Consult your Doctor

Last but not least, if you suffer from severe or chronic muscle cramps, it’s time to check with your doctor.

Your agony might be the sign-off of a more serious underlying condition, so it’s key to consult your doctor for further tests.

Although most cases of muscle cramps are not serious, they’re sometimes a sign of a serious medical condition. This is especially the case if you’re dealing with frequent muscle spams and/or symptoms that aren’t getting better with self-care.

According to research, muscle cramps issue could be related to nerves, circulation, hormones, metabolism, and medications.

What’s more?

Many conditions can cause lower body muscle cramps, such as:

  • Radiculopathy, which is spinal nerve compression or irritation
  • Stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal
  • Chronic infections
  • Thyroid disease
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • And so much more.

Try OTC Medication

Some over-the-counter drugs can reduce the intensity and frequency of muscle spams—in fact, some may diminish the risk of the condition altogether.

Again, get the green light from your doctor before you try anything. Most would recommend medications such as muscle relaxants or pain medication like acetaminophen.

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