Cramping After Riding

By Peg Labiuk | 07/16/12
Cramping After Riding

Perfecto Insecto, “massage” May 7, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

We’ve teamed up with Marilyn Trout, certified USA Cycling Elite Coach to answer Voler Newsletter List members’ training questions. You can view her coach profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/mountainpedalscoaching80903 Send your cycling inquiries to Marilyn, and for a limited time, if yours is selected to be answered in our Training column, Voler will send you a $20 gift certificate that can be used towards any purchase from the Voler Store at http://www.voler.com. To submit your inquiry, e-mail her at Marilyn@MountainPedals.net, and type “Voler Training Question” in the subject line of the e-mail.

The following question was answered by Peg Labiuk (nee Peggy Maass), a colleague of Marilyn Trout, and a certified NCCP level 3 coach with a career in international road and track racing. She is a World Championship medalist, World Record holder, U.S. Olympic Team member, former British national team coach and Kreb's Cycle co-founder (British Columbia, Canada).

Cramping After Riding

Coach,

I have been training for the Bike Across Kansas ride that starts in 2 weeks. I realize you may not be able to respond in time to help me for this effort, but others may have similar issues. I am writing for advice about cramping after riding.

Although I did the BAK 4 years ago, I really am a new-comer to biking. I finished that 2008 adventure exhausted and stopped riding almost right away. I am not certain if I rode a total of 100 miles in any summer after that nearly 500 mile effort. When a friend convinced me to join him on BAK this year, I started training at the end of February. At first I rode an average of 50 miles a week through March, then 60 miles a week through the first part of April, then about 70 miles a week through the next few weeks. In the past three weeks, I've averaged 100 miles a week.

This past weekend I began working for longer distances and that is when my problems began. I rode 55 miles on Saturday and was exhausted. I also realized I lost 4 pounds during the ride. I rode 33 miles yesterday and didn't think I could go a mile more. I lost another 4 pounds that day. Temperatures both days were in the mid-90s. Last night, my cramps were so bad I couldn't sleep. I realize the weight loss is all water. Clearly, hydration is an issue. I ride with two bottles, one with water and one with a recovery drink with the 4:1 carb:protein ratio and electrolytes. I refill the bottles at least once in the middle of each ride. I started each ride with an electrolyte drink and finished with a full glass of water and more recovery drink. I now know I need to drink more. I didn't realize until I started these longer rides that I can get by drinking less when the ride is of short duration, but I need to drink early and often if the plan is to go long. But, that is clearly an inexact science. I am left to trial and error to sort that out, I guess.

The cramping is extremely painful. I really have two primary questions: what other steps can I take to avoid it; and, once I am cramping, what can I do to alleviate the problem? I am guessing there are other steps I should take pre-ride, during the ride, and after the ride. But, I really don't know what they would be. At least one person has suggested I cut back on the sports drink because the sugars in them can cause cramping. I have questions about that, but again, really don't know. Can you help? If it matters, I am 59, 6'1", 205 pounds. I sit at a desk all day at work.

Thank you,
David

Dear David,

You are not alone with the problem of cramping. Indeed, I believe yours is the fourth Voler Question concerning cramping that I have answered. The most common is your first question - What can I do to avoid cramping? For you, the water weight loss and its accompanying electrolyte loss seems the most obvious problem. It's great that you weighed yourself before and after a ride to monitor that. The different sport drinks you are trying are a positive step too. I would suggest leaving the recovery drink with the protein in it for just that, recovery after the ride. The protein may be slowing down absorption and may not be contributing to your immediate need. Aside from getting more fluid, you'll have to experiment with more electrolytes too. I use "Essential Electrolytes" by Nutribiotics, while others recommend E-Caps by Hammer Nutrition. Some simply chew Tums or Rolaids or add table salt to their bottles. I've even heard V-8 Juice, pickle juice, or tonic water works wonders. My cycling team used to use baby's Pedialyte formula to replenish during stage races. You will have to try adding fluid and electrolytes and record the results of your attempts.

Your second question is, "Once I'm cramping, how can I stop it?" Obviously, time will help - time for the muscles to rebalance and abate their misfiring. Stretching usually alleviates cramping and light massage can help too. I have found ingesting the Essential Electrolytes can shorten the wait and keep the cramps at bay. There are liniments and spray products like Kool n' Fit on the market. Again, you will have to try these things and jot down how it works for you.

So all I can offer you is these suggestions to try. Your comment "I am left to trial and error to sort that out" certainly remains true. Cramping is very individual in its causes and cures. In addition, since cramping is a complex phenomenon and not fully understood, I would also look at non-nutritional causes. You mention sitting at a desk all day. Perhaps you need to move around more, taking breaks to stretch. I wonder if you are warming up gently enough when you do go on a ride. Is your bike position at its optimum so your muscles are relaxed and able to work freely? Are you a caffeine fiend? That will rob you of nutrients and require extra hydration. How about alcohol? That too can dehydrate you. Cramping happens when the muscles are just plain fatigued. Are you getting enough recovery between hard rides or perhaps too much, and you are undertrained? These are a few more factors to look at in cramping prevention. Hopefully you have more options to investigate now. Regardless, you have to do your homework to find the solutions for that work for you, because like the cause, the cure is just as individual.

Coach Peg

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