Ways to Avoid Cramping

By Voler Staff | 12/06/10


We've teamed up with Marilyn Trout, certified USA Cycling Elite Coach to answer Voler E-mail 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 Tips column, Voler will send you a $20 gift certificate that can be used towards any purchase from the Voler Store. To submit your inquiry, e-mail her at trout_mic@msn.com, and type "Voler Training Question" in the subject line of the e-mail.

E-mail list member Bill Howard is our 59th winner of a $20 VeloWear gift certificate!  His question follows…  

Ways to Avoid Cramping

Hi Coach,

I have a question regarding severe cramps. I just finished the LiveStrong Challenge in Dripping Springs, TX a couple weeks ago. I rode the 65 mile route; all available routes feature multiple climbs and I had not been on the bike for a couple weeks prior. I made sure to drink plenty of Gatorade the entire ride; however, the provided drinks were somewhat weak. I was doing well the ride up until about 40 miles into it I noticed my groin muscle tightening up so I pounded it moderately a few times with my free hand all the while continuing to ride. This was not proving any relief so I stopped my bike, unclipped both feet and placed them on the ground and both quads just cramped mercilessly. There was nothing I could do so I just stood there straddled the bike. I immediately grabbed a Gu pack, ate it and drank more of the weak Gatorade. After several minutes it subsided and I pushed on. Later in the next 10 miles I had a grab in my left calf - just a day of cramps for sure.

Do you think the cramps were caused by not getting the right mixture of Gatorade or electrolytes or should I have been doing something different in training?

William "Bill" Howard

Dear Bill,


Research on cramping still isn’t conclusive on the cause.  It seems it is a very complex and individual problem.   In some ways it’s good that there isn’t a quick answer.  It means that:

  •  There is current research being done, so we get cutting edge information
  • We look at the problem’s many causes as interrelated in the body

You gave me some information about that day and your preparation for the 65 mile ride, so I’ll begin with mapping that out:

  1. The Gatorade provided was a weaker solution than you normally use.  You drank your own two bottles (one of tea, one of pomegranate juice), then used the Gatorade.  You drank one bottle/hour.
  2. You cramped at approx. 40 miles, 3 hours into the ride.
  3.  It was overcast and in the low 70’s for the first 3.5-4 hours, then sunny and hotter.   Start time was 8 AM.
  4. You had no warm-up before the start.
  5. Your training is normally a 30-50 mile weekend ride and workouts 4 - 5 times a week, legs and abs, yoga stretches for cyclists.  However, you hadn’t ridden for several weeks before this event.
  6. This course was challenging, with over 2200 feet of climbing and headwinds.
  7. You have experienced cramping in the past when you might not have been hydrated enough, but you were confident you were this time.
  8. You are 56 years old and have been cycling for 8 years.  You have completed seven MS150's and seven LiveStrong Challenges.

Now let’s look at each of these items as they contribute to the cramping:

  1. The first two bottles wouldn’t have provided any significant electrolyte supplement.  The weak Gatorade wouldn’t have had enough either.  Keep in mind that the amount that you can ingest and use will lag behind the demand.   So, losing the first two hours of replenishment would have been significant.  In third hour when you got some Gatorade, it still would have taken time to be metabolized and emptied from your stomach. 
  2. You cramped in the third hour, when your body is just beginning to get some of the electrolytes – not enough, and too late.
  3. The temperatures were favorable prior to the cramping, but still warm enough to make your body perspire to cool itself as you are working hard.  Perspiring means sodium, magnesium, and calcium loses, and the imbalance of these levels in your body is known to be involved in cramping.
  4. No warm-up, especially no stretching prior to exercise, is cited as a contributing to cramping.
  5. You ride once per week but hadn’t ridden for several weeks.  You would detrain some after 10 days   I f we apply the training increase 10% rule (only make 10% increases from week to week), I’d estimate that you’d be okay for the first 20 miles or so.  The fact that you went 40 before having problems is to your credit.
  6.  The challenging course, along with the detraining and no warm-up, sound to me like a set-up for muscle fatigue and depletion.  I would also assume that in an event this big, you might get excited and start out quickly too.  This would cause more muscle damage and depletion.
  7. Since you have cramped in the past, your body has given notice that it will react this way in the given conditions.
  8. Your age makes you more prone to cramping.  Your experience made you able to cope and continue.

Bill, you did all the right things at the onset of the cramping.  You stopped and stretched, resumed activity, and continued to take in more Gatorade.   In reviewing the day, I would have to conclude that the weak Gatorade was not solely at fault though.  I think you can see multiple contributors in the above analysis.  In the future, I would suggest:

  • Train more on-the-bike.  Cycling specific training will do more for you than weight training.  If time is limiting, I still think you’d be better to use an indoor trainer and get a 30-60 minute ride in, at least once more per week.  Training indoors might even help you acclimatize to heat better.
  • Along those lines, you could do hot yoga.
  • Warm-up before every workout.  At least stretch.  You can do that even while holding or straddling your bike on a start line.
  • Use your electrolyte replenishment from the start.  Be mindful of calcium intake.
  • Pre-ride the course to get ready for the demands, or simulate the course locally.
  • Keep racking up those finishes!

Coach Peg


Some Additional Information on Cramping:

A current theory suggests muscle cramps result from fatigue that triggers abnormal neural activity. There's an increase in neural input telling the muscle to contract, and a decrease in signals telling the muscle to relax. The result is a vigorous contraction of part or all of the muscle.

The presence of dehydration is thought to accentuate muscle fatigue, adding insult to injury.

Cramps are most common in muscles that span two joints. The hamstrings are a great example. Other two-joint muscles include part of the quadriceps (thigh muscle) and the gastrocnemius (calf muscle).

Here’s a checklist for every cramp-afflicted person to think about.
•    People most prone to cramps are older, have a family history of cramping and have poor stretching habits.
•    Do you get cramps in muscles that are not working very hard during cycling (such as the biceps)? If you do, this suggests a systemic factor is the main culprit (e.g., an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration). However, if cramps only occur in the muscles doing all the work, then fatigue is probably to blame.
•    Do cramps occur only in hot conditions, or do you get them if you ride hard on mild days? Review your training diary and look for patterns a la Sherlock Holmes. Check weather conditions, type/length of ride, eating/drinking patterns the day before, during and after the ride, location(s) of the cramps, etc.  For example, if your cramps always occur in the same muscle when you ride a certain bike in a certain position (i.e. aero), then you can pinpoint it to local muscle fatigue and train accordingly.
What Cures Cramps? Take Your Pick!
By RBR Newsletter Subscribers

Because different riders cramp for different reasons, somewhere in the following collection of cramp remedies you might find the one that'll work for you.  See www.roadbikerider.com/cramps for information on all of these ideas below.
•    Tums
•    Endurolytes
•    Better Riding Through Chemistry
•    SPIZ
•    Salt
•    Magnesium
•    Potassium
•    Kool 'n Fit
•    E-Lyte
•    Hydra Fuel
•    HCH Cramp Stop
•    RendiMax
•    Thermotabs
•    Tonic Water
•    Pickle Juice
•    Train More!

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