Cramps In Cycling

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After the race at Philip Island this past weekend I have never heard so many stories about so many people cramping at the same race.   Was it the McDonald’s stop that most people did on the drive down?   Was it the barometric pressure combined with the petrol fumes coming off the race track?  What was it that made so many people cramp?

Well, I have a theory that many of you might not like the sounds of.

There were nearly 200 cyclists racing last Saturday.  I rolled from the front to the back to the front again to see who was all there and saying hi to all my buddies for the first hour.  The pace was ON and there were obviously a lot of nervous riders in that massive pack.  I’d say the race was made up of 30-40 A-grade riders, and the rest were B and C-grade riders.  I have absolutely no problem with this combination and think it’s great that such a wide variety of riders can participate in this race.  However, it was the first road race over (1hr long) of the season for many, and since the laps were only 4km it was raced HARD as if it were an hour criterium.  The first hour was quite fast, and that was only 1/3 of the the race.   It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all and forget that you’ve been riding flat out for as long as you have.  Most riders in that pack aren’t used to riding out of their comfort zone and really pushing themselves that hard for 130km.   I believe that all this mysterious cramping simply came from so many riders lacking “race fitness” for that level of racing.  Simple as that.

What causes cramping?

Cramping is caused when a muscle involuntary contracts and does not relax.  While this seems to be due to an abnormal stimulation of the muscle, the exact mechanism is unknown.  There’s all sorts of theories of what causes cramping and there are a couple different cases when cramping occurs.

The first case is many people’s experience in this race.  It simply comes down to the fact that it was a race beyond many people’s current fitness abilities (for this level and type of racing).   Everyone has their theories about “did you have enough magnesium”, “you should try eating bananas”, “you should try my sports drink”, etc.    Cramps are more likely to occur in tired muscles and therefore exercising at higher workloads can increase the likelihood of them.

The other case is when you have an ongoing problem with camping no matter how fit you are.   The theory is that muscle cramps are cause by dehydration and/or electrolyte imbalances when fluid and sodium losses are high.   Sodium is involved in initiating nerve signals that causes muscle contraction .  A deficit of sodium and fluid may “irritate” muscles causing them to contract uncontrollably.  This theory makes sense as cramps usually occur when it is hot out, body fluids are at a low and therefore so are salt levels (a condition called hyponatremia) . Since athletes are always trying to avoid salty foods they could be very susceptible to hyponatremia.  I had a couple of Olympic cyclists stay at my place for a month last year and one thing I noticed was that they put extra salt on absolutely everything they ate. This was their old-school way of preventing cramping which worked well for them.  Research doesn’t always agree with this however.

What can you do when you start cramping on the bike?

I always find that the worst thing you can do when cramping is to stop pedaling. I find that I can usually pull out of it if I keep pedaling lightly no matter how bad the cramp is.   I try to vary the cadence and the pressure on the pedal to see if that helps.  I’ll also stand up and try to engage different muscles in my pedal stroke.  Just keep the legs going around and figure out what works.  You’ll probably find that when you stop pedalling the cramps will be debilitating and you’ll have to stop all together.

Another thing that will also harm you is gulping down a bottle of water thinking that this will hydrate you back to normal.  Lack of water is not the problem, lack of sodium is.   What you’re doing when drinking a bunch of water when already cramping is diluting the sodium concentration in your body which will lead to even more cramping.

Sports Drinks

You do not need to replace all of your sodium losses during exercise, but simply need to consume enough sodium to prevent sodium levels from dropping too low.  When I get time I’ll give some rules of thumb on how to estimate your fluid and sodum loss and how much you need to replace.

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