Muscle cramps are a common issue among even the most athletic and experienced cyclists.They range from small annoyances that pass quickly, to debilitating pain that can last for hours.
Although muscle cramps are common; they’re also unpredictable, frustrating, and can scupper even the best laid out cycling plans. Dealing with cramps isn’t easy because there isn’t a single specific cause for them, nor is there a magic cure. The good news is that we’re here to help demystify the issue, and to provide you with the know-how to identify some of the most-understood causes, and how to take precautions to avoid them altogether, prevention is better than cure after all!
What are cramps and what causes them?
To put it plainly, cramps are painful involuntary spasms, or contractions of a muscle, or a group of muscles, that causes mild to intense pain, and usually appear during or immediately after exercise.
More scientifically, receptors within muscles and tendons constantly monitor your body’s movement, sending reflexed signals to protect your muscles from potential damage.
One reflex encourages muscle contraction (to prevent overstretching) while the other promotes relaxation (to control tension). If these normally balanced reflexes are disrupted, the contraction signal can overwhelm the relaxation one – the result is cramp.
Cycling requires repetitive use of the same muscle groups, which inevitably causes tiredness and can disrupt the normal efficient pathways which control our muscle movement. The point where this starts to happen depends on many variables such as your fitness levels and energy stores, but also on external factors such as temperature and altitude.
So, with the scientific part over with, let’s have a look at the frequent causes of cramps:
Lack of training and preparation
Demanding your legs to do a job they aren’t used to doing is a recipe for muscle cramping.
There are two ways to prevent cramping from muscle fatigue, pacing and training. Don’t jump into rides that are too hard for your current training level, instead, train at an intensity that suits your fitness level and pace yourself during your ride to reflect this.
If you are looking to improve your riding level and want to do so without risking cramps, a good rule to follow is to increase your weekly mileage by 10% at most. It’s also beneficial to stretch regularly to keep your muscles supple and able to handle sudden changes in intensity.
This also goes for excessive training. If your muscles are still fatigued when you hop on the bike, they just won’t work as well as they normally would. It’s so important to give your body time to recover from tough efforts, not only because recovered muscles are stronger and less sore, but also they’re better able to fully store the minerals you need that are essential for good cycling performance.
This is a common cause of cramp. Water contains minerals that are essential to normal muscle function, a loss of fluid due to sweating during prolonged and intense exercise, therefore means a loss of minerals, which contributes to the development of cramps.
Hydration is always critical to all aspects of performance, so drink up!
Nutrition is arguably your greatest ally in the war against cramps. Providing your muscles with enough nutrition, and the right kind of nutrients will allow them to work better, fast and longer; helping to keep those dreaded cramps at bay.
Four types of food you should prioritise as a cyclist are:
Sodium rich foods. When your body sweats to keep from overheating, it excretes not only water, but also salts. Salt is necessary to regulate those mixed signals that cause cramps. Too much salt in your die can cause high blood pressure, so avoid chowing down on fistfuls of salty nuts, and replace them with high-sodium, whole-grain foods.
Potassium rich foods. Along with sodium, potassium is essential to regulate the electrical signals than can cause muscles to contract. Potassium rich foods include bananas, beans, dates, spinach, and broccoli.
Calcium rich foods. Low calcium levels in your body can also lead to muscle cramps, and since cycling is a low impact endurance exercise that makes you sweat a lot, you’ll need to get plenty of this particular mineral in your diet to help maintain a healthy body.
Carbohydrate rich foods. Because cycling is an endurance sport, depletion of the body’s glycogen is an inevitable consequence. And since glycogen is primarily stored in your muscles, it’s estimated that the lower those levels are, the more likely you are to cramp.
Poor bike fit
A poor bike fit is often one of the triggers for muscle cramps, especially when it comes to saddle and handlebar height. When the bike saddle is too high, the hamstrings, calves and soles of your feet are forced to perform a greater workload which leads to cramping. The same goes for the quads if the saddle is too low.
If you’ve been keeping up to date with our blog for a while, you’ll know that we sound like a broken record when we tell you to get a proper bike fit! A bike fit will help prevent injuries, improve overall performance on the bike and enhance your overall comfort and efficiency.
By now you may be one step closer to enjoying your rides without living in fear of your next cramp attack. Here are some other handy tips to keep in mind when preparing for your next outing:
• Avoid the hottest hours of the day and hydrate before, during and after each ride. Try to drink between half a litre of water, or better yet, isotonic drink, for every hour of your route.
• Don’t go hungry during a ride. Try to eat something every 45 minutes, even if you don’t have a banana to hand, a bar of chocolate is better than nothing.
• If you’re setting off on a long ride, do a good recharge of carbohydrates 48 hours prior to departure so that your muscles can accumulate maximum energy.
• Avoid caffeine, being a diuretic it causes mild dehydration.
You can follow all of the tips above and still fall prey to the dreaded cramp, when this happens, it’s best to slow down, hydrate and rest. If you can, get off your bike and do a few stretches, massaging helps too. Most importantly, get a good night’s kip!