Cramp basics - Road Cycling UK

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Cramp basics

Getting cramp is unpleasant at the best of times; when it strikes during an event you’ve been targeting for months, it’s not just painful, it’s downright infuriating.

In many ways, the precautions you can take to prevent cramp are a lot like the precautions you would take to prevent mechanical failures on your bike: in the same way that you’re less likely to puncture brand-new tyres, you’re less likely to get cramp with well-conditioned, well rested legs.

Scientists are unsure of the exact causes of cramp but as you will probably have noticed, it occurs most often when you push your body beyond its normal limits, be that going further than you’re used to, or having to go harder than normal, say in a sprint.

The first theories of exercise-induced cramp were put forward at the turn of the twentieth century when scientists described cramping in people working in hot, humid environments such as mines and steamships. This led to the still-popular theory that cramps are caused by an imbalance of electrolytes (salts and other minerals) within the muscles. While this is likely a contributing factor in many cases, it’s been noted that cramp occurs just as often in conditions that can only be described as “neutral”, where dehydration is not a problem, as it does in extremely hot environments. This means that electrolyte depletion cannot be the sole cause of exercise-induced cramp. Further theories have abounded and one of the most recent is that when the muscle becomes fatigued, the electrical nerve impulses within the muscle become unbalanced, causing the muscle to lock up. Under this theory it’s been suggested that riders who don’t stretch very often are more prone to cramp because the stretch receptors in the muscles (they’re the things that cause the muscle to contract in the famous “knee-jerk reaction”) are more sensitive – i.e. they work too well and therefore contribute more to the cramp – than they would do if the rider stretched more regularly.

If you do find yourself suffering from cramp while you’re riding, your immediate response should be to stretch the affected muscle. Anyone who’s watched a professional race on TV will have seen riders unclipping a foot and stretching their thighs by putting their foot on the saddle behind them and squatting slightly on their clipped in leg. You can stretch the calf by standing out of the saddle and pushing your heel towards the ground. It’s worth practising both these stretches whilst training so that should you ever need them in an event, you’ll feel confident enough to put them into practise.

Once you’ve got cramp it’s pretty hard to get rid of it without reducing the intensity you’re riding at. Obviously we want to avoid that possibility at all costs and the only way to do that is by preventing cramp occurring in the first place. Here are our top tips for preventing cramp:

1. Conditioning:
Yep, when it comes to preventing cramp, there’s no substitute for training. If you’ve entered something like the Etape or a Gran Fondo you’re going to need to get in some rides of similar duration beforehand if you want to remain cramp free during the event. It’s also worth getting used to the conditions – if you’re going to be riding an event in intense heat, spending time riding in similar heat in training is well worthwhile. If, like most people, you can’t run to spending a fortnight doing warm weather training before the event your targeting, it might be worth spending a couple of sessions per week riding a turbo-trainer indoors where the heat and humidity will be higher.

2. Stretching:
We’ve never been great believers in stretching for recovery and injury prevention but the argument that stretching helps prevent cramp seems watertight to us. Spending time stretching the major cramp-prone muscles after every ride will help de-train the stretch reflex so that the electrical impulses within the muscle remain more coherent even when the muscle is fatigued.

3. Nutrition:
Under which heading we also include hydration: if you let yourself get dehydrated you’re at greater risk of suffering from cramp so make sure that you always have a good supply of fluid with you, especially when you’re riding beyond your normal limits. In terms of nutrition, cramp can be caused by carbohydrate depletion so it is essential that you remember to eat little and often during long events to keep your energy levels up.

As we mentioned earlier, electrolyte depletion is thought to cause cramps; using a branded sports drink throughout your ride will make sure that your electrolyte levels don’t drop too drastically. If you’re competing in a hot environment and haven’t had a chance to properly acclimatise before the event, it is worth supplementing your diet with slightly more salt than usual in the lead-up to the event. In place of normal salt, we’d recommend the brand Lo-Salt because it looks like salt and tastes like salt but it doesn’t
elevate blood pressure as much as pure sodium salt, and it gives you a useful additional source of potassium – another electrolyte that’s needed by the muscles to prevent cramp.

4. Supplements:
If you have suffered from cramp in the past you could try drinking tonic water in the lead-up to an event. Tonic water contains quinine, a chemical that has been proven to help treat cramp. Everyone is different physiologically and quinine may not work for you but we know of a number of riders who have enjoyed great success since incorporating tonic water into their pre-race rituals, so it might be worth a try.

In summary, most riders are familiar with cramp and for the majority cramp occurs simply as a result of being under prepared for the event they are participating in. More training will normally suffice to make cramping a thing of the past. It is also important to make sure that you stretch regularly and take care of what you eat and drink, especially before and during your ride.

Here’s to a long summer of cramp-free riding!


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