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The Noob’s Guide: How To Avoid Cramping Up After Cycling

July 2013
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Many cyclists who have put in more than a few hours worth of hard miles on their bike in one day, one time or another, have cramped up. There are several reasons that can cause cramping or at least stiffness after a hard effort. I had one century last year where I cramped up miserably afterwards – it was so bad I was actually laughing on the way home… I drive a stick-shift. It wasn’t pretty.

Because this is my blog, I’ll concentrate on the one’s I’ve had to deal with:

Electrolytes/Lack of Salt. For this particular century, it was hot. mid-90’s hot. I had a Camelbak with a couple of pounds of water in it and two water bottles. I filled up the bottles at every stop and drank like it was going out of style. All told, and yes I counted, I drank 300 ounces of water over the 100 miles. My fitness tracking software gives hydration suggestions based on temps and weather conditions and I was within ten ounces of it’s suggested amount. My average speed ended up around 19 mph but I averaged 21 for my first 50. In other words, it was a pretty fast day on top of the heat. Well I finished in a lot better shape than a few of the guys I’d been riding with but we were all suffering at the end. Sure enough as soon as I crawled off of my bike I was hit with severe cramps – and not just in my legs… My core, arms, hands – everything was cramping. I hit the remnants of a bottle of Gatorade that I had sitting in my truck. On the way home I was hit with an unmistakable craving for a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, something I rarely eat, so I saddled up to the nearest drive thru and ordered a double, large with a Coke and inhaled everything. Within a few minutes the cramps stopped and I was right as rain. It was the salt. My body was craving the highest sodium content food it knew. Later, after some research, I learned that I’d actually been diluting what little electrolytes I had left in my body by drinking so much water. After that episode, I switched to one bottle of sport drink and one water and haven’t had a problem since. Also, after every ride more than 80 miles, I make sure to hit a McDonald’s drive thru for that double Quarter Pounder and fries (though I’m opting for something other than soda now, usually Iced Tea or maybe lemonade). Now, your requirements may be differ from mine. If you pay attention, your body will tell you what it wants (within reason) in the form of a craving.

Bike Fit. I’ve got my bike set up perfectly, often within a millimeter of exactly where I need each component… Saddle height and fore-aft, stem height and length, bar angle, hood location, cleat angle – the whole nine yards. Some were set by Matt, our local bike man. Some were trial and error and the saddle height was a combination of the two. Last year I had a tough time with my right shoulder tightening up after 20 miles or so. After 100, the pain was pretty severe. The culprit? My left hood was slightly lower than the right so I had to reach just an eighth of an inch more with my left hand, putting more pressure on my right arm and shoulder. The imbalance is what had my shoulder in knots. Every component on my bike that can be adjusted is equally important. Take my cleats; I’ve got Look Keo Classic Pedals and I had the cleats set at my bike shop. After 500 miles or so I noticed that my left hamstring was tightening up, big time. So much that I had a tough time running. The culprit? I had to move my left cleat in a half a millimeter so that my left heel kicked in about a centimeter or so. No more hamstring issues. Saddle height, same story – now I’m set, through trial and error, to within a millimeter of perfect. Every adjustable component on a bike has to be very close to just right for the bike to be comfortable over a long distance – especially when you’re talking about average speeds over 18 mph for that distance.

Hydration. This one is very simple. If you don’t drink enough, you will hurt. All over. For a century, in the heat of the summer, figure 2.7 to 3 ounces per mile and you should be good (do the math, that’s a lot of H2O and sport drink).

Now, if you’ve ever hit “the wall”, this pain can also be associated with some form of cramping. It isn’t. Depending on your fitness level and which heart rate zones you regularly train in, it should hit between 40 and 80 miles somewhere. We’re talking about a nagging pain, nothing major but it pretty much hurts all over… Hitting the wall is your body switching from burning carbs to burning fat, because you’re pretty much out of carbs at that point. Now, if you regularly train in zone two, your body is much more accustomed to burning fat so the transition will be easier on your system (I didn’t even hit a wall – not even close – on my 4th of July ride). Also, there are things you can do to aid the process as well, such as eating some form of energy product (Gu Roctane, Jelly Belly Energy Beans, etc.) with caffeine. The caffeine helps your body switch over. And yes, it works.

Now, if you don’t have caffeinated jelly beans, fear not! I’ve ridden out of the wall a couple of times – it feels like getting a second wind, it just hurts for a while. If you find that you can’t ride out of it – this happened to me once at the 150k mark of a 200k ride – pull over and take a few minutes to lay down and stretch out on the ground. When you’re well rested, resume. The one time I did this, I rode the last 50k at a faster pace than I did for the first 150.

So those are my big four. Electrolytes, Fit, Hydration, Wall. Or to keep it simple: EFHW… Uh, well we can be sure I won’t be working for the government any time soon.

UPDATE:  The All Seasons Cyclist added, in the comments section, this:  “One thing your forgot: CALCIUM! Calcium is wonderful at preventing cramps during exercise. I use the Skratch Labs Hydration mix and it has calcium in it (you could also just take a Tums tablet during a ride).”

I’ve never had a calcium problem – in fact after my last round of blood work was analyzed it turns out I’ve got quite a bit extra running around my system.  That said, I have nothing but respect for him and I wanted to add his comment to this post.


5 Comments

  1. I can definitely second these! Back cramping was a problem for me (particularly in races) until I started doing exercises that improved my back strength.

    Hydration always seems to be a constant battle for me – at the end of race earlier this season, I stood up to sprint and both my hamstrings seized! From top 10 to off the back in seconds!

    Great post!

  2. One thing your forgot: CALCIUM! Calcium is wonderful at preventing cramps during exercise. I use the Skratch Labs Hydration mix and it has calcium in it (you could also just take a Tums tablet during a ride).

  3. I had problems with cramping as well. Did the bike fit and that certainly helped a lot and was worth every penny (though my insurance actually paid for the bike fit under physio). It took a lot of trail and error before I was able to find an electrolyte solution that worked for me. The NUUN product have been a life saver. I also now carry small snacks which I did not before. It is all a learning experience.

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