How to Avoid Leg Cramps While Cycling

All of us have had them. They strike without warning, and they can ruin the most carefully planned and eagerly awaited of rides.

They’re cramps, and they feel as though Zeus has thrown a thunderbolt at your calf. A cramp is an involuntary contraction or spasm of a muscle, and the pain is sudden and debilitating. Cramps most commonly afflict athletes after they’ve been exercising for extended periods in hot and humid weather. But they can also occur in cold climates and at night when you’re in bed.

The Causes of Cycling Cramps

The cause of cramps is elusive. “There’s a lot that’s not known,” said Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “It’s very hard to study cramping because you can’t cause one.” Several theories exist, but the most common one is dehydration while exercising.

If you are exercising heavily, you can lose large quantities of water through perspiration. When you’re working hard in hot weather, the heat generated by your muscles is carried by the blood to the skin surface to be dissipated.

The sweat glands then release perspiration, which evaporates from the skin and cools your body. If you perspire heavily, you can lose several quarts of water in a few hours. This water loss lowers blood volume, so there’s less blood going to the muscles to deliver oxygen and the muscles can cramp.

Another possible cause related to dehydration is electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are positively and negatively charged ions that are needed for nerve-impulse transmission and muscular function. The electrolytes sodium and potassium, together with calcium and magnesium, help regulate muscle relaxation and contraction.

If there’s an imbalance of these nutrients, muscles may contract involuntarily. Because you lose sodium during extreme sweating, dehydration can contribute to an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolyte imbalance can also occur if you’ve had a prolonged illness, have been vomiting a lot or have had diarrhea.

Muscles that are overly fatigued or overworked are more prone to cramping. Thus, people who are not well trained tend to get more cramps. According to Tommy Tinajero, a personal trainer at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas, cyclists tend to get more cramps in their lower legs.

“The muscles in the upper leg are going through a cycle of contracting and relaxing,” he said. “The lower-leg muscles are not delivering as much power, but they’re contracted and working hard all the time.”

Some people seem to be more susceptible to cycling leg cramps than others, and this may be due to inherently low electrolyte and mineral levels. Cold weather also seems to precipitate cramps in some athletes. Other less common causes include diabetes and circulatory and neurologic disorders. So if you have persistent cramps, you should consult with your doctor.

Several Ounces of Cycling Cramps Prevention

If you suffer from cramps, you can begin by eliminating some of the possible causes. In order to ensure that you’re well hydrated, Clark recommends weighing yourself before and after an hour ride in typical weather conditions and at your usual pace.

You can see how much sweat you’ve lost and replenish that fluid during your workouts. “Say you’ve lost 2 pounds,” Clark hypothesized. “That’s 32 ounces in an hour. Therefore, you know you’ll have to target 8 ounces every 15 minutes during your rides.” Each person differs in how much he sweats, and weather conditions and intensity during exercise also affect fluid loss.

Drinking water or a sports drink before a ride is also important, according to Tinajero. “What would be optimum,” he advised, “is to drink 2 to 4 cups of water a couple of hours before exercising, then another cup right before. Then, drink a half cup to a cup every 15 minutes during your ride, depending on your needs.

The reason you should keep drinking is that by the time you get thirsty, it’s already too late. You’ve already lost 2 or 3 percent [of total body water] by the time you get thirsty, and if you lose 1 percent, you begin to lower performance,” Tinajero explained. Also, drink water after your ride, even after your thirst is satiated.

A lean adult’s body is made up of about 65 percent water by weight. A 1 or 2 percent loss of total body weight can affect performance, and at a 5 percent loss, you can start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion and the capacity of your muscles to work can decrease by 20 to 30 percent.

If you lose 10 percent, heat stroke can occur and seriously endanger your health. It’s important for athletes to stay well hydrated even when they’re not exercising, so don’t let thirst, an inadequate indicator, be your guide on or off the bike. In general, you should consume about 1 quart of water for every 1000 calories you eat.

Tinajero also recommends adding carbohydrates (sugar) to water or diluting a sports drink, such as Gatorade or Ultra Fuel. Taking in carbohydrates with water allows the water to be absorbed faster. However, if you put in too much, it will absorb slower and lead to stomach problems.

Concentrations of 6 to 8 percent are ideal for use when exercising. Since blood is flooding your muscles when you exercise, there’s less available for digestion. If the liquid you’re drinking is too concentrated, your stomach won’t be able to process it. Replacing carbohydrates can also help your muscles stave off fatigue, which can reduce the possibility of cramping.

If you want to rule out sodium depletion, Clark suggests adding some salt to your diet. Although most Americans get more than enough salt in their diets (one teaspoon of salt has 2000 milligrams of sodium, and the daily estimated minimum requirement is 500 milligrams), Clark thinks sodium depletion is more common than generally believed.

There are a lot of people who are on a health kick. They buy salt-free spaghetti sauce, salt-free pretzels. They never use salt. When people are doing a lot of exercises, let’s say a 100-mile bike ride, they can lose a significant amount of salt. They can lose 500 milligrams an hour.

If a cyclist is out there for six hours and his daily diet is low in salt, the loss can be significant,” she explained. You should assess your diet and decide whether inadequate sodium is a possibility.

If you remember the old adage about taking salt tablets, then forget it. Having too much salt can actually dehydrate you. When your body’s sodium level is too high, the kidneys compensate and try to lower it by passing more water, which will leave you dehydrated.

To be sure that you’re getting enough potassium, eat potassium-rich foods such as bananas, potatoes, oranges, peanuts and avocados. These foods are also rich in magnesium, as are beans and peas, whole grain breads, cereals and seafood. The best source of calcium is dairy products (preferably nonfat or lowfat, of course).

However, don’t assume that more is necessarily better when consuming these nutrients. They work in concert with each other and have complex interrelationships; for example, too much calcium might interfere with magnesium absorption. The RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances) are 350 milligrams of magnesium for men and 280 for women, 2000 milligrams of potassium for adults and 800 milligrams of calcium for adults.

When the weather turns warm, take it easy at first and give your body a chance to become acclimated. As you train in the heat, your body adapts and becomes more efficient at handling it.

If you’re in a cold climate and are preparing for an event where it’ll be hot, wear extra clothing during training rides to help your body adapt. To avoid cramping you might also try stretching, Clark advised. Also, whenever you make changes in your equipment which will work your muscles differently, take it easy and work in the new pedals or cleats slowly.

Although no definitive cause for cramps has been identified, several culprits are implicated. To avoid them, maintain electrolyte balance and be well trained before events. And your most faithful companion should be your water bottle. Besides helping to prevent muscle cramps, water is also essential in maintaining vital body processes and for peak athletic performance

Cycling Leg Cramp Relief

When you get a cramp, here are some suggestions for what to do:

  • Gently stretch the affected muscle. If the cramp is in your calf, flex your foot by pointing your toes toward your knee so the calf muscle is stretched.
  • Gently massage the muscle while stretching.
  • Massage your feet using one of this best-rated foot massager
  • Drink water and continue drinking even after your thirst is satiated.
  • Depending on the severity of the cramp, you should stop exercising altogether or continue at a reduced level. According to personal trainer Tommy Tinajero, cramps in hot, humid weather could be a precursor to heat exhaustion, so you should be careful about getting back on your bike after a cramp subsides.

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