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How can I avoid cramping?

Despite cramping being a relatively common occurrence for cyclists, the causes of cramping and strategies to prevent them are often misunderstood. 

Cramping is a complex phenomenon resulting from multiple factors occurring under fatiguing conditions. Because there is not one specific mechanism or situation that will result in cramping, it's often difficult to predict, replicate, or prevent. Athletes often go down one path of correction at a time (hydration or electrolytes or pickle juice/shots) in an attempt to prevent cramping, but a successful strategy requires a more high-level and comprehensive approach during training and on event days. 

Fatigue or one of the many factors that contribute to fatigue can also contribute to cramping. The mechanisms underlying muscle cramping are likely related to nerves involved in muscle contractions and the central nervous system. Inadequate training or preparation relative to event day effort is one common scenario for cramping. This could be due to the higher race day intensity, duration, or both. Improper technique or position on the bike and overpacing could also result in muscle overuse, excessive muscle fatigue and pain, which could all contribute to cramps.

Cramping also becomes more likely when other stressors become factors on race day, such as inadequate sleep, inadequate carbohydrate intake, excessive caffeine use, heat or humidity, dehydration or hyperhydration, anxiety, or any combination thereof. The complex part is that any of these factors in any combination can lead to cramping, but the factors can vary by individual, environment, and race setting/situation. 

Using race simulation during training is an excellent way to learn about our physiology and to prepare our bodies for race-specific stressors. Some areas to focus on include:

  • working on fatigue resistance during training

  • doing dynamic workouts instead of only steady state intervals

  • refining your hydration and carbohydrate intake strategy

  • training in event-like conditions (course and environmental conditions)

  • training adequate duration and intensity

  • practicing race starts and finishes

  • heat acclimation

  • biomechanics and bike fit

  • race day cooling strategies for hot weather conditions

No one ever said performance was easy! The body and all the physiological factors that contribute to performance are complex, but addressing the items above will greatly increase our odds for performing well without cramps.


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