Suffering cramp on long bike rides can be debilitating! And if it hits hard enough, as you may have already experienced, it can be the end of a good bike ride!
Once you get cramp there’s little you can do other than to get off your bike and stretch the muscle in question holding the stretch between 10 to 20 seconds. By stretching the muscle you can sometimes release the gripping muscle contraction and loosen off the cramp. This doesn’t mean it won’t come back again, but it can certainly ‘help’ the pain.
Now this isn’t to say getting off your bike and stretching is ‘always’ the answer. You may find stretching whilst cycling along helps to loosen off cramp you know is about to hit you. Sometimes though ‘getting off the bike’ makes things much worse as you risk your other cycling muscles seizing up altogether too – just because you’ve stopped!
So all in all, the solution really is to look for ways to ‘prevent cramp’ from happening in the first place.
The cause of cramp can be in some cases completely unknown, but in most cases it can be attributed to a combination of factors built up over a long bike ride. The good news is you ‘can’ control these factors to a certain degree, helping you as far as possible to prevent cramp happening again.
Here’s 7 tips to help avoid cramp on long rides:
1. Keep well hydrated - make sure you are drinking regularly throughout any long bike ride. A major cause of cramp is dehydration usually due to a lack of the mineral ‘sodium’ (salt). What’s key is you don’t just drink plain water on bike rides – learn to drink an Isotonic solution. For more on what to drink on long rides, please read How to Keep Hydrated during a Sportive.
2. Up your potassium intake – sometimes a lack of this essential mineral can cause muscles to cramp. Eat bananas on route,and during training, as these are full of potassium! I like to aim to eat one banana a day. Think about adding one to your morning breakfast, or as a mid afternoon snack.
3. Keep your legs warm - getting cold and damp especially on the upper parts of your thighs during a long ride can cause severe cramp. Exposure is a problem specially at this time of year in September and even October because the sun still feels warm during the day, but much cooler late afternoons. Cold can set in if you’ve just gone out in shorts, even if you feel relatively ‘warm’ or ‘holding out ok’ – your muscles are probably stone cold and that’s when cramp can hit hard.
4. Prepare for your events well – sheer effort and pushing yourself far beyond your physical capacities, even if it’s only once, can contribute towards debilitating cramp near the end of a long sportive. You really want to avoid this at all costs, so prepare your fitness months in advance of taking part in say, a 100 miler.
Think about how hilly your course is going to be. The hills put much more demand on your muscles than cycling on the flat, so they need to be ‘ready’ for the challenge ahead. Note also whether the course has steep hills, long hills or shorter hills – then train those muscles accordingly. For example, if your course has very steep hills, you need to train specific muscles for getting ‘out the saddle’ late in the ride – or you’ll be too exhausted to lift yourself out the saddle, causing strain on already tired muscles and possible cramp.
5. Warm up well – lack of warming up your body and muscles prior to hitting the hills can cause muscle cramp and injury. Always, always, ALWAYS – make sure you do at the very minimum a 20-30 minute easy ride so your core body and cycling muscles are warm before setting off.
Prior to an event, you ‘should’ warm up 20 mins prior to your start. But if this is a long ride you’ve got planned, it sometimes makes sense to warm up the first 20 minutes of the ride – so NO blasting away in the first mile of you bike rides or you risk being stopped in your tracks with either cramp, and/or a nasty muscle strain/tear, or at worse a cardiac injury!
6. Wear snug clothing around muscles - tight clothing around muscles like your thighs or calfs can cause cramping if enough blood can’t get to the working muscles. Yes cycling clothing should feel ‘snug’, but never so tight it stops circulation when cycling along.
Bear in mind when cycling, your blood volume expands which means your muscles ‘pump up’ more and this is usually when you notice you’ve got a problem with your kit – rarely in the bike shop! As I’ve mentioned many times before, getting the ‘perfect’ kit does take trial and error in the beginning…
7. Choose shoes which have enough wiggle room – look for shoes that have a degree of ‘wiggle room’ – if they are too tight, or narrow at the toes you can get nasty foot cramp - ouuuch! When trying on new shoes, make sure you wear you usual cycle socks – and even take a winter sock along as well – if it’s a slightly different thickness. No doubt you want the same cycle shoes to be comfy in winter as well as summer so bear the sock thickness in mind here!
As mentioned above, sometimes cramp happens for no apparent reason. If this is the case and it’s starting to happen regularly, sometimes just popping down to the GP office and getting a full blood test can help to detect anything ‘out of balance’.
In most cases though, cramp shouldn’t be a common occurrence, but you’ll want to do your very best to avoid it happening again. Simply run through these 7 causes and you might hit on the very solution you’ve been looking for.
If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, do share with your cycling friends. I also look forward to any comments you might want to add….