How to Prevent Muscle Cramps When Cycling

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by Rebecca

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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….

 

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Alasdair September 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Is there a link missing from point 1?

And, personally, bananas are the best food ever.

Alasdair.

Reply

Rebecca September 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Hi Alasdair – yes so I see there is a link missing! Will fix that asap!! Apologies.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention

Rebecca

Reply

Alasdair September 6, 2011 at 9:06 am

Rebecca,

No need for apologies; we’ve all done stuff like that. But now it’s fixed people reading it now are going to wonder what I was on about! :-)

I have a related question. How do you manage to stay hydrated if you are doing a long training run? Are you able to carry enough liquid on the bike? Or do you plan some stops at village shops?

Alasdair.

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Craig September 6, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for sharing Rebecca – I completed my first cyclosportive a week or so ago and in my excitement/nerves/naivety I didn’t eat or drink enough during the ride meaning about 70km in I suffered from terrible muscle cramps. Frustratingly I even knew I wasn’t eating/drinking enough while riding but I kidded myself that I’d be ok.

As you suggest here the only way I could carry on was to get off my bike – easier said that done I found! – and stretch for a few minutes. The last 30km were painful to say the least.

I’ve taken your advice and started a training/ride diary – as a result I’ve realised that one of the reasons I sometimes don’t eat enough is that I can find it a bit difficult to unwrap food while cycling (particularly if the weather isn’t too good and I’ve got my head down focusing on getting home): lession learnt … I’m now unwrapping energy bars/bananas before my rides and then losely rewrapping them in aluminium foil – much easier I find!

Thanks again

Reply

Rebecca September 6, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Hi Craig – first off big congrats on finishing your first sportive! – these are all mistakes every experienced cyclist has made and it’s great to see you learning from your mistakes :-) . Yes, just because you’re ‘comfortable’ food-wise, doesn’t mean it’s going to last like that I’m afraid…my tip here is eat early ‘anyway’ no matter how well you feel…

As to unwrapping cereal bars etc, – it’s always a bit tricky! The important lesson here is you MUST, must, must make sure you prioritise your eating at regular intervals above anything else – even if it means fighting the darn wrapper and stopping to get it open (been there many times!!) – you HAVE to eat… Yes, snitching them open slightly before rides helps too…

But hey – big congrats – it’s your FIRST after all! And let’s hope your next sportive is much more enjoyable over the last 30km!

Rebecca

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Mark December 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

On my first 100 mile sportive earlier this year – I had terrible cramps in my quads after 70 miles or so. It was hilly > 3000m of climbing and I have little recollection of my eating during the first ~4 hours. I drank both bottles between feed stations. I eat bananas daily and during the ride if available.

My second 100 mile ride I was more diciplined regarding eating and took Nuun in my bottles. I was with two freinds and the pace was higher that I’d have liked. I got a twinge of cramp at 50 miles on a climb ( and thought oh no not again !…). I backed off the pace to keep my heart rate down and had no further cramps on that occasion even on the bigger climbs later on. Bananas at every feed station.

Its point #4 that’s interested me. Particularly as my cramps seem linked to exertion. Preparing for a hilly sportive – due to family commitments I cannot do an 8 hour ride in hills – the most I can squeeze in is 3-4 hours ever 2-3 weeks. Most of my riding is an hour at lunch or 2 hours in the morning on an extended commute into work(when light enough). I’be be interested in your tips for preparing for a hilly 100 mile event.

Thanks,

Mark

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