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Preventing & Treating Cramps
Cramps are the result of local muscle fatigue, fatigued nerves and/or sodium losses.
by John Hughes
© John Hughes 2011, All Rights Reserved
John Hughes, the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach.
A cramp occurs when the nerves tell the muscle to tighten as a defensive measure to keep it from stretching too rapidly. Exercise physiologists have several theories on why cramps occur:
- Local muscle fatigue. When an auxiliary muscle (hamstring, calf, adductor, etc.) is weak relative to a primary muscle (quadriceps, gluteal), it may fatigue prematurely and cramp.
- Fatigue of nerves. As nerves fatigue during prolonged exercise they become more excitable, and more likely to overreact by cramping to prevent a muscle from stretching too quickly.
- Sodium losses. Sodium losses from sweating or not consuming enough sodium during exercise also make the nerves more excitable. Physiologists differ whether sodium depletion causes cramps.
One or several may operate if a cramp grabs you.
To prevent cramps:
- Stretch regularly throughout the week and at rest stops.
- Increase overall fitness so that fatigue is less of a factor.
- Train auxiliary muscles for muscle balance.
- Warm up before and cool down after hard rides.
- Pace yourself during a ride so that cumulative fatigue is less of a factor.
- Drink enough fluid to satisfy your thirst, but dont overdrink, which risks hyponatremia (low blood sodium).
- Consume sodium during hot rides of more than several hours. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 500 - 700 mg of sodium per liter of fluid (quart). Sports drinks dont have this much. Tomato and V-8 juice, dill pickles, deli turkey and salty pretzels are all good sources as are plain salt tabs from the pharmacist.
- Vary your position on the bike, stand and sit, coast and stretch your calves and hamstrings.
To treat cramps:
- Break the cramp by gently stretching the affected muscle.
- Flush the cramp by pedaling with the affected muscle working slightly and otherwise just going along for the ride