Don’t cramp my style: How to beat and treat muscle cramps
Muscle cramps: at best, uncomfortable and inconvenient. At worst, excruciatingly painful and a sure-fire way to bring your race, training session or attempt to nab the Strava KOM/QOM on that local climb, to an abrupt halt.
Cramp is something I’ve struggled with sporadically over the years. When I took up triathlon, as the distances and the training load increased, so did the cramp episodes. Spontaneously leaping up from the dinner table squealing because the arches of my feet had gone into cramp after a particularly tough turbo session. Waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone had taken a butcher’s knife to my calf. And worst of all, getting the dreaded calf cramps while swimming in open water.
It’s something I’ve been trying to get on top of, but every time I think I’ve got a handle on it I find myself getting that all too familiar twitchy pre-cramp feeling when it really matters. Which brings us to last summer. I arrived on the start line of Outlaw Nottingham triathlon, ready to take on the full 140.6-mile distance for the third time. There I was, about 3km in to the 3.8km swim – feeling good and on track for my best ever Iron-distance swim time. And then cramp hit. Not just any cramp, the mother of all cramps. I was in agony and my muscles were so locked up that I couldn’t even tread water and found myself in a pretty scary situation. A ride in the safety boat and 45 minutes of desperately trying to stretch out my calves in the medical tent later, my race was over before I’d even had a chance to properly get started.
Since then, I’ve been taking a no stone unturned approach to working out why this keeps happening. And how I can avoid having to be fished out of the water like a sad little salmon at my next race.
If you’ve ever had a race, sportive or training session ruined by muscle cramps – keep reading. I’ve done the deep dive into how to prevent muscle cramp during exercise, so you don’t have to.
What are muscle cramps and why do they happen?
The type of muscle cramp commonly experienced during exercise is caused by a sudden, excessive and involuntary contraction of a muscle or muscle groups. The exact cause is difficult to pinpoint, and it can be a combination of factors.
As part of my deep dive into solving my own cramp issues, I went to visit physiologist Stella Miric at the Edge Human Performance Lab for advanced sweat testing and some blood sampling. She explained that because cramp is involuntary, it’s very difficult for the experts to study. So there’s a lack of precise, verified information as to why it happens. What we do know, is that there are several potential causes.
Adequate hydration goes beyond stopping yourself from feeling thirsty. Muscle contractions are essentially a chemical reaction, and optimal function relies on having the right levels of electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, calcium and potassium. These electrolytes get depleted when you sweat. Ever noticed weird white marks on your kit after a particularly hard or hot session? Or wiped the sweat from your brow only to notice your skin feels salty? That’s all your precious electrolytes escaping. Dehydration and an imbalance of fluid and electrolytes can lead to a misfiring of the nerve impulses, causing your muscles to cramp.
It’s worth noting too, that dehydration and electrolyte loss occurs not only during exercise. If the weather is warm you’ll generally be sweating more – and therefore losing more electrolytes – during your day-to-day activities, so you’ll need to be even more on top of your hydration levels.
I recently spoke with performance nutritionist (and Stolen Goat fan!) Barbara Cox-Lovesy, who also highlighted the potential for GI distress or other stomach issues to have an impact on how well your body is able to absorb the electrolytes you’re taking on board: “Expending your electrolytes can also occur through poor bowel movements. A lot of my clients with Crohns, colitis and IBS have really poor absorption. Taking a B vitamin supplement can help to improve absorption.” While you may not suffer from a diagnosed bowel condition, if you tend to get a nervous tummy (hey, we’ve all been there!) leading up to a big event it’s worth considering the impact this could be having on your hydration levels and topping up accordingly.
Nutritional deficiencies and a lack of muscle glycogen
Having a balanced diet is also key to ensuring you’ve got all the micronutrients your body needs to function at its best and support you through your training and racing. When I visited the Performance Lab, while my blood markers were mainly within the normal ranges, a few of my levels were slightly out. Indicating possible low levels of nutrients including magnesium and zinc. This in turn could be contributing to my crampy tendencies.
Glycogen is essentially your body’s fuel. Glucose in the food we consume is turned into glycogen and stored in your liver and muscles, ready to be used when your body needs fuel for activities. Not having enough of this energy available to match up with the effort you’re putting out can cause muscular fatigue, resulting in cramp.
Conditioning and exercise intensity
As mentioned above, muscular fatigue can be one of the culprits for cramp. Training the muscles specifically for what is going to be asked of them is key. Ensuring they are conditioned – or “used to” – the exercise that you are going to carry out plays an important role. Another factor in fatigue is working at an intensity or for a duration that is harder or longer than your body is used to. This is why you’ll quite often see people rolling around on the side of the road at the latter stages of sportives and triathlons as the overall fatigue of the event kicks in and their muscles decide they are no longer on board.
Cramp can also occur when muscles are being held in a contracted state for a long time: essentially, if you’re tensing up there’s a strong chance you’re going to get cramp. It might be over-pointing your toes when you’re swimming, or overcooking it when you’re really pushing hard to get up a climb on the bike. For me, I’ve really noticed that my fun new fear of getting cramp is almost creating this vicious-cycle where I’m so tense and stressed about getting cramp – that I give myself cramp in the process. “Relax… take it eeeee-eeea-sy”
How to prevent muscle cramps
We know that staying hydrated and maintaining a balance of electrolytes is key to performing at our best and preventing muscle cramps. But often, we’ll focus on hydrating during training or racing, and neglect to think about it beforehand. The sweat experts over at Precision Hydration highlight the importance of being properly hydrated before you start exercising: “Once you begin sweating you’re generally going to be fighting a losing battle against fluid and electrolyte loss, so starting off properly hydrated can be extremely beneficial… there’s strong evidence that taking in additional sodium with fluids before you start sweating is effective in promoting increased acute fluid retention and in improving endurance performance, especially in the heat.”
Particularly before a big event, when we’re far more conscious of our hydration levels than we would typically be day-to-day, we can fall into the trap of drinking a lot of plain water because we want to be hydrated. The risk here is that “over drinking” could actually be diluting your electrolytes. Starting your training or race dehydrated, or having low blood sodium because you’ve been drinking too much plain water or weak sports drinks, can leave you at risk of cramp.
“Pre-loading” with an electrolyte solution gives you a reservoir to draw upon when your body starts to deplete its stores. Taking electrolytes on board in the days leading up to your race will help to keep things balanced. On race morning, aim to drink an electrolyte solution – paying attention to the dilution rate that your chosen brand recommends (e.g. 1 tablet/sachet in 500ml of water) – before you start. In my case, physiologist Stella Miric from the Edge Human Performance Lab recommended that I aim to finish this drink around 45 minutes before I’m due to start. We all sweat differently, so experiment with your timing in training to find what works best for you.
This “pre-loading” of electrolytes will give your body a good reserve, but as the race unfolds – particularly in hot conditions – it’s vital to keep topping up. So make sure you practice taking on electrolytes in training, find a drink (or salt tablets) that work well for you, and ensure you use them during your race.
If, like me, you tend to suffer from those horrible middle-of-the-night cramps after a tough race or training day, make sure you also replenish your electrolyte stores after training. My new rule? Electrolytes first, celebratory beer later!
The bottom line: the first step in keeping cramp at bay is ensuring you’re properly hydrated before you get moving, and then maintaining these hydration levels throughout your activity so that you can perform at your best.
Nutrition and fuelling
- Day to day nutrition
Nutrition, and how effectively our bodies are absorbing micronutrients such as magnesium, can play a huge role in how our muscles are functioning. Foods such as leafy green vegetables and almonds contain natural magnesium, and are a great addition to your diet to help optimise your performance. I recently asked performance nutritionist Barbara Cox-Lovesy for her top tips in preventing cramp (stay tuned for the full Q&A, coming soon). Alongside hydration, she also highlighted the importance of considering hydration alongside nutritional intake: “You need to take a look at your hydration strategy in between your meals. So when you eat, eat. That way, you’re absorbing all the magnesium and nutrients from the food that you’re having. Then hydrate with an electrolyte solution in between your meals, so that both of those things are working really well.”
If you do tend to struggle with tummy troubles, then take steps to ensure you’re properly absorbing your nutrients. Barbara suggests: “Get a B complex vitamin supplement for extra absorption. Good bacterial cultures can also help in this situation because our gut microbiome needs to be in top condition for our general wellbeing anyway, but it can also be an indicator of how we’re absorbing our electrolytes, vitamins and minerals. So taking a really good live bacteria culture can help with absorption also.”
- Fuelling during your race or training sessions
Muscle cramps have also been linked to glycogen depletion. Carbohydrates provide glucose which supply your muscles with energy. If you’re not taking on enough fuel, your muscles can’t function as they should, so eat up! Barbara suggests aiming for between 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour – depending on the intensity you’re working at, and what your stomach can tolerate. If you’ve previously found yourself getting cramp in the latter stages of your race, it’s worth experimenting with taking a little more fuel on board and being consistent with your intake.
As ever, the golden rule of not trying anything new on race day applies, so this is where testing out different nutrition strategies during training is key to helping you up your game when it really matters.
The bottom line: nutrient deficiencies or muscular fatigue due to a lack of glycogen can contribute to cramp. Fine tune your day-to-day nutrition, and on race day keep fuelling up with carbohydrates alongside your electrolyte solution to give your muscles everything they need to get you to the finish line.
Mobility and event-specific training
Tight muscles. Tired muscles. Overworked muscles. They’re all going to be far more likely to go into cramp. For us cyclists and triathletes, we can tend to focus on our hard training sessions and neglect things like stretching. Let’s face it, after a tough day in the saddle the couch looks far more appealing than the yoga mat! But taking the time to give your body some TLC with some gentle mobility work (there are plenty of brilliant cycling-specific yoga videos over on YouTube) and if you can, getting sports massages, can be hugely beneficial.
We know that fatigue is likely to be a piece of the puzzle when it comes to why we can experience cramp, so it’s important to really make sure that your training sessions are preparing you specifically for the event you’re taking on. That means having the right mix of volume and intensity. For instance, if you’ve previously experienced cramp trying to power up a climb on the bike, then adding in hill repeats and gym work to your training will help to better prepare your muscles for what you’re demanding of them.
Finally, think about your form. It might sound counterintuitive, but try to relax into your race effort. From personal experience, if I’m tensing up with my shoulders up by my ears and my knuckles turning white on the aero bars my perceived effort is higher and I’m actually going slower. Holding your muscles in this tensed position could contribute to cramp so try to take a breath, relax into the effort and let your body do it’s thing.
The bottom line: tight, fatigued muscles being asked to perform activities they’re not used to are far more likely to go into cramp. Train smart, recover well and don’t neglect your yoga mat!
What to do if cramp strikes
As I mentioned at the start, because cramp is an involuntary muscle contraction it is incredibly difficult for the experts to study – meaning you can do everything right and it can still happen! While my strategy of rolling around the floor, working my way through my metaphorical swear word thesaurus does feel quite satisfying, there are a few more practical steps you can take to ease things off if the worst happens.
If you feel the warning signs of a muscle threatening to cramp – that horrible, tight “twitchy” sensation – then immediately reduce the pace or even stop and rest if you can. Sometimes just reducing your speed/effort can be enough to nip a minor cramp in the bud before it fully takes hold. Get some hydration on board, and gently start moving or picking up the pace again when you feel ready.
If a full-blown cramp hits, the best way to get rid of it is to stretch out the affected muscle. For example with a calf cramp, flex your toes towards your shin. Massage the affected area and try some gentle movement. Again, get some electrolytes and carbohydrates on board as soon as you can. At this stage, you’re firefighting so throw everything you’ve got at it! And remember: no finisher t-shirt or Strava segment cup is worth a long-term injury, so listen to your body and pull the pin on the session or event if you need to. It’s disappointing, but it’s better to keep yourself healthy and be ready to come back fighting another day.
Race morning: your anti-cramp checklist
- Pre-load with an electrolyte solution and a good pre-race meal to ensure your body is properly fuelled and hydrated before you start your race.
- Warm up properly before the start so your muscles are ready to work.
- Keep your electrolytes and glycogen levels topped up throughout the event by implementing a tried and tested fuelling strategy.
- Relax into your race effort and pace yourself well to avoid premature fatigue.
- Keep tuned in to your body – if you feel the first signs of cramp, reduce your effort for a short while and get some extra fluids and fuel on board to keep it at bay.
Here’s to a successful, cramp-free race season Herd!