Cramps are common, painful, and surprisingly mysterious. Find out what you can do to keep them at bay. – By Danielle Kosecki
When it comes to curing muscle cramps, there’s no shortage of folk remedies. Popular “solutions” include drinking pickle juice, eating bananas, stretching, doing plyometrics, or just plain slowing down. Of course, you can also try taking calcium, salt, magnesium, or even quinine (a drug for malaria). Hey, why not? It’s been tried before.
The truth is that although scientists have studied cramps for more than 50 years, we still don’t understand the cause. We do know that some people are inexplicably prone to getting them, while others are perennially cramp free; that cramps are more common during competition, so overexertion seems to be a factor; that they’re common in the hours after prolonged exercise; and that nutrition can play a role for some people. If you suffer from cramps, the ambiguity can be frustrating, but we’ve got some basic guidelines that might help demystify the issue and help you avoid cramping on rides.
Don’t Obsess Over Electrolytes
Many point to electrolytes as a main factor in cramps, becuause of their role in muscle contractions, fluid balance, and nerological impulses. However, it’s not as simple as just “getting more” of them. For example, sodium is a key electrolyte and comes up often in conversations about cramping, but there’s actually little scientific evidence that inadequate sodium intake causes cramps. In one study, 15 runners who developed cramps during a marathon were compared to 67 who didn’t. There were no significant differences in hydration or sodium levels between the two groups.
Another potential culprit, magnesium, plays a role in muscle contraction—and a shortage can indeed result in severe muscle cramps. However, low blood levels of magnesium are rare. In a study of Hawaii Ironman triathletes with cramps, even adding magnesium to intravenous fluids didn’t help.
Finally, although eating potassium-stocked bananas is often cited as a remedy for cramps, there’s little evidence it really helps. Plus, potassium deficiency usually results from using some diuretics, prolonged vomiting, chronic diarrhea, or laxative abuse—not from sweating, which makes it even less relevant for athletic situations.
But Try Boosting Your Sodium Intake Anyway
Most people get more than enough salt in their diets, although sweating cyclists may be an exception. This is especially important if you perspire heavily as too much sweat loss could lead to a sodium deficit in someone on a low-sodium diet, and since sodium plays a role in muscle contraction, we can’t rule out its potential to create cramps.
To zero in on how much sodium you should be consuming, try adding 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams to your usual daily diet for two weeks to see if it helps with your cramps. The concentration of sodium in sweat varies so widely that exact guidelines are impossible to suggest. (Don’t worry about elevating your blood pressure, as increasing your sodium intake moderately for a two-week trial period won’t affect blood pressure over the long term.) If you haven’t noticed fewer cramps in two weeks, low sodium obviously wasn’t the culprit and you should return to your normal intake.
Calf cramps can often be relieved while riding by standing on the bike and dropping the heel at the bottom of the pedal stroke. For cramps in the front of the thigh, unclip your foot and raise it toward your buttocks. Stretch your quads by gently pulling on the foot with the same-side hand. (Be careful: In some cases, this may lead to cramps in your hamstrings!) Stretching can also help relieve cramps that occur after riding.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Dialing in hydration seems to work for some people, even if there is no direct scientific link to indicate its role in cramp prevention. Either way, hydration is always critical to all other aspects of performance, so drink up!
Ride Within Your Limits
Overexertion seems to cause some cramping, so don’t jump into rides that are too hard for your current training level. A good rule: Don’t increase mileage by more than 10 percent a week.
This excerpt originally appeared in the The Bicycling Big Book of Training.