Biking or Running Cramps — What Can Be Done?

You know if you have ever run or ridden a bike, you have at one time or another experienced cramping. I am not talking about weak side stitches — those are the little puny brother to the big and burly cramps that I am talking about. I am talking about the type of cramps that freeze your ability to move because they incapacitate your hamstrings, calves, or lower back. We have all had them and swore than we would never have them again. What causes them, how do you deal with them while exercising, and how can you prevent them in the future?

Running Cramps

Known Causes

A muscle cramp is a forceful and involuntary contraction of a muscle or muscle group and does not relax. The truth is that nobody knows what the true cause of a cramp is. I think it is because there are several contributing factors that create cramps during and after vigorous exercise. I know I have gotten a heavy duty cramp while exercising and sometimes hours later when I am sitting or lying down. I think the best way to explain the cause of a cramp for endurance athletes is an imbalance in hydration or mineral levels. Specifically, cramps are more likely when an athlete becomes dehydrated or has low potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Some people also believe that a lack of “salt” from sweating also causes cramps.

I generally get cramps when I have been running or biking for a very long time. I will generally get them in my calves during or after a swim and in my hamstrings during or after a long bike or run. You know how they start — you feel a twinge in the muscle that isn’t normal and you know…the train is coming down the track. While preventing them during a workout is optimal, sometimes you slip on your nutrition strategies and you need to get a solution for a cramp that is immediate and if possible, allows you to continue with your workout or your race.

How Do You Deal with them on the Run?

Optimally, you will stay hydrated during your entire run or workout. I try to get 24 ounces of liquids per hour during a workout of more than 90 minutes. Staying hydrated (taking hyponatremia out of the equation) is obviously one of the most important things for you to focus on during workouts. Getting dehydrated during a workout is the fastest way to end your day. You will lose about 32 ounces of water during an hour of exercise and you cannot replenish it as fast as you lose it. You need to focus on your hydration from the very beginning of your workout.

Of course hydration isn’t the only factor that contributes to cramps — a mineral imbalance in your body from sweat loss will also hurt your ability to perform. There are different schools of thought on supplementation during exercise, and I fall into the camp of it is important to put electrolytes into your body during your sessions. There are lots of companies that produce some type of electrolyte replacement, and I have probably tried them all. You guys know I don’t review products that I don’t use nor do I take money from companies for posting a review, so I hope you feel my opinion is pretty objective because it is.

I am absolutely sold on Endurolytes from Hammer Nutrition.  I take two tablets per hour while biking or running in addition to any other nutrition I consume. I have been taking Endurolytes for about four years now and do not see the need to try anything else. Hammer Nutrition also tried to knock off the wildly popular Nuun tablets which many of my friends use. I don’t know why Hammer did that, but I guess they have their reasons. Endurolytes are the absolute best electrolyte replacement tablets on the market and I generally do not have a challenge with cramping during training or racing.

However, during Ironman St. George I did start to experience “the twinge” in my hamstrings about mile 10 of the marathon. I had experienced that situation before, so I took two Endurolytes and chewed them up and swallowed them with a cup of water. I swear it tasted like licking a tray full of chalk, but they did the trick. No kidding, withing about 60 seconds the twinge was absolutely gone and I just continued with my regular schedule of two tablets per hour.

Prevention

The best way to prevent cramps on the run and during cycling is to go into your workout well hydrated. As an endurance athlete it is an absolute requirement for you to drink more water than sedentary people. I have a goal of 100 ounces of water outside of workouts every day. Recent studies have also shown it is important to maintain a low sodium diet. Stretching after a short warm-up and after your cool-down is also a good way to prevent cramping. I also supplement during workouts with two Endurolytes each hour. It is tough to remember to take them during a workout, but I have developed a pretty solid system.

What advice do you follow to prevent and stop cramping? What are your fool-proof remedies for cramping?

About the Author

I have been participating in running and triathlons for 10 years and love the feeling that training provides. You may not agree with me, but you know you just can't look away...