Monday, April 11, 2011

Muscle Cramps - Even With The Pros!

We all have a full load, no time for a warm up for our sport of choice. We don't take the time to warm up and just hit it. The same people wonder why they have cramps? Perhaps these are the same people who don't eat lunch and gain weight?

It is still winter in much of the country! It is here in Idaho, and you can't believe how many shorts are being see even when its in the 40's? I am hearing many are getting muscle cramps, even the pros?

Who gets cramps? What is the cause? What are the symptoms? What the best prevention?

Have you ever experienced a "charley horse" or someone give you a "frog"? If yes, you probably still remember the sudden, stiff/tight intense pain caused by a muscle locked in spasm. This time of year many head from the cold to some place like UT. They hit the trail, more worried about the weight of the bike v. H2O? Fun going out, bad coming back.

A cramp is an involuntary & forcibly contracted muscle that doesn't relax. A cramp can affect any muscle under your voluntary control. Most of the time the muscle that cramps spans 2 joints, involving part or all, or several muscles in a group.

The most commonly affected muscle groups are:

1 - Back of lower leg/calf (more so the gastrocnemius)
2- Back of thigh (hamstrings) from poor saddle location
3- Front of thigh (quadriceps) from both handlebar and saddle placement.

Cramps in feet, hands, arms, abdomen, and along the rib cage are also very common.

Who Gets Cramps

Just about everyone! It can happen while doing any physical exertion or exercise, even the slightest movement that shortens a muscle can trigger a cramp.

The greatest risk are the aging, those who are ill, overweight, overexerted, take drugs or certain medications, therefore more subject to fatigue. Cramps often develop near the end of intense or prolonged exercise (4-6 hours later).

Older people are more susceptible to cramps due to normal muscle loss (atrophy) that begins in the mid-40s and accelerates w/ inactivity. "But I use to knock this out"? Fact, you body loses its sense of thirst and its ability to sense and respond to changes in temperature.

Its cold, I don't need a drink? A sure way to get an ouch!


The exact cause of muscle cramps is unknown (idiopathic), researchers believe inadequate stretching and muscle fatigue leads to abnormalities in mechanisms that control muscle contraction. Of course other factors are involved, poor conditioning in intense (heat & cold), dehydration and depletion of salt and minerals (electrolytes), even pro electrolyte drinks.

Stretching & Muscle Fatigue

Bundles of bundles contract and expand to produce movement. Stretching allows the fibers to contract & tighten more vigorously when you exercise. No question, when you hit the road, you do well to stay in the small chain ring. A big chain ring can alter spinal neural reflex activity. This overexertion depletes a muscle's O2 supply, leading to build up of waste and product & spasm. When it happens, the spinal cord takes over and stimulates the muscle to keep on contracting. Ouch!!!

Heat, Cold, Dehydration, and Electrolyte Depletion

Muscle cramps are more likely when you start your season, going to exercise in hot weather, but also in cold springs. Sweat drains your body's fluids, salt and minerals (i.e. potassium, magnesium and calcium). Loss of these nutrients may also cause a muscle to spasm.

Obvious causes are heat, but remember that very cool days when you don't think you need to drink can be the issue. Perhaps you are attempting to keep the same pace and times you had last fall? Again, obvious causes are strenuous exercise, but you could have problems w/ circulation (too tight of kits), nerves, metabolism, hormones, medications, or nutrition, or too much java!

Cramps are part of many conditions that range from minor to severe. If you have severe, see a professional for suspect diseases i.e. nerve irritation, hardening of the arteries, narrowing of the spinal canal (stenosis), thyroid disease, chronic infections, cirrhosis of the liver.


Muscle cramps range in intensity from a slight tic to agonizing pain. A cramping muscle may feel hard to the touch and/ or appear visibly distorted or twitch. A cramp can last a few seconds to 15 minutes or longer. It might recur multiple times before it goes away.

What many are not aware, that even allergies, illnesses, injuries, surgeries, and certain medications can help cause a cramps.


Cramps usually go away on their own w/o seeing a doctor w/ a little know how.

1) Stop doing whatever is triggering the cramp (slow down)
2) Gently stretch the legs while on the bike, holding it in stretched position until the cramp stops.
3) Apply heat to tense/thigh muscles, or cold to sore/tender muscles


To avoid future cramps, work toward giving your rides more time, until warmer temps and better overall fitness. Do regular flexibility exercises before and after you work out. Even do other sports, to stretch groups most prone to cramping.

Warm Up

How many of us really warm up? Always warm up before stretching, don't stretch before being warming up. Give your body 15 min before you attempt to hit your heart rate or pace, no matter who's up the road or just passed you. Cover your knees if its cool.

Calf Muscle Stretch

Your heel is not attached to the pedal, so you can stretch it by using a downward stretch. You can increase the stretch by dropping your spine towards the handlebars while you straighten your back leg. Make sure you keep your knee bent and hold for 15-30 seconds. It is not like this is killing your pace, so do it on the downhills.

Hamstring Stretch

You should feel this stretch at the back of your thighs and behind your knees (knees bent)

You feet should not be pointed or flexed. With your hands on the hoods, keep your chest open and back long, extend your spine and hold for 30 seconds.

Another trick, round your back and try to bring your nose to your knees. Do not lock your knees.

Quadriceps Muscle Stretch

You should feel this stretch in the front of your thigh. Plant your sitbones firmly and lift one foot, bringing your heel up toward your buttocks and at the same time rotate your hips towards the back wheel. Keep your knees close to the center of the top tube, stop bring your heel closer when you feel the stretch. Do not arch or twist your back.

Hold any stretch briefly, then release. Never stretch to the point of pain!!!

It can happen to the novice and the pro!

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