Suffering cycling cramps on long bike rides is debilitating! And if it hits hard enough, as you may have already experienced, it can be the end of a good bike ride or sportive.
Once you get cramp there’s little you can do other than to get off your bike and stretch the muscle in question holding the stretch between 10 to 20 seconds. By stretching the muscle you can sometimes release the gripping muscle contraction and loosen off the cramp. This doesn’t mean it won’t come back again, but it can certainly ease the pain.
Now this isn’t to say getting off your bike and stretching is always the answer. You may find stretching whilst cycling along helps to loosen off cramp you know is about to hit you.
Cycling Cramps: Calf Cramps When Cycling
One of the most common cycling cramps is calf cramp. This comes on when lifting your heel up and pointing your toes downwards repeatedly when pedalling for an extended time. An easy way to halt a sudden onset of painful calf cramp is to push the heel down to stretch the calf muscle.
Sometimes though, stopping pedalling or getting off the bike makes things much worse. You risk other cycling muscles seizing up altogether. I had this happen to me after climbing a long climb in the seated position early season and overextending weak glutes. This is incredibly painful when stopping pedalling on the descent and you can barely pedal home! The only way to decrease early season muscular cramp from overexertion is to “progressively” build more specific leg strength in the hills before embarking on longer steeper mountain climbs.
Age and Cycling Cramps
The cause of cycling cramps can be in some cases completely unknown, but I believe it can be attributed to a combination of factors and one of those is AGE. In my experience, cramp has become more apparent the older I've become. Post 40's and I used to get the odd cramp in swimming but never in cycling. Post 45 and I get quite often get cramp in swimming workouts and starting to get calf cramp on longer bike rides - if I don't watch my warms ups, my pre-ride hydration status and electrolyte replacement!
So, - as we age, so we have to look after ourselves more! :).
The good news is you can control these factors to a certain degree, helping you as far as possible to prevent cycling cramps happening often. If you get cramp on every single ride, then you may have to go get checked out for a blood test to rule out a mineral deficiency or an underlying illness.
Here's 7 Ways To Prevent Cycling Cramps (and what to do about it)
1. Keep well hydrated. Make sure you are drinking regularly throughout any long bike ride. A major cause of cycling cramps for me is dehydration usually due to a losing valuable electrolytes like salt. Make sure you are ready for your workout with pale urine. It's a simple test but important post 45 to not start a workout unless you are properly hydrated.
When I was tested a few years back, I was borderline hyponatremic, which means I did not have enough salt in my diet, causing quite a dangerous condition lurking without even realising! On sweat tests, I've always been a heavy sweater which works against me on longer bike rides or triathlons. I therefore have to get salt and fluids IN or... toe and calf cramps galore!
What’s key is you don’t just drink plain water on bike rides – learn to drink an Isotonic solution. For more on what to drink on long rides, please read How to Keep Hydrated On A Long Bike Ride.
2. Up your Magnesium intake. Sometimes a lack of this essential mineral can cause muscles to cramp badly. I take around 375mg of Mg a day now. This has made a HUGE difference to me. Whilst my first calf cramps appeared at age 43, while swimming, I also started getting weird heart flutterings or heart palpatations. Like cramp, I'd never had heart palpatations EVER, so I was freaked out! After a FULL heart scan and 7 day ECG and backing off an entire season of harder bike rides, everything was completely benign and all down to...yep you guessed it...AGEING! Uhh.
I was told to take a Magnesium supplement and it made a huge difference decreasing these heart palpatations and definitely decreasing the severity of cramps I was getting in swimming. Perhaps my cramps were all down to a magnesium deficiency.
**Please check with a medical professional before taking any supplement.
3. Keep your legs warm. Getting cold and damp especially on the upper parts of your thighs during a long ride can cause severe cramp. Exposure is a problem specially in September and even October because the sun still feels warm during the day, but much cooler late afternoons. Cold can set in if you’ve just gone out in shorts, even if you feel relatively ‘warm’ or ‘holding out ok’ – your muscles are probably stone cold and that’s when cramp can hit hard.
4. Prepare for your events well. Sheer effort and pushing yourself far beyond your physical capacities, even if it’s only once, can contribute towards debilitating cramp near the end of a long sportive. You really want to avoid this at all costs, so prepare your fitness months in advance of taking part in a shorter event and building up.
Think about how hilly your course is going to be. The hills put much more demand on your muscles than cycling on the flat, so they need to be ‘ready’ for the challenge ahead. Note also whether the course has steep hills, long hills or shorter hills – then train those muscles accordingly.
For example, if your course has very steep hills, you need to train specific muscles for getting ‘out the saddle’ late in the ride – or you’ll be too exhausted to lift yourself out the saddle, causing strain on already tired muscles and debilitating cramp.
-- In addition to adequate fitness preparation, make sure your seat height and position on the bike is comfortable for longer rides. If not, painful inner thigh cramps can appear on a longer bike ride. Always test on longer training rides to see how you go before jumping into a long cycling event. Preparation is everything!
For an overview on how to prepare for your first sportive, please click the link.
5. Warm up well. Lack of warming up your body and muscles prior to hitting the hills can cause muscle cramp and injury. Always, always, ALWAYS – make sure you do at the very minimum a 20-30 minute easy ride so your core body and cycling muscles are warm before setting off.
Prior to an event, you ‘should’ warm up 20 mins prior to your start. But if this is a long ride you’ve got planned, it sometimes makes sense to warm up the first 20 minutes of the ride – so NO blasting away in the first mile of you bike rides or you risk being stopped in your tracks with either cramp, and/or a nasty muscle strain/tear, or at worse a cardiac injury!
6. Wear snug clothing around muscles. Tight clothing around muscles like your thighs or calfs can cause cramping if enough blood can’t get to the working muscles. Yes cycling clothing should feel ‘snug’, but never so tight it stops circulation when cycling along.
Bear in mind when cycling, your blood volume expands which means your muscles ‘pump up’ more and this is usually when you notice you’ve got a problem with your kit – rarely in the bike shop! As I’ve mentioned many times before, getting comfy kit does take trial and error in the beginning…
7. Choose shoes which have enough wiggle room – look for shoes that have a degree of ‘wiggle room’ – if they are too tight, or narrow at the toes you can get nasty foot cramp – ouuuch! When trying on new shoes, make sure you wear you usual cycle socks – and even take a winter sock along as well – if it’s a slightly different thickness. No doubt you want the same cycle shoes to be comfy in winter as well as summer so bear the sock thickness in mind here!
As mentioned above, sometimes cramp happens for no apparent reason or just down to ageing. However, if if this is starting to happen regularly, sometimes popping down to the GP office and getting a full blood test can help to detect anything ‘out of balance’.
In most cases though, cramp shouldn’t be a common occurrence, but you’ll want to do your very best to avoid it happening again. Simply run through these 7 causes and you might hit on the very solution you’ve been looking for.
If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, do share with your cycling friends. I also look forward to any comments you might want to add….Please share with friends on Facebook!