Muscle cramps – no magic bullet

‘How can I avoid muscles cramping in a race??’

You wouldn’t be the only one who has questions about muscle cramp; when you talk with people about their race this is one of the questions that keeps popping up.  We have asked both Tim Lawson of Secret Training who is a successful cyclist; has a sports science and sports nutrition back ground and also Jac Eley an experienced and highly rated Sports Physiotherapist who works at ‘R U Active’ here in Dubai.

The problem is when you look at the literature, risk factors for cramp are: previous history of cramp, family history of cramp, trying hard.

Not particularly helpful for those looking for a magic bullet to fix cramp.  There’s the odd case study that shows high sodium or something very sour to jolt the nervous system can stop cramp if you do it when fasciculations (small local muscle twitch, which may be visible under the skin) first start to appear. This would be why products like ‘Cramp Fix’ might work. However a lot of studies have shown that people with cramps mostly don’t have a low salt content in their blood, and so the current evidence is that taking salt supplements is unlikely to help.

Some studies show dehydration and electrolyte deficiency can contribute to cramp, others don’t. 

What is fairly clear though that salt tabs, i.e. a sudden high dose of salt intake can cause GI distress as the salt draws liquid into the intestines and there is very little evidence that it will help for muscle cramp.  

A safer route is to have a slow trickle of electrolytes in your drinks and gels/bars.  For people with no known underlying metabolic issues, such as unusual low sodium levels, normal electrolyte intake should be sufficient.  This combined with an appropriate level of carbohydrate intake before and during the race as your fuel.

Cramps are difficult, because the exact cause is still unknown.  The latest idea is that a cramp is a reflex contraction of the muscle, which is caused by the nervous system, and happens more when you are tired or fatigued.  Even though you may feel fine during a race to start with, your muscles are becoming progressively more and more fatigued and eventually, you cramp because of this fatigue. So, rather than trying to solve the problem by taking more supplements, you should instead try to prevent this fatigue during the ride or run. 

How do you do this?  By incorporating more race appropriate strength work in your training sessions so your leg muscles become stronger and are less likely to fatigue.  This complemented by better pacing strategies during a race.  What constitutes appropriate strength training is a different subject all together.

Other possible contributing factors for cramp: different position on the bike (TT position?), different shoes.

Hamstrings can cramp in the same way as calf muscles, quads, or hip flexors: due to fatigue, especially when glutes (bum muscles) start to fail and hamstrings take over.

The lumbar (low back) stiffening during the race also gives an increased hamstring load.

In addition to  strength training doing some mindful conditioning focussing on glutes and working on spinal rotation can be extremely helpful.  Blindly doing 100 squats and lunges, without the glutes doing their job isn’t very effective.  Exercises like one legged balancing, ‘running man’, one legged hip hinges, scooters, flex band work etc can help with this, but you need to feel that your glutes are working!!  Physiotherapists, well qualified personal trainers and pilates instructors can guide you with this. 

With Thanks to:

Jacqueline Eley, Senior Physiotherapist, RU Active Sports Physiotherapy Centre, Dubai Sports City

Tim Lawson, Owner of Secret Training, track cyclist and sports scientist specialized in Endurance Sport Nutrition.

Posted on 17th Jun 2022