Me with an attack of camp...
Giro Lombardia Fondo ~ Ghisallo Descent
be honest with you and let you know up front that I really feel like one
of the lucky ones. I've never had cramp on the bike; I've looked a
bit camp once or twice (as you can see above) but I've never actually had cramp itself.
So this factsheet is written
from my own research, anecdotal evidence and listening to my mates'
remedies and opinions. It doesn't mean it's any less factual or
relevant, it just means that I can't draw on my own experiences to shed
any light on this mysterious, enigmatic and highly painful affliction.
A muscle cramp is basically an involuntary muscle spasm of
perceived biblical proportions. Which means the muscle (of it's own
accord) contracts with such a force that it hurts a lot more than you
would like it to. Very few people complain of mild-cramps.
It's either a full on spasm or it's not. You know when you've got
There are many perceived causes of cramp but few can yet agree on the
trigger point that causes the agonising muscle seizure that can debilitate
the most powerful of athletes.
When it comes, it comes with a
vengeance. Tell-tale warnings signs are sometimes given but often
overlooked in the heat of battle. The little twinge just as
you get out of the saddle or begin to apply maximum power can often be
ignored in the maelstrom of competition. Seconds later; it's game
over! Excruciating pain, a cliff-like power drop off and instant
reverse gear are the norm.
If we don't know what causes cramp then how can we hope to prevent it?
Difficult to answer this question but once again common sense and
anecdotal evidence come in to play.
Some contributing factors to
the onset of muscle cramps are believed to be found amongst the following:
▼ Mineral deficiency
▼ Temperature changes
▼ Blood flow and circulation
▼ Tightness and inflexibility
▼ Cold or unprepared muscles
▼ Lying in bed!
an obvious one but, in my opinion, it isn't necessarily the top factor.
I've had, and seen many people, with big dehydration problems in a few of
the sportives I've done, specifically the Ariegoise and Paris Roubaix.
Dave Whitt, Steve Goaziou and myself all ran out of water at various
points of the Paris Roubaix but none of us suffered any signs of cramp
while powering across the baking cobbles of northern France.
So I believe dehydration can be
a contributing factor towards cramp when other contributing factors are
Being de-hydrated may not bring
on cramp as such but it will seriously affect your performance levels.
So ensure you're well hydrated before exercise and keep topped up
throughout your event.
When you sweat you don't just lose fluids you
lose minerals. And this could be where the dehydration theory comes
a little bit cause and effect. I've got cramp and I'm thirsty; so
thirst causes cramp!
It was believed that cramp was
brought on by deficiencies of potassium, magnesium and calcium, although
further research has shed doubt on this. These minerals are easily
replaced and are in abundance in the body. Milk on the breakfast and
a banana mid ride can easily bring these minerals back up to "safe"
levels. However, sweating, which is the main cause of dehydration,
creates higher imbalances of sodium and chloride within the body than
those of potassium etc.
Sodium is one of the initiators
of nerve activity that leads to muscle movements. An imbalance here
is thought to cause misfiring muscle actions. When physiological
things get out of synch, your body tries to restore the balance. It
can either build up potassium levels or stop doing what it's being asked
to do. Guess which is the quick-fix option?
At some big foreign sportives
you'll find bananas, apricots, figs, salted nuts and savoury meats lined
up next to the jam cakes and sports drinks and cola. They're there
for a reason! It may be an anecdotal reason, but it's a reason none
the less. Don't be afraid to experiment with your food intake; but
not on a targeted race day!
Loads of riders still swear by
the good old banana. I eat at least one a ride and have always eaten
one daily as part of my 5-a-day routine. And I don't get cramp.
Anecdotal and flimsy evidence if ever there was. I don't intend to
stop eating them just to find out if I get cramp.
A good diet, a good sports
drink and a good hydration strategy may help you stay cramp free.
And don't go throwing tons of salt on your food. If you have a big
event coming up and you think you might be pre-disposed to cramp, try
building up your sodium levels for the three days prior to the event with
a little extra on your evening meal. Too much sodium is worse than
too little. Everything in moderation
Tricky one this. I've climbed the Galibier with the boys in temperatures
of well over 30 degrees at the bottom and around six at the
top. Ice at the summit and melted tarmac at the base. But we
didn't get cramp. However, if you're disposed to it this may be a
contributing factor. Keep muscles warm and always carry a gilet in
Flow & Circulation
I know a few people with blood circulatory problem due to furred up
arteries in their legs. This causes a lack of oxygen to the muscles
and gives them cramps in their calf. One has had an op to increase
the blood flow the others still suffer.
Some riders have indicated they
are more likely to get onset of cramp when they wear shorts that are tight
around the thigh. Others, when their shoes are too tight feel their
toes cramping up.
Again, these things may not be
the actual causes of cramp itself. But when combined with other
possible contributing factors they may all add up to create the perfect
Tightness & Inflexibility
fitter you get the more honed your body becomes and the more taught your
muscles become. This can be counteracted by stretching and core
stability exercises that restore the balance that nature intended.
Now I'm not saying that
flexible people never get cramp but it's just one more thing that could
help. Unless you're like the very talented young lady on the right, we could all
probably be a little more flexible. In mind as well as body!
Changed anything on your bike recently? Or maybe you've just moved
from your training bike to your race bike. Everything you change
from the norm has a consequence. So make sure you have a very good
reason for changing it. And never make a change prior to a key
competition. If it's not right, leave it until you can give your
body time to adapt and compensate for the changes.
Over time your body adapts to
the effort and motions you impose on it. It's suggested the muscles,
nerves and joints take on a memory of the loads and range of movements
they are required to undertake. Move outside these range of
movements, even by a fraction, and some bodies are predisposed to rebel.
The rebellion often takes the form of cramp.
Swapping shoes, cleats, saddle
position, handle bars or stems etc can all have an effect on how your body
reacts to the change. Some bodies get on with it and learn the new
firing patterns with little disruption. Younger bodies and flexible
older bodies, may be more forgiving than most. If you do have to
change anything do it in fractions over a period of time. Don't
Cold or unprepared muscles
As you all know, if you've been round for a
sports test, we have a dog;
Meg. Daft as a brush, sleeps sixteen hours a day but
when she moves she moves like lightening. That's her in action on
She can go from fast asleep to
full gas in the time it takes to say, "Where's the pussy cat!" No
warming up, no stretching, no pre-effort routine. I've yet to
witness any hint of cramp in her.
Now I don't expect the same for
us. However, I've seen people sitting on the cold damp grass for 40
minutes while they watch a crit at Les Quennevais. As the first race
finishes, they get up, ride a lap to the start (it can hardly be called a
warm up) then knock out a 30 mph first lap to try and drop people.
Not seen any cramp there either. So again, no conclusive evidence.
It's recognised best practice
to warm up, get the muscles ready to fire and ease in to the event.
I'm still not convinced that stretching prior to exercise is a good thing
but I would highly recommend it for afterwards. Prepare yourself for
action with a decent warm up and keep your muscles warm for as long as you
can. It can't do any harm can it?
As you can see we've not really proved anything so far. We've listed
a lot of things that could contribute to cramp, in a pre-disposed
individual, but proved nothing.
I have a theory that each one of
the factors listed above, individually contributes 5% towards the chance of getting cramp.
However, each additional factor gives an exponential probability rise.
So, suppose you're dehydrated;
that's your first individual 5% hit. If you're mineral levels are
also low, individually that's
another 5%. However, as it's a second additional factor (along with dehydration) it's compounded to 10%
so we now have a 15% chance of getting hit.
If it's cold and damp
weather (that's another 5% individually). We now have a 3rd factor
and that's worth 15%, to give a 30% chance of suffering cramp.
Throw in a full gas effort (4th
factor and 20%) on the big climb (5th factor and 25%) and we're now up to
a 75% possibility of getting cramp. For
those predisposed to cramp attacks, it's now a matter of when, not if!
The more contributing factors
to which we expose ourselves, the more the risk rises exponentially.
Your personal cramp threshold index will be somewhere between 5% and 100%.
When you exceed your threshold through a combination of any of the know
factors, you're hit!
So, obviously (in my opinion
remember) it's best to limit your exposure to the risks above by:
▼ Gently topping up your sodium levels
before a big event
▼ Drinking electrolytes during your event
(whether it's hot or cold)
▼ Regularly eating bananas before and during
▼ Carrying a gilet over mountain passes to
keep core temperature up
▼ Ensuring clothing and shoes are snug, not
▼ Working on increasing your flexibility
▼ Ensuring all your bikes are setup
▼ Having a structured warm up routine for
▼ Being careful (muscle wise) when you go to
Because why so many people get cramp in
their calves when in bed is still baffling the white coat wearers. Beware,
that big stretch just before you go to sleep at night. The
neighbours might get the wrong idea if they hear stifled screams coming
from the open bedroom windows. Especially if you live alone!
I hope you have an enjoyable
and cramp free