Monday, June 20, 2011

Cycling and Cramping: My Perrenial Problem

Even though I haven't really been keeping my cycling blog up-to-date, I thought I jump back in with a post about my perrenial problem on the bike: Cramping. This follows my latest ride just yesterday of a little over 88km, the last 30 or so of which I battled excruciating and debilitating legs cramps. I had to dismount no less than 5 times to stretch out and actually considered abandoning my ride (in favour of a call for a pick-up).

Now legs cramps while riding is nothing new for me. In fact, it's been a problem for as long as I can remember. For some reason though, this year so far seems to be a little worse than other years and I just can't seem to get past 50-60km without my legs locking up. Oh and by legs, I mean primarily my thigh muscles.

I thought I'd float a few theories as to why this continues to happen. Feel free to agree or disagree, and offer any thoughts and suggestions you might have. Chances are my cramping is a combination of many, if not all of these (and more).

Theory #1: Lack of Training

Admittedly, endurance, or should I say lack thereof, is probably a factor. It's June 20 and I have yet to pass the 500km mark on the bike for 2011 (497km to be exact). In my most active riding season 2 years ago, I was already over 1000 at this point. On top of that, because of work schedules and other committments, I really only get out once a week on the weekend, so I have no doubt that lack of training and the subsequent lack of endurance are contributing factors.

Theory #2: Electrolyte Imbalance

This is probably THE main reason for my cramping problem but I can't be 100% certain. I've done a fair bit of reading on the subject and even the medical profession, including sports nutritionists, don't seem to be sold on this being the cause of cramping. Study results seem varied and inconclusive. It makes some sense to me though because there does seem to be some tie between electrolyte levels and sweating...and I sweat like there's no tomorrow when exercising. Even in the gym, while others around me look to be largely cool and dry, I am literally dripping wet and soaked from head to toe. Same goes for riding a bike. I have to wear a headband under my helmet at all times to keep blinding sweat out of my eyes. The theory goes that through sweating, I'm losing key electrolytes that are a must for maintaining proper muscle function and for preventing my leg cramps.

Following my ride yesterday, in desparation I threw a request for help and suggestions out to my twitter followers. I got 2 replies, both suggesting electrolytes imbalance. One suggested I consult a sports nutritionist, the other to try Endurolytes, which many people swear by. I'm going to try Endurolytes first and hopefully will be swearing by it myself soon as well...rather than just swearing.

Theory #3: Poor Nutrition/Eating Habits

This is somewhat related to #2 and I'm a bit ashamed of this one, but I have terrible eating habits, particularly when cycling. I try to eat as much as I can before a ride but the simple fact of the matter is that I am not a morning eater. I rarely eat any kind of breakfast and usually have to force myself to eat in the morning before a ride. Yesterday for example, I forced down a bowl of oatmeal and a large pancake that I slathered in Nutello. I would have had a banana too I suppose, but did have any on hand for before or during my ride. On my ride, I had an oatmeal bar and a Powerbar. Not very much, but again I struggle to eat and ride. Before you call me out on that one, I know. Big mistake.

Outside of my exercise diet, I wouldn't say my regular diet is that special either. Too much junk food no doubt. Lots of pasta, tons of red meat, little in the way of greens. Most certainly not a diet deliberately built around cycling nutrition.

Theory #4: New Bike, New Gearing

This theory is dubious, but I thought I'd throw it in there. With the new bike this year (see last post), I am riding a different gearing ratio with the bulk of my riding on the large ring up front. On my old bike, I think I was primarily on the small front ring but I can't seem to find a matching ratio on the small ring this year. I'm thinking that the slightly bigger gear is taxing my legs a bit more than usual and might explain in part why this years' cramping seem a little worse than in years previous.

Theory #5: Hockey

More than any year before, I've been playing a lot of ice hockey which is very strenuous on the thigh muscles. I'm thinking that my thigh muscles may have strengthened a bit due to hockey, but because it perhaps uses a slightly different muscle group, the added hockey muscle is turning out to be a drawback for cycling. That could be a bit out there, but yesterday's cramping also involved the hamstrings on the back of my legs, which has never really happened before.

Theory #6: Age

I'm turning 46 this year and, according to some of my reading, cramping is more prevalent as you age. A possible contributor, but that doesn't really explain all the guys in there 50s and 60s who seems to ride longer, faster, and harder than I do and seem to have no issues with cramps.

Theory #7: Hydration

This one undoubtedly should be higher on the list, but I just thought of it. Once again, studies seem inconclusive that there is a definitive correlation between cramping and hydration, but I'm guessing it has something to do with it, especially for someone who sweats as profusely as I do. I don't think I'm underhydrating, but you can be the judge of that. Over 88km yesterday, I consumed 5 bottles of liquids (2 water, 3 Gatorade). That seems like a sufficient amount to me, although my timing could be off. The first 2 (water) were over the first 65km, the final 3 (Gatorade) over than last 23km. Come to think of it, that's a horrible consumption schedule.

That's about all I can come up with for now. If you have any other viable theories, or would like to comment on mine, feel free.

By the way, if you want to follow me on Twitter for a combination of cycling updates and other nonsense, please do. My handle is @delliott13.


  1. I'm lucky that I've never had cramp issues on the bike but, like you, I'm a heavy sweater. I'm not an expert either but would like to comment on your hydration/electrolytes theories.

    1. Electrolytes. Up until a few month ago I never really took in electrolytes and when I did it was always too late in the ride. Now, for rides over an hour in length I load both bottles with Nuun or Elixir so I start on electrolytes right away.

    2. Hydration. I'm terrible at staying hydrated but it's not what you think. When doing my weekday one hour rides before work I suck down a full bottle of water with no problem. My issue was not staying hydrated throughout the day/week and not re-hydrating after long rides on the weekend. I'm just now getting into a good habit of drinking about 100 ounces of water a day in addition to what I drink during my one hour ride before work. Still gotta work on drinking more after my long weekend ride.

    All that said, I wonder you should try the following:

    1. When riding great than an hour start with electrolytes right away instead of waiting until late in the ride.
    2. Work on your hydration throughout the week - not just while on the bike.