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Muscle cramping is one of the largest fears of athletes. While at the USA Cycling Junior Talent ID and Junior Worlds Qualifier Camp muscle cramping was certainly a topic for the young riders. Cramps hurt, they debilitate, and they can turn the toughest of competitors into groveling babies. We have all experienced them, know when they are about to strike, and know they are hard to get rid of. Many of us have experienced something like my story here.

Once upon a time when I was 19 years old, I embarked on a bike ride. Sure, it was my second season of racing for the Freddie Fu Cycling Team, however, I had not ridden for six weeks and it was 90 + °F with 10,000% humidity. Yet for some reason I felt that I should go ride a 50 or so mile loop as hard as I could. Here is a timeline of events to show the eventual collapse.

Mile 1-25: Feeling super great
Mile 25.1: I still felt OK
Mile 25.2-30: I ran out of fluids
Mile 30.1: Felt an ever so slight twinge on my inner thigh. I thought to myself, “Huh, good thing I only have 20 miles to home, I am too cool for school.” And then I thought to myself,

“You lie!! You lie like the rug on the floor!! You don’t even know what road you are on idiot!! You may die out here!!”

Mile 31-53: Both quadriceps, my calves, and hamstrings quivered and edged closer to cramping with each and every pedal stroke. It was so bad my eyelids were cramping. At this point I would have swam through shark infested water for a drink. However, if I did I would have cramped in the effort, drowned, and been beef jerky for the sharks.
Mile 53.1: One mile from home, cresting a small rise in rush hour traffic, it hit me. My bike and I became nothing more than a slow moving fork with wheels holding a lifeless, overcooked chicken. My legs simply locked in the position they were in at that second because every single muscle was cramping. I then slowed to a stop on the side of a major roadway, fell to the ground, and rolled around as if I were a rabid raccoon. As cars slowed to gawk I performed full bodied spastic heaves in a vain effort to unclip from my bike. If I straightened my legs, my quads cramped; if I bent my legs, my hamstrings cramped; if I brought my legs together, my inner thighs cramped, and so on. I did not cry, only screamed wildly.
Mile 53.1-54: Ten minutes later I got back on my bike and limped home.


What caused me to cramp? How do I prevent that from happening again? To treat or prevent cramping issues we must address the cause. If you experience muscle cramps, I suggest you make a timeline to determine the cause. Let us consider what factors caused me to cramp. It is thought that muscle cramps can be related to muscle fatigue/overload factors or evaporative loss factors. In short, did you push too hard or did you not properly fuel and hydrate? Here were my factors:

First, I thought I was too cool for school. A ride that long and that hard when undertrained screams fatigue and overload related cramping

Fatigue / overload related factors include:

  • How old are you? The older the more likely they are to cramp.
  • Are you training enough? If you are undertrained, your muscles will fatigue faster.
  • Do you stretch? If not get on it.
  • Was the exercise excessively hard or long? Insert fatigue here.
  • Do you have a history of cramping?
  • Do you eat and drink while exercising?  Guess what, glycogen depletion and dehydration decreases the time to fatigue.
  • Are there any metabolic disturbances (liver, pancreas, etc)?

As I mentioned before, we must address the factors involved in the cramping to treat and/or prevent them. Some factors like age are tough to address because, well, it is what it is. However, training, stretching, effort level, and duration of exercise are all factors that we can influence.


Again, what was the cause of my cramping? I was fatigued from the effort, however, muscle cramps, like most things in life, can be multifactorial. Did I fuel and hydrate properly? I certainly did not. Consider the factors affecting evaporative loss cramping.

  • How much do you sweat?
  • What is the weather and climate?  Is it affecting your sweat rate?
  • Are you a salty sweater?
  • Is you general diet adequate for what you are doing?
  • Do you have a fueling / hydration regimen before, during, and after exercise?


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Every athlete has their preference for hydration and fueling practices.

The more you sweat, the more susceptible you are to cramping. If is hot, you sweat more. However, just because it is cold that does not mean that you are not sweating. You may actually be sweating more than you think due to the warming of the cold winter air by your lungs, and additional layers. The best way to determine sweat rate is to weigh yourself before and after your workouts. Drink 24 oz fluids or sports drink for each pound lost. But hydration needs to start far before the end of the workout.

It stands to reason that if your diet is inadequate your performance will also be inadequate. A low salt and fluid diet is not beneficial for cramp prevention. This does not mean that a steady diet of Ramen Noodles and salted butter is applicable either. Adding a dash of salt to a meal or eating healthier options of high salt foods is a great staring point. For example, pickles on a sandwich is acceptable, eating a salt lick is not. If your urine is clear to hay colored you are well hydrated.

So now let’s say that you do get a cramp. What should you do? You could stop the activity.The next best thing is to get fluids and extra electrolytes. Something like a sports drink on steroids. This may sound gross, but quickly consuming a half liter of fluids with 3 g sodium (1 tsp + 1/4 tsp salt) may help to relieve cramps. And of course keep consuming fluids with electrolytes. Drink 1/3 tsp sodium / liter fluid or sports drink.


There are no sure shots and sometimes you are straight cooked. When you are done, you are done. The best way to nail down your hydration and fueling is to work with a qualified coach and registered dietitian who is experienced in sports nutrition. Races are too expensive to risk wasting entry fees only to keep DNFing due to muscle cramps.



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