MUSCLE CRAMPS: Facts, Myths, and Action Items

Why do muscles do this to us?  They twist and tighten and don’t let up.  With no scientifically proven reason, they can help you sprint past your lead out or stop you in your tracks. There are plenty of theories, but no double blind clinical trials that conclude the proper dose of yellow mustard, tonic water, sports drink, water, and pickle juice to put together in your water bottle.

Here is what research tells us about muscle cramps:

  • Electrolytes (sodium chloride aka salt, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium bicarbonate) are important for muscle contraction, fluid balance and energy generation. Normal levels are essential for normal cellular function. That said, strong experimental evidence for any single nutrient is lacking. Electrolyte supplementation provides benefits to riders, but may not prevent exercise associated muscle cramps. One question merits consideration:  Are your electrolytes balanced BEFORE the big race?
  • Studies show that dehydration is not associated with cramping.   Fluid can not be absorbed as fast as you lose it during exercise.  Loading water the day before a race can not keep you hydrated. Everyone has a different sweat rate, and relying upon thirst to trigger hydration has been shown ineffective.
  • Bike fit does matter. Your bike geometry dictates if certain muscle groups are long or short. Add in repetitive movement with effort combined with poor posture, and cramping can occur.   Correction of muscle balance and posture is good preventative medicine.
  • Core stability matters. Rocking back and forth increases muscle strain. Our deep abdominal muscles are more resistant to fatigue, and they promote greater alignment of the lower extremities.  This is especially true in a forward leaning cycling position.
  • Smart training and even smarter recovery. Fatigue and fitness contribute to muscle cramping.  Muscle fatigue triggers a change in nerve regulation.  Increased intensity of exercise has been found to increase the likelihood of exercise associated muscle cramps.  Fatigue increases firing of muscle contraction signals and inhibits muscle stretch regulation. Recent studies have also found that pre-race muscle damage in runners was associated with the incidence of muscle cramping.  The muscle cramp group reported “longer training sessions during the 3 days before the race”.
  • S t  r  e  t  c h   The relaxation phase of muscle contraction is prolonged in a fatigued muscle.  Asking the muscle to contract before it is able to recover can lead to altered signaling and cramping.  Shorter daily stretching time and irregular stretching habits are risk factors for exercise associated muscle cramps in marathon runners.   Post-isometric relaxation technique has been shown to have a lasting effect in preventing muscle spasm.  Place the muscle in a stretched position. Then gently challenge the muscle without moving it (isometric contraction).  Use minimal resistance. Relax and then gently stretch as the muscle releases.

I consulted Team Oregon member, cycling coach and licensed massage therapist Chris Swan for an example of how these principles work for his clients.  He routinely refers for bike fit and general health checks.  He integrates core stability and muscle strength by looking at the pattern of the muscle cramp itself.

“If it is a consistent muscle that is cramping, particularly if it is a smaller or secondary muscle group, off the bike strengthening using weights, bodyweight drills or band work can be effective at strengthening it. Sometimes, it is the weakest link that is a consistent cramping muscle, some strengthening may be appropriate to delay fatigue and reduce cramping by strengthening the muscle that is the first to cramp.  I’ve had several athletes I’ve worked with who have had cramps consistently in already weak muscle groups for cyclists – such as Adductors, and maintaining some cross training with bands through the season does a great job of helping reduce their cramping.”

Muscles are like Velcro.  Fibers slide and latch then release. This requires many steps and many factors. There are no proven strategies for the prevention of exercise-induced muscle cramps. Faulty posture, shortened muscle length, intense exercise and exercise to fatigue, results in a change in nerve signaling.  There are things we can do to mitigate these changes.

Small preventative measures can make a big difference in alleviating muscle cramps. Looking at your overall health may be one of the best preventative measures you have.   Blood sugar levels, thyroid regulation, anemia, and vitamin D levels all play a role in muscle health.  There are simple blood tests that can help us identify any areas that are weak so that you can finish strong.

I have a full list of references.  Please feel free to email me for the list.  I welcome any questions or requests for further Team Oregon exclusive articles.

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