Muscle Cramps and Cycling

Pros vs. the Joes

Everyone develops cramps at some point. So why do the pros cramp less than the amateurs? It may seem obvious, they receive bottles from the car and massages, but there’s more to the story.

Adaptation to training stress; the pros train for many hours per week and at different intensity levels. Thus, their muscles and energy systems adapt to higher training loads and intensities allowing them to ride harder and longer. Even more, the pros have the time to actually recover their bodies after training.

Genetically speaking, some people just do not easily cramp, whereas others do. And recent studies indeed confirm that some people are born with genes that predispose the muscles to cramping.

Extreme conditions during stage 2 of 2013 Tour of California from Murrieta to Palm Springs, saw temperatures reaching 115 degrees. I personally added a gram of sodium bicarbonate salts in over 100 bottles. With so many riders cramping near the finish and some even with seizures, I felt pretty good that our riders made it to the finish without major problems and were feeling better than most.

Hydration support from a car is a normal deal for the pros while the amateurs might get a bottle each lap. A striking example of overcoming cramps to win a race is when Ben King won the US Pro championship road race. Shortly before the finish, Ben reportedly complained of leg cramps, Allen Lim was in the follow car and screamed at him to “drink and eat as much as possible.” Ben then rides back to the car and asks “how much?” Allen Lim responded, “until you puke!” He pounded a coke, drank a bottle, and ate everything in his pockets. Ben’s cramps subsided enough and he made history being the youngest U.S. National champion.

Massage

Massage helps muscle cramps. It probably prevents cramps by restoring the coordination between the muscles and nerves.  Most athletes feel that massage does more than just work out the knots. It helps to reset the muscles and nerves allowing more effective and balanced muscle contractions. There is a calming effect on the nervous system. Be aware that overzealous deep massage can have negative effects. I was always amazed watching former pro cyclist Ben Day getting a massage. The masseuse could not press hard enough, his muscles were that dense.