Most people have suffered the pain of cramp at some point in their lives. The discomfort is all the more annoying when the cramp strikes while you’re out on your bike, 30 miles from home. So why does cramp occur and what can you do to prevent it?
Although there are a number of different causes of cramp, the two main factors in the onset and prevention of cramp are fluid and sodium levels. Sodium plays an important role in the transmission of nerve signals to muscles, so that if sodium levels fall too much (through sweating) the nerve impulses get confused and the muscle becomes “irritable”. At this stage, any stress on the muscle, such as that encountered when turning the pedals, can cause the muscle to contract and twitch uncontrollably, symptoms everyone recognizes as those of cramp.
Sodium deficit is far and away the most likely cause of cramp, especially when one considers that a low sodium diet has been widely recommended over recent years to prevent heart disease and related illnesses. While this kind of diet is sensible for sedentary individuals, people involved in competitive sport need to be aware that they lose a lot more sodium than people who don’t exercise, especially in the summer months, and that this lost sodium needs replacing.
Sports drinks are designed specifically to replace the minerals you lose during exercise and as such, are a healthy way of replacing lost sodium. Keeping well hydrated is also important and fluid loading (as well as carbohydrate loading) is sensible before a long event (such as the Newnham 90) so that you arrive at the start line “super-hydrated”. This would mean drinking a pint of sports drink before bed the night before the event, another pint of sports drink first thing in the morning, and then another 2 pints just before the off. By making sure that the drink you use is a sports drink that contains small amounts of sodium you will cut down on excess fluid losses in the form of urination and better maintain hydration.
Whatever you drink the night before an event though, make sure it ISN’T alcoholic. Alcohol is a diuretic so for every pint you consume, you’ll urinate more than a pint, and along with the fluid lost, you’ll lose sodium, contributing to the chances of getting cramps on the race day itself.
To prevent cramps;
1) Drink sports drink before, during and after the event.
2) Ensure sufficient nutritional recover – i.e. don’t be afraid to something salty after a race.
If you still get cramp, treat it by:
1) Stretching the affected area. Cramps often occur when a muscle has been used to doing one job, and is then forced to a different one e.g. getting out of the saddle to climb a steep hill.
2) Massage the area to increase blood flow through the muscle.
3) Replenishing sodium and fluid levels and taking some rest (o.k. easier said than done in the middle of the race, but it works!)