Painful leg cramps aren’t just annoying episodes of discomfort. Because they typically occur at night, they can wake you, interrupting necessary rest and sleep.
According to a recent review of the literature on the causes of muscle cramps during exercise published by the American College of Sports Medicine (Bergeron, 2008), there appear to be two possible causes for muscle cramping in athletes. Although further research is needed to better understand the underlying physiology of both, the literature provides a basis for understanding the problem and how to prevent muscle cramps from occurring.
Nothing kills a workout quite like the pain and tightness a cramp can bring on. And whether you’re lifting weights, running sprints, or doing laps in the pool, you can cramp up. So how do you prevent cramps from happening during your workout?
Ever been jolted awake by a charley horse — that sudden, intense pain that comes from a muscle cramp? Any muscle can tighten in an excruciating spasm, but those in the calf, the back of the thigh (hamstrings) and front of the thigh (quadriceps) are most commonly affected. Cramps can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes, and may recur several times before going away.
In order to prevent muscular imbalances and muscle cramping, it’s important to find out where the imbalance is and concentrate your strengthening exercises to focus on those muscles. The muscles outlined below are the specific muscles used when cycling and the exercises to strengthen each muscle group.
Muscle imbalances can cause cramps. If you have strong quadriceps and relatively weak hamstrings, then your hamstrings will fatigue first while pedaling and they are more prone to cramp. Or if you have relatively weak calf muscles, they’ll cramp first.
Complicating matters is the fact there are such a wide variety of causes for leg cramps, from overexertion to neurological conditions to circulation disorders. And there are idiopathic causes, too, which essentially means the causes are unknown.
How To Prevent Muscle Cramps
Relax the cramping muscle. Stop any activity that may have induced the cramp and lightly stretch the muscle, gently holding the stretch. You may even massage the muscle while you stretch or after you finish.
Consider applying a heating pad to the area, as described below, after stretching. If your calf muscle cramps in the middle of the night, stand up and slowly put weight on the affected leg to push the heel down and stretch out the muscle.
“The most common cause of muscle cramps tends to be something nutritional,” says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. That’s especially true for endurance athletes like distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes, who have lost lots of electrolytes through their sweat without replacing them. This can lead to a deficiency in sodium levels, which triggers cramps. “In order to combat these deficiencies you need to make sure you’re being nutritionally smart,” Metzl says. That means getting enough electrolytes in your diet with salty foods like pretzels or taking salt tablets during workouts.
In addition to sodium, the minerals potassium, magnesium, and calcium can help prevent your muscles from locking up. Aim to get these nutrients through foods first, advises Beck. Key sources include bananas for potassium, leafy green vegetables for magnesium, and dairy products for calcium.
Proper hydration is also important, since dehydration causes an alteration in electrolyte concentration as well as a buildup of lactic acid from muscle metabolism, both of which can cause cramps. Individual needs vary—some people do fine with just a little water, while others require more fluids or a sports drink with electrolytes.
Part of this nutritional strategy involves the getting the dietary basics right. Consuming sufficient fluid both during and after training is of course vital, as is a high-carbohydrate diet containing plenty of carbohydraterich foods such as breads, cereals, rice, corn, pasta, potatoes, beans peas and lentil, and starchy fruits and vegetables such as yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, pears, etc. This type of unprocessed diet will contain plenty of potassium and because many foods such as cereals, breads, cheese and other foods such as canned beans, tuna, sauces, pickles etc contain added salt (sodium), maintaining adequate sodium intake shouldn’t be a problem either.
The best dietary sources of calcium include milk, cheese and yoghurt, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables and canned fish with bones such as sardines. Magnesium is something of a forgotten mineral and one that is often sub-optimally supplied in Western diets . Moreover, research suggests that sub-optimum intakes of magnesium can impair exercise performance more generally 5. Good sources of magnesium include wholegrain unrefined (not white) breads and cereals, while brown rice, all nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds), beans peas and lentils (especially chick peas) and all green leafy vegetables.
If you regularly have leg cramps that aren’t related to a more serious condition, you might try adding more magnesium to your diet. Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of magnesium.
MagnesiumTrusted Source has been suggested for treating pregnant women’s muscle cramps, but more studies are needed. Talk to your doctor before taking any magnesium supplements if you’re pregnant.
Many personal trainers, coaches, and physical therapists also recommend using magnesium on the outside of your body in the form of Epsom salts. You can find a great selection online.
Try applying this old-school remedy to a wet cloth and pressing it onto a cramped muscle, or add some to a hot bath for a soak.
In fact, a hot soak provides relief for many, with or without Epsom salts.
Dry heat in the form of a heating pad may even help. There are a variety of options available online.
Start the pad on the lowest setting and only increase heat if you’re not getting any relief at all.
If you have diabetes, a spinal cord injury, or another condition that might prevent you from feeling heat, a heating pad isn’t a good option.
Using Sports Drinks
Dietary basics are essential, but depending on your sporting activity and environment, maintaining optimum hydration, electrolyte balance and muscle glycogen levels may require assistance in the form of purpose designed sports drinks.
In hot and humid conditions, sweat losses can be considerable – even when the duration and intensity of exercise are fairly modest. In such conditions, the main priority is fluid and electrolyte mineral replacement. Some carbohydrate replacement is also advantageous, but its importance is secondary to fluid/electrolyte considerations; in cooler, less humid conditions and where the exercise duration is longer leading to significant reductions in muscle glycogen (i.e. over an hour to an hour and a half), carbohydrate replacement becomes more of an issue, although fluid and electrolyte replacement is still vital.
For cooler, higher energy output conditions where carbohydrate replacement becomes more important, HIGH5 Energy Drink has 385 calories’ worth of carbohydrate supplying 690 and 180mg’s of sodium and potassium respectively.
As we’ve already stated, there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee that you won’t be affected by cramping, but by following the fluid/energy replacement guidelines supplied with these products, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of fluid/electrolyte/carbohydrate depletion, which have been linked to increased muscle cramping risk by a number of scientific authorities. For example, in long duration activities, researchers have established that a 6% carbohydrate electrolyte sports drink can help delay the onset of exercise induced muscle cramps, but not prevent them entirely.
Similarly, a review article on hydration in elite tennis players competing in multiple rounds in hot and humid conditions concluded that fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate replacement was a valuable nutritional strategy.
Another possible way to stop leg cramps is to hydrate. It might take a little longer to ease your pain, but once you’ve had water or a sports drink with electrolytes, you could prevent another cramp.
Calcium and Magnesium Research
When it comes to controlling muscle contraction and relaxation, calcium and magnesium are two important minerals, working synergistically to maintain normal electrical potentials and to coordinate muscle contractionrelaxation responses in the muscles. In muscle cells, an increased calcium concentration triggers contraction of the muscle fibres while increased intracellular magnesium concentration counteracts this effect, resulting in relaxation. Because of their function in muscles, much research has been focused on the role of calcium/magnesium in muscle cramps.
Scientists have long recognised that in pregnant women, low magnesium status is associated with an increased incidence of muscle cramps, and that magnesium supplementation helps ameliorate this condition. Moreover, magnesium supplementation has also been shown to help sufferers of ‘night cramps’, which involves nocturnal muscle cramping (normally in the legs. There’s even been a suggestion that sub-optimum magnesium intake could be linked to more generalised muscle tension and tension headaches.
Despite these findings, the evidence that magnesium (or calcium) supplementation can reduce the risk of muscle cramping associated with exercise is patchy; some studies have reported altered blood magnesium concentrations in sufferers of exercise associated cramps, but the clinical significance of these findings are poorly understood.
Nevertheless, sub-optimum magnesium intakes are common in Western diets and unfavourable for exercise performance, and given the solid evidence for magnesium supplementation as a therapy for other forms of cramps, those prone to cramping could do worse than to ensure their diets are well supplied in magnesium. Supplementation may also be worth considering, especially as magnesium supplements are both cheap and non-toxic.
Finally, there are some bedtime things you can make part of your nighttime routine to help prevent leg cramps since they’re most likely to occur at night. Dr. Goldman suggests some gentle leg stretches or even mild exercise, like a walk or short bike ride, right before bed.
But there are also things you can do for your sleep that might help, including adjusting your sleep position. If you sleep on your back, try using pillows to keep your toes pointed upwards. And if you sleep on your stomach, try hanging your feet off the end of the bed. Both of these positions can help keep you in a relaxed position while you sleep, he adds.
Exercises to Prevent Muscle Cramps
The muscles below are those that are used most often when pedaling a bicycle. Every cyclist is different, so any one (or more) of these muscle groups may be weak depending on the individual.
- Quadriceps: The quadriceps are the fleshy muscles on the front of your thigh. They straighten the knee and provide power through the first 90 degrees of the pedal stroke. The quadriceps are commonly overdeveloped in cyclists, which can lead to muscle imbalances and cramping in the other muscles of the leg.
- Gluteals: The gluteals are the big muscles in your butt. They straighten the hip and provide power through the first 90 degrees of the pedal stroke.
- Gastrocnemius: The gastrocnemius is the large fleshy muscle that runs from behind your knee to the Achilles tendon. It provides power from 45 degrees to 135 degrees of the pedal stroke.
- Hamstrings: The hamstrings run from the bottom of the gluteal muscles on the back of the thigh and end just below the knee. This muscle group provides power as you pull your foot through the bottom of the pedal stroke (six o’clock).
- Adductor: The adductor muscles run from your groin along the inside of the thigh and insert behind the knee. They keep your knee from tracking outward as you pedal.
- Abductor: The abductor muscles run from your hip and butt along the outside of the thigh and keep your knee from drifting inward during the pedal stroke. If you have weak abductors, your knee may occasionally hit the top tube when you pedal.
Quadriceps, Hamstrings and Gluteals
The lunge is the best all-round leg exercise for cyclists. Step two to three feet forward with your right foot and lower you left knee toward the floor. Go down until your right thigh is about parallel to the floor. Keep your right knee over your ankle, not in front of your foot, which would strain your knee. If one of your knees hurts don’t go down as far. Return to standing and repeat with your left leg. Do all of your reps lowering your left leg and then switch legs. Depending on your strength start with a set of 10 to 15 reps with no weight in your hands and build up to 20 reps.
When you can do a set of 20 reps then add dumbbells. Instead of dumbbells you can wear a backpack filled with cans of food, bottles of water, etc. or hold in your hands bags of cans, etc. With the added weight start again with 10 to 15 reps and build back up to 20 reps.
Gastrocnemius and Achilles
Calf raises target the gastrocnemius and Achilles. Stand with the balls of your feet on a step or block of wood with your heels hanging down. Rise up on the balls of your feet until your toes are pointed down like at the bottom of your pedal stroke and then lower back down. Depending on your strength start with a set of 10 to 15 reps with no weight in your hands and build up to 20 reps. When you can a set of 20 reps then add dumbbells, etc. With the added weight start again with 10 to 15 reps and build back up to 20 reps.
Progress to single leg calf raises, which are much harder. Stand with the ball of your right foot on a step or block and your heel hanging down. Rise up on the ball of your foot and then lower back down. Start with one set of 10 reps and build up to 20 reps. Do all your reps with one leg and then switch legs. When you can a set of 20 reps then add dumbbells, etc. With the added weight start again with 10 to 15 reps and build back up to 20 reps.
Bridging with an exercise ball strengthens your gluteals. Lie on your back with your feet resting on an exercise ball. Stretch your arms out to the side with your hands resting lightly on the floor for balance. Tighten your core muscles. Use your butt muscles to raise your butt up off the floor—your body should be close to a straight line—hold for three to five counts and lower. Depending on your strength start with a set of 10 to 15 reps and build up to 20 reps.
When you can do a set of 20 reps, switch to one-leg bridging. Lie on your back with your feet resting on an exercise ball. Lift your right leg up and point it at the ceiling. Tighten your core muscles. Use your left glute muscle to raise your butt up off the floor— your body should be close to a straight line—hold for three counts and lower. Single leg is much harder than two-leg so start with one set of just 10 reps and build to 20 reps. Do a set with one leg, then a set with the other.
Use your exercise ball to do hamstring curls. Lie on your back with your feet resting on the exercise ball. Tighten your core. Use your butt muscles to raise your butt up off the floor— your body should be close to a straight line. Press your heels into the ball, bend your knees, pull the ball to your butt and return to straight. Do a full set of the desired number of reps before lowering your butt back to the floor. Depending on your strength start with a set of 10 to 15 reps and build up to 20 reps.
When you can do one set of 20 reps, switch to one-leg hamstring curls. Lie on your back with your feet resting on the exercise ball. Tighten your core and use your butt muscles to raise your butt up off the floor—your body should be close to a straight line. Lift one foot off the ball. Bend your other knee and pull the ball to your butt and return to straight. Keep your butt in the air and one foot off the ball for a full set of the desired number of reps.
Single leg is much harder than two-leg so start over with one set of just 10 reps and build to 20 reps. Do a full set with one leg, then a set with the other.