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5 Tips for Preventing and Treating Cramps

By Jiri Kaloc

Muscle cramps are a common issue among endurance athletes such as cyclists. They range from small annoyances that pass quickly to big cramps that can cause pain in your muscles for hours. The causes of cramps are not fully understood yet but there are a few that are well-understood. Let’s take a look at how to use them to prevent and treat muscle cramps.

#1 Include enough race-specific training

Probably the most important tool in muscle cramp prevention is training specificity. When your muscles are insufficiently conditioned, they are much more likely to cramp. Races are typically the time when you demand more intensity and effort from your muscles than usual. This is why cramps often happen during races. Training specificity is something that can help. Prepare your muscles in the exact same way as you’re planning to race. If you’re a triathlete planning to ride for several hours hunched over on aerobars, you need to spend a fair amount of time in that position in training.

Road cyclist
Adjust your training to your racing schedule. © Profimedia

#2 Maintain a good electrolyte balance

Electrolyte imbalances are likely only responsible for a small percentage of cases of muscle cramping. We have very limited evidence that depleting electrolytes could result in muscle cramping. But exercising in hot climates that causes you to sweat a lot could result in significant losses of electrolytes, mainly sodium. To rule this out as a risk factor, make sure to use electrolyte drinks for hydration on such rides. You can also consider salt tablets or solid food that will deliver sodium too.

#3 Reduce intensity

When prevention didn’t help and your muscle is cramping, there are still things you can do to make it go away faster. If a cramp happens during a ride, then allowing the muscle to relax by freewheeling or reducing your speed for a short time may be sufficient if the cramp is small. Similarly, if a cramp occurs in a muscle not being used, like in your arm, just slow down and let it resolve on its own. If it’s more significant, you might need to get off the bike and rest or even call it a day.

#4 Stretch

When reducing intensity is not sufficient and you need to take a break, try stretching the muscle to help the cramp go away. Stretching of the muscle activates a part of the muscle known as the “Golgi tendon organ”. Activating the Golgi tendon organ signals the nerve that controls the contraction of the muscle to reduce contraction, which should reduce the intensity of a cramp. Even though research isn’t very favourable on the efficacy of stretching, it’s one of the few tools for treating a painful, long-lasting cramp that works for some.

#5 Try pickle juice

There’s an old-school cycling remedy for cramps – pickle juice! Although it contains sodium, electrolyte balance is not how it helps with cramps. Research suggests that its high acetic acid content, and the sharp unpleasant taste that comes with it, might activate nerves in the mouth that trigger the brain to slow down the contraction of the cramping muscle. It’s important to note that it’s a small study so we can’t consider pickle juice an evidence-based solution for treating cramps. But it’s relatively harmless to give it a try.