Stopping Muscles from Cramping Up

A friend and I were IMing one night about her muscles cramping up. I thought that it would be interesting to write a post about it, since in my early triathlon career, I suffered from cramping in the most inopportune times during races.
I read an article in one of the popular triathlon magazines that talked about the causes of cramps and what can help prevent them. It actually showed some evidence that electrolyte supplementation didn’t help prevent cramps. Then there are all the medical research into what happens within muscles to create these painful situation. Of course, each coach and athlete has their own formula for preventing and managing muscle cramps.
In this post, I’m gonna skip all the scientific stuff and talk about my own discoveries. Note that everyone is different, and I think that applying a systematic way of figuring out why you cramp and what can prevent it can be your formula for success.
What causes cramps?
What I’ve found causes cramps are:
1. Electrolyte depletion. I sweat buckets in general and that just causes electrolytes to flow out of my body. This increases during warmer days, and seems to be less of an issue during cooler days. During races, I always build up this layer of grit on my skin, which is just the salt buildup from sweating so much and for such a long time. Thus if you don’t replace electrolytes, you’re more likely to cramp. So those who get dehydrated during races are really susceptible to cramping.
2. Over-contraction of muscles, especially muscles that are already tired and/or tight. My classic example of this is trying to stretch tight quads during a race. You reach down to grab your ankle and pull your leg back towards your butt. But since your hamstrings are also tired, they seize up in a cramp while trying to stretch your quads! Needless to say I NEVER stretch my quads now during a race. Another example is when I swam last week, and for some reason my plantar fascia was very tight. Then I shoved that foot into a fin and swam a long set with fins. The plastic boot on the fin was snug, but it also squeezed down on my foot so much while I was kicking that it caused my whole foot to cramp up. Not fun.
3. The muscles just get overtaxed and overworked, and thus cramp in protest, despite your mind willing the body to do more. This has happened to me early in my triathlon career at half and full Iron distance races. I have found two instances why this happens. The first is due to simple pushing of my body, typically my legs, and then towards the end of my race I cramp up because they are tired and I’m trying to either go faster, or go up a hill, etc. The second has to do with imbalances in my body. I have found that I naturally exert more of my right leg because it’s stronger than my left. This tires out my right leg more so than my left, and thus it can cramp up whereas my left is still OK.
What can prevent muscle cramps?
1. Electrolyte supplementation. Depending on how your body is, it could be that all you need is to drink Gatorade instead of water, or you may need take electrolyte tablets several times an hour plus electrolytes in sports drink and gels (like me). It varies widely between individuals and also in race conditions. I’ve been able to back off on electrolyte tablets during races with cool conditions successfully.
2. Get stronger. I would say that along with 1, this is the other really important measure for preventing muscle cramps. By really focusing on getting stronger during training, I have found that this has been the other major factor in preventing my muscles from getting to a potentially cramped state. So lots of hill repeats, and practicing accelerating up hills, for both running and biking. This also applies to interval work, especially on the bike, to extend the duration of maintaining watts while pedaling.
3. Kinesio tape. The curative/supportive properties of this tape are amazing. By taping from insertion to origin, you provide a slight tug to muscles in the “resting direction”, which helps muscles to relax and reduce the possibility of cramping.
4. Sportlegs pills. This amazing supplement helps minimize the production of lactate and exercise by-products in the muscles. When there is no “burn” in my muscles, it helps them stay relaxed even when tired and/or when I push hard. By not having exercise by-products in my muscles, they stay less tight and less susceptible to cramping.
5. Heat acclimatization. Adapting your body to function at high effort in hot weather helps your body figure out how to function under those conditions and not cramp, or just plain collapse. It learns how to sweat and to deliver energy and oxygen to muscles during hot weather, which is critical if you’re going to race during super hot days.
To discover what worked for me, I started experimenting. I didn’t do any kind of special blood testing. Suffice to say, it took a while to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t.
I started by upping my electrolyte intake during races and found that I got up to 3 Saltstick caps per hour, plus 2 scoops of Endurolyte powder in every tall water bottle, plus a scoop of First Endurance EFS. I also take a Powergel every 45 minutes, with its own set of extra electrolytes. I also take 3 Sportlegs capsules every 3 hours, and it’s amazing how I can push hard and barely feel any burn, but only just a general tiredness in those muscles. This works for me and keeps me going during races.
But I didn’t feel good about taking all that extra stuff, even during training. So then I made sure I got my body more adapted to the high stress of racing. I made sure I did negative split training on every long run, or would descend during loops up to 3+ hours. I did up to 4 laps up Kings Mountain and Old La Honda, which just toughened my legs to biking at continuous hard effort for long periods of time.
Then I also started running mid-afternoon, when temps were highest. I ran 3+ hours in 90+ degrees for many weeks. It was tough at first, but quickly got easier until I was able to run and do negative splits and descends.
It worked wonders for getting me through races both faster and cramp free.
A bit unscientific, and a collaboration of many different things I’ve read about or been told about. But I can’t argue with the results either.