Cramps

When discussing the topic of Cramps, we will break it down into two general heading - Muscle Cramps and Stomach Cramps.  Stomach Cramps are sort of a misnomer, because the stomach is not really getting knotted up like a muscle, so we will actually look more at some of the causes and cures of common Gastorintestinal problems while training and racing.

Muscle Cramps

When a muscle has been working hard, or is over worked, it will sometimes involunarily knot-up or spasm.  This is very painful and can easily bring the strongest athlete to his or her knees.  They are most common after long training sessions or during/after races, especially if the athlete has been sweating a lot.  We will break down Muscle Cramps into two sub-categories - Heat Cramps and Fatigue Cramps.

Heat Cramps are caused by an imbalance of electrolytes in the bloodstream.  Electrolytes are positively or negatively charged elements necessary for muscle function.  As you sweat, you lose Sodium (Na+) which can throw off your electrolyte balance.  A proper electrolyte balance is necessary to keep muscles contracting normally.  If the balance is off, the muscles may start to contract involuntarily, and that's a cramp.

Fatigue Cramps would be less related to your electrolyte balance and more related to your muscles working hard and then sort of getting stuck in one position.  For example, a foot or calf cramp during the swim leg of an Ironman is not due to an electrolyte imbalance, it would be caused by the muscles in the foot or calf contracting in one position too long.  Pointing the toes when you swim long distances may cause the muscles on the bottom of the foot to cramp.

Fatigue Cramps can usually be alleviated by stretching the offending muscle.  So, if your calf cramps up, start doing a calf stretch.  If it happens in the middle of your swim, you may have to improvise this stretch by reaching down and pulling your foot/toes upwards toward your shin.   Another technique is to contract the antagonist muscle until the cramped muscle relaxes, then stretch the cramped muscle.  For example, if your hamstring cramps, contract your quads (antagonist) until the hamstring releases.  If your calf cramps, contract your shin muscles (dorsiflexors) until the calf releases.  But better yet is to stretch everything well before you start exercising so that the muscles are loose to begin with.  And leg cramps during the swim do occur - most likely due to the fact that the majority of triathletes train in a pool where pushing off the walls and resting between sets allows the calves to stretch out.  That doesn't happen during a race, and the calves are more prone to cramping.

Heat Cramps need to be stretched as well, but until the electrolyte imbalance is corrected, they won't disappear.  And here's the real kicker - if one muscle group is cramping because your system is low in sodium, it's quite likely that other muscle groups are not far behind.  So, when you pull your heel towards your butt to stretch your cramping quad, don't be surprised if your hamstring goes into spasm.  It is much harder to stretch out cramps when your electrolyte imbalance is off.  So, the best way to prevent this is to make sure that you take in enough sodium during a race to prevent hyponatremia - or low sodium levels.  Please see my article on hyponatremia for a full discussion.

If cramping is happening well after exercise had stopped, like in the middle of the night, it's likely that you are still not in an electrolyte balance, you may be dehydrated, or you just didn't stretch things out properly after you finished exercising.

Stomach Cramps

As I said above, this section will touch on Gastrointestinal disorders that may crop up during training and racing.  Let's eliminate the obvious first - don't eat too much before exercising, never try new foods/drinks on race day, practice eating during training. With that said, the first thing to look at when dealing with GI problems is once again sodium levels.  If you sweat out a lot of sodium, and it doesn't get replaced, water will not move properly between your stomach and your blood stream.  We need a certain level of 'saltiness' in the blood to draw water out of the stomach.  There are tons of stories out there of people getting off the bike in an Ironman and feeling like they had swallowed a watermelon.  Their stomach is bloated and they can actually hear water sloshing around in there.  Drinking lots of water doesn't do you any good if it won't leave the stomach.  This just leads to an upset stomach - until you puke it all over the road or give your stomach ample time to process it.  Once again, refer to my article on hyponatremia for a full discussion.

Next common cause of GI problems is probably eating too MUCH during a race.  If you can do your long training rides on a couple of gels and some sports drink, you won't need to tape 30 Gu packets to your frame on race day.  I've seen it and I'm always amazed that someone needs that many calories just to keep going.  But, to each his own.  All I'm saying is you have to know what you need in training so that you can mimic it on race day.  A common mistake is to chase down a gel with sports drink.  Understand that a gel is like a concentrated sports drink, and if you wash it down with more sugar solution you can get too much sugar sitting in your stomach and it can lead to GI problems.  ALWAYS wash down a gel with water - that's what they are designed for. 

Your best bet is to avoid solid food completely.   If you eat something like a bagel or a banana, your body has to divert blood to the stomach to digest that food.  That blood is needed in the working muscles.   Plus, once that stomach starts processing, it can lead to GI problems.  So, try to find a good high carbohydrate recovery drink that you can 'eat' on the bike. If you mix it up thick, you can always wash it down with extra water to dilute it if necessary.   Then continue to drink sports drinks, drink some water, and eat some gels, and you should be OK.  Liquids in the gut only need to be absorbed - solid foods need to be digested.

I'm not a big fan of solid food at all during racing.  Energy bars work, but they are harder to digest and if you can get the same effect from liquids - why not?  And the buffet of food on most courses needs to picked through carefully.  Unless you REGULARLY eat bananas or other fruit while training, I'd recommend avoiding them completely.  I've heard lots of stories of people who really had GI problems after eating bananas on the course.  And remember, you only need to consume enough calories to get over the finish line.  Anything more than that could put your stomach in jeopardy.


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