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When I increase my riding routine I end up getting bad cramps in both my calves and also my thighs and hamstrings. Does anyone have any tips to reduce cramps when your riding gets more serious.

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Do you mean cramping whilst riding or cramping afterwards? – Amos Aug 27 '10 at 9:56
Afterwards, mainly not long after and especially at night – Andrew Lowe Aug 27 '10 at 10:10
Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this! Doctor: Then don't do that! :) – Neil Fein Aug 27 '10 at 15:40
I saw people with cramps in random situations. Sometimes vitamins (vegetables) helped them, sometimes milk products. – Alexander Nov 8 at 8:24

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I had problems with cramps in my legs after about an hour of exercise. A friend of mine that is a physical therapist said that if you sweat a lot this can cause loss of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. These minerals are used to signal the muscles to flex and relax. I started eating vitamins with these minerals in them. Since then my problems are gone.

Stretching and a good warm up is also important to prevent cramps.

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Don't forget to add solid hydration to the answer above. You should be drinking about 1 litre and hour or fluid. If you loose more than 2 pounds on a ride then you're not drinking enough. – curtismchale Aug 27 '10 at 14:39
+1 for ingesting potassium, -1 for stretching. – Neil Fein Aug 27 '10 at 15:42
@Andrew -- because, as far as I know, there's no evidence stretching cold muscles actually does anything as opposed to just warming up by simply riding slowly for a mile or so. I recently stopped stretching, and have noticed nothing. The only time I stretch is if I need to start for the day and don't have the option to ride slowly and gently (for example, if I have to start climbing right away). – Neil Fein Aug 29 '10 at 3:13
@Andrew I have some problems with my foot that a slow warm up doesn't do much for, as the foot is quite static when biking. To avoid problems I have to start each day with a gentle stretch and massage of these muscles. Since I started doing this the problems is slowly going away. But I can agree with that intensive stretching is not good before the muscles are warm and can cause pain. @curtismchale Word, water is important and easy to forget when it's colder. During the winters I always tend to forget to drink enough. – Rickard Lindroth Sep 2 '10 at 13:58
The latest "official" advice is that static stretching should only be done after exercise, while dynamic stretching (aka warming up) should be done beforehand. Static stretching increases medium-term flexibility, but reduces short-term performance. – James Bradbury Nov 7 '12 at 14:31

I used to get bad cramps after just 25 minutes of riding and found out that it was due to low potassium levels. I'd recommend more bananas and potatoes or a good potassium supplement.

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I know roadies who swear by pickle juice - that's the brine in which pickles and gherkins are preserved. Its basically salty sweetened vinegar. The pickle juice I have no evidence for, but a nice road rider told me that, as he ate pickles and drank the juice... it worked for him.

Real bananas is another one, but I'd expect them to squash and bruise easily. Banana lollies don't work, but bars with banana baked in do help.

Simply staying hydrated is your first fix. Depending on the weather, sun, wind and gradient, I can drain two 600 mL bottles in an hour. So for a 3 hour ride I'd need 6 bottles, or stop near a fountain. Pre-hydrating helps too - that's where you drink a couple glasses of water before your ride, not enough to cause bloat. This also helps you pee before your ride. Sufficient hydration helps the muscles to not cramp. point 3 summary: Muscle cramps are a follow on effect from overheating which comes about by dehydrating, and point 5 describes bonking. summary: Sweating leads to a low-sodium condition called hyponatremia.

Then the flip side summary: Dehydration probably not cause Muscle Cramps, and pickle juice probably doesn't help.

So based on that, the jury is undecided. Whatever works for you as a rider is good. Some experimentation may be required.

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-1 Please explain - why is staying hydrated a fix? And why does pickle juice work (if it does)? And what do you mean be per-hydrating? – andy256 Nov 8 at 8:56
The question is how does hydration help muscles to not cramp? So far, this answer is long on supposition and hearsay, and short on facts. – andy256 Nov 8 at 10:10
You have unlimited space in your answer. Comments are ephemeral and could be deleted anytime. Put all that in your answer, so that I can retract my -1. – andy256 Nov 8 at 13:11
Comments are now combined with answer – Criggie Nov 8 at 21:46
That's much better! – andy256 Nov 8 at 21:50

There are a number of potential conditions which can cause cramps or muscle pain, while riding, immediately after riding, or hours later.

Two that I am personally aware of are low potassium and a condition called MADD.

Low potassium is especially likely on hot, humid days when you sweat a lot. The body has stores of most chemicals the muscles need (eg, calcium is stored in the bones), but it cannot store extra potassium -- it only has what's in the blood and body fluids. And potassium, which is lost in sweat, is a critical chemical in muscle metabolism -- even though the muscles don't "burn" potassium (it's reused again and again), without it they will contract and not be able to relax. This can result in agonizing muscle cramps anywhere in the body (though the legs are most likely if you've been cycling), and there is non-trivial risk of muscle injury.

The solution to low potassium, of course, is to get more. Bananas are a well-known source, as are potatoes. It's a little tricky finding potassium-rich snack foods, though, since if potassium isn't listed on the nutrition label you have no idea whether potassium that might have been present in listed ingredients was washed out in preparation. (I've used "kettle style" potato chips and various mixed nut products on occasion and they've seemed to work, though recovery is not instantaneous.)

(Magnesium and calcium are also critical for muscle metabolism, of course, but the body can better "store" these, so you're unlikely to experience a deficiency unless your diet is woefully inadequate.)

MADD is Myoadenylate Deaminase Deficiency, a genetic "metabolic disorder" that a few percent (somewhere between 1% and 5%) of the population has. The symptom is muscle soreness and a sort of achy "pulled muscle" pain which comes on between about 6 and 48 hours after fairly vigorous or protracted exercise and which can persist for days, weeks, or even months. The cause is a defective enzyme in the muscles that doesn't properly "recycle" one of the components of ATP which power the muscles. Lacking intense exercise, one can have this condition their entire life without being aware of it (at least until they start taking statins, which trigger symptoms without exercise). And even if you notice it, the thought that it's a "disease" is unlikely to occur to you.

But it's an incredibly easy condition to diagnose and treat. One merely needs to take, while experiencing symptomatic pain, a few grams of "D-Ribose", an inexpensive "food supplement" popular with weight-lifters, and the pain (or at least most of it) will miraculously vanish within an hour or so. And treatment consists of simply taking more D-Ribose.

Another muscle condition I'm not personally familiar with is McArdle's Syndrome, a somewhat rarer genetic disorder. This condition is known as a "glycogen storage disease" -- the body does not properly store glycogen, a starch-like chemical, in the muscles. The purpose of glycogen is to provide energy when the muscles are deprived of blood or when blood sugar levels are low. It usually will not affect someone engaged in an aerobic activity like cycling, but could pop up when climbing at a very low RPM, say, or when simply squatting to work on a tire. The primary symptom is a sudden, intense cramp, though low-level injury can occur without significant cramping.

A non-pain symptom of both MADD and McArdle's is the appearance of "tea colored" urine, or urine which, after sitting in the bowl for a couple of minutes, has a rust-like sediment settle out. This is "myoglobinuria", the remnants of dead muscle tissue, and it's obviously a sign that muscle is being (permanently) damaged. It also creates a significant risk of kidney failure.

Beyond that there is low blood sugar, low salt, and dehydration, but these do not generally cause muscle cramps, but rather result in fatigue and light-headedness. Low blood sugar can be especially insidious, as it causes "ketosis" which basically poisons the body and which requires a day or two to recover from, while low salt and dehydration, if caught before unconsciousness or a crash occurs, can be recovered from very quickly when the necessary nutrients are restored. But it's fairly easy to provoke any of these conditions near the end of a long, hot day, so it's important to be alert to the symptoms, in yourself and your companions.

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Yes, bananas are the traditional cyclist solution. – andy256 Nov 8 at 20:55

This New York Times article asks Can Pickle Juice Stop Muscle Cramps?

It concludes the something about pickle juice seems to help, but with no clear explanation why or how.

It's a worthwhile read because of it's general discussion of the problem.

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How long are your rides, and how well do you fuel up before and during rides?

Cramping is likely due to mineral or salt imbalance (sodium, potassium, and magnesium, calcium, plus a few other more minor ones). It could also be due to lack of energy of your muscles to continue working. Either could be compounded with rides longer than your body is used to, and both are relatively easy to solve (assuming that it's not a bigger problem). Depending on how long/intense your rides are getting, it may be a good time to focus a bit more on nutrition & making sure you have enough energy & salts/minerals for the ride.

Most people consume far too much sodium (at least in some Western countries), and not enough potassium. A balance of both is needed for muscle contraction. Magnesium and calcium are also needed. Dark leafy greens are great for potassium & magnesium, and there are many of sources of calcium out there (think dairy, and there are others as well). Managing a minimum sodium intake is usually not an issue, however too much can be problematic for other reasons. Supplements can help. Gatorade and other commercial products might be useful too, and may also help if your body is running low on energy.

If the cramping is towards the end of your ride, it may be that your body's store of rapidly available energy is running out. A small, carbohydrate-rich snack before (and perhaps during your ride-depending on the length) may help. Doesn't hurt to try it to see if it helps. As you increase ride length/intensity, your body will adapt and store more rapidly-available energy for next time, but this can take time to develop. Also needed for this is adequate recovery time between rides.

This all assumes a decent warm-up, stretching, and adequate hydration for your rides.

As always, do your own research & consult with a professional when making dietary decisions. I'm just some random person on the internet.

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