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Cycling and Leg Cramps (It’s not just about Hydration!)

Posted Jun 24 2010 12:27pm
You may recall, I did some traveling in May for vacation.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I go on vacation it always seems like I have to work extra hard both before (to get ready for it), and after (to catch up from being away).  For that reason, I did not get on my bike as much as I usually do.  I think I may have had one 20ish mile ride a couple of weeks before and a couple of weeks after vacation, which put me into early June with only a couple of bike rides.  Don’t worry, did not completely fall off the exercise wagon!  I was still getting in runs, swims, and some core workouts.  For me I can get a good workout in only one hour in those 3 areas, but with cycling it needs to be at least a couple of hours, which is not going to happen unless I have time to ride at least 30+ miles. 

Well, a couple of weekends ago a group of “recreational cyclists” that I occasionally tag along with posted a 40ish mile route that I had not done before.  It sounded like fun, so I decided to go for it, even though I had only been on my bike twice in the previous month, and only for short rides.  The first half was great!  We started at about 7:45 a.m. and the wind was at our back for 20 miles.  We stopped at a small general store in a little town called Andice.  There we had potty breaks and refueled. 

The way back was not pretty!  All those long rolling hills that we sped down we now had to ride UP, into a very strong headwind!  Our group quickly split in two, but I managed to hang on to the back of wheel of the first group until we hit about mile 30.  That’s when I found myself in no man’s land.  My left leg had been spasming for some time already, but I had managed to keep it from completely cramping by pulling harder with my right leg.  That turned out to not be such a good strategy because once I got on the biggest hill, my right leg started cramping up severely.  I can honestly say I have never in my life had leg cramps that bad!  It got so bad I could not pedal and had to jump off my bike for a few minutes and just stand on the side of the road.  Eventually I was able to move my legs a little, so I walked a bit before hoping back on my bike and slowly making my way back to a couple of members of the group that had waited for me at the top of the next hill. 

Let me tell you, I was definitely not dehydrated, and I was not low on electrolytes.  I know, we are in the middle of summer in Texas, but I had already consumed at least 20 ounces of fluid that contained over 600 mg of potassium and sodium (plus other minerals), and another 400 mg in a nutrition bar at the rest stop, plus at least 20 ounces of additional water.  I was able to confirm my hydration status once I got home and weighed (no change), and checked my urine (pale yellow, so had not overhydrated with water).  So what caused my leg cramps?

I am guessing a couple of things.  One, lack of fitness on the bike.  I probably could have ridden an easy 40 miles with no problem even though I had only a couple of short rides the previous month, but since this ride had a lot of hills and a strong headwind (and later I realized my brake was rubbing) my legs just were not ready.  The second thing was probably bad technique.  Once my left leg started giving me grief, I did not maintain equal pressure all the way around my stroke with both legs.  By pulling unevenly, I stressed my right leg so much that it started cramping as well. 

So if you are suffering from leg cramps, it is probably just not one thing.  Evaluate your hydration status, your electrolyte intake, AND your technique! 

Happy cycling! 
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