You’ve probably been on a ride and all of a sudden your leg cramps. You try to keep pedaling but it gets worse. Or out of a sound sleep you’re rudely awakened by cramps. The affected muscle spasms and squeezes all the nerve endings inside the muscle. This creates the pain.
Older people are at greater risk for cramps simply because of our age says Dr. Robert Miller a neurologist who specializes in muscle cramps at the California Pacific Medical Center and teaches at University of California, San Francisco. NPR: Warding Off Muscle Cramps as We Age
According to the BMC Journal Family Practice, “Up to 33% of the general population over 50 years of age are affected by nocturnal leg cramps.”
What causes cramping?
Exercise physiologists have several theories on why cramps occur:
- Local muscle fatigue. When an auxiliary muscle (hamstring, calf, adductor, abductor, etc.) is weak relative to a primary muscle (quadriceps, gluteal), it may fatigue prematurely and cramp.
- Fatigue of nerves. As nerves fatigue during prolonged exercise they become more excitable, and more likely to overreact by cramping to prevent a muscle from stretching too quickly.
- Sodium losses. Sodium losses from sweating or not consuming enough sodium during exercise also make the nerves more excitable. Physiologists differ whether sodium depletion causes cramps.
However, in many cases physiologists don’t know what causes a cramp.
Dr. Miller says, “As we age, there are changes in both nerves and muscles. Muscles get more weak and small. And nerves undergo some decay, with the tissue becoming thin. And when that happens, the connections that the nerves make to the muscle become less secure.”
When you pedal your brain is sending signals to your muscles. “The signal does have to cross through tiny nerve twigs, or nerve terminals.” Excessive signaling, which may result from thinning and weakened nerves may cause irritability of the nerves generating cramps. NPR: Warding Off Muscle Cramps as We Age
As we get older the capacity to sweat declines although there are exceptions. Fortunately, this does not mean that older riders are less tolerant of hot conditions. Older athletes can acclimate just as well as younger athletes. The ability to exercise in hot conditions is primarily a function of physical fitness, especially VO2 max, rather than chronological age. For more information see my column on Heat tolerance and aging.
As noted above physiologists often don’t know what causes cramping. With this caveat here are several ways to reduce the risk of cramps:
1. Improve muscle balance
As noted above the quads and glutes are often stronger than auxiliary muscles including the hamstring, calf, adductor (muscle on the inside of the leg that keeps your knee from bobbing outward) and abductor (muscle on the outside of the leg that keeps your knee from kissing the top tube. Here’s my column on 6 muscle strength exercises to prevent cramps.
2. Maintain muscle mass
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get overstressed more easily.” However, you don’t have to lose muscle mass! The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends resistance training at least two or three days a week. My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has a chapter on resistance training explaining how to do it at home with 30 illustrated lower body, upper body and core exercises. The chapter ends with a year-round program of strength training integrated with riding.
3. Work on flexibility
As people age in general they lose flexibility. The ACSM recommends stretching at least two or three days a week. The Mayo Clinic say to prevent cramps, “Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime.” I wrote a column on Why stretching may help you.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has a chapter on flexibility exercises including 14 stretches illustrated with photos.
1. Pacing. Pace yourself during a ride so cumulative muscle and neural fatigue is less of a factor.
2. Hydration. Dehydration itself doesn’t cause cramps. However, the sensation of thirst does diminishes with age. For athletes the general recommendation is to drink to satisfy thirst but not more because drinking too much fluid risks diluting the blood sodium to a dangerous, potentially fatal level. For older riders be sure to drink enough whenever you are thirsty. For more information see my column on 12 hydration myths.
3. Electrolytes. When you sweat you lose electrolytes; however, it appears that only sodium depletion results in cramping. A liter of sweat contains approximately:
- Sodium 800 mg. The daily recommended intake (DRI) is 1,500 mg. because over time excess sodium can lead to high blood pressure. For athletes riding in hot conditions consuming more sodium isn’t a problem because you’ll sweat it out.
- Potassium 115 mg. The DRI is 4,700 mg.
- Calcium 40 mg. The DRI is 1,000 mg.
- Magnesium 19 mg. The DRI is 420 mg for men and 320 mg for women.
As you can see sodium is the only important electrolyte lost in sweat. Many so-called electrolyte supplements don’t’ contain enough sodium.
My column on a hot climb up Independence Pass (12,096 feet/3,686m) in Colorado has my recipe for a home made electrolyte drink that provides what you need.
3. Vary your position. While riding stand and sit, coast and stretch your calves and hamstrings.
To Treat Cramps:
- Break the cramp by gently stretching the affected muscle.
- Flush the cramp by pedaling with the affected muscle working slightly and otherwise just going along for the ride
I responded to a reader’s question about cramping with a two-part column:
My eArticle Preventing and Treating Cramps goes into much more detail about what we know about the major causes, possible contributing factors and how to prevent cramps. I include photos of how to break and flush a cramp.
My four-article cost-saving Summer Riding Bundle gives you the info you need to ride better and more comfortably. It includes:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: Ride Management. 20 pages on how to acclimate, how to ride in the heat without overheating, how to stay (relatively) cool, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat and heat related problems
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: Hydration Management. 21 pages on assessing your personal sweat rate and composition, how much you should drink, electrolyte replacement and the pros and cons of electrolyte replacement drinks, supplements and foods.
- Preventing and Treating Cramps. I haven’t cramped in decades. 10 pages on what causes cramps, how to prevent them and what to do to break a cramp so you can keep riding.
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food and Drink — Nutritional Insight from Pro Teams. 15 pages covering what the pros eat and drink, what you can learn from this, how to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food and what to eat at a minimart.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.