Drink up and avoid leg cramps

Yesterday, I mentioned that my bid to avoid last place in Saturday’s Cry Me A River six-hour mountain bike race was thwarted — in part — by leg cramps early on my fifth lap (a little over 3 hours and 25 miles into the race, to put it in better perspective). I was pit-bound for 45 minutes before finally taking two electrolyte tablets, which gave my muscles a needed salt injection, an injection that let me resume normal function. Or at least move.

I’m not usually susceptible to leg cramps. Last case I remember was on a the Fourth of July Firecracker 100 metric century. Started cramping about mile 50; by the time I finished it was a good 10 minutes before I could clip out of my pedals. I wasn’t the lone cramper on that ride; it was a sweltering day, with the temperature by noon in the low 90s, the humidity not far behind. Lots of cyclists were walking gingerly after that one.

But what about Saturday? It was humid but the temperature was in the mid-70s and it was cloudy, seemingly ideal conditions. What went wrong and how can I avoid a repeat at next month’s race at Briar Chapel?

Here’s what I learned from a quick Google (“leg cramp sports”), which led me to an About.com page written by Dr. Jonathan Cluett, an orthopedic surgeon from Massachusetts who has served as an assistant team physician to the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Here are three tips he gives for avoiding leg cramps:

Stay hydrated. There’s a clear, if not-entirely-understood relationship between staying hydrated and avoiding cramps. That didn’t come as news, but it did stop and make me think about how much water I’d had in the two or three days leading up to the race: very little. I went into the race dehydrated and three hours of hard exercise with an occasional short draw on the CamelBak likely didn’t help. Reminder to self to have a water bottle with me at all times for the three days leading up to the next race.

Stretch regularly. Stretching relaxes muscle fibers, writes Dr. Cluett. “When working out, a good post-work out stretching routine can help relax muscles and prevent cramps.” This one I’m pretty faithful about. I do about a half hour of increasingly ambitious stretching every morning, though I could be better about post-workout stretching. That tends to be a victim of allotting all my available time to the workout itself and having none left over to stretch.

Train gradually “Gradually build up an exercise program, and try to avoid sudden increases in activity,” advises Dr. Cluett. Guilty on this count as well, I’m afraid. I try to convince myself that while I’m participating in a race, I’m simply approaching it as a long, leisurely ride. Ha! You wouldn’t know it to watch me ride, but the second that starter’s horn goes off, it’s a race! While I’ve been active throughout the summer, I’ve been doing a variety of activities. Working in five-hour bike rides once a week hasn’t been one of them. Never underestimate an event.

Next time, I won’t.

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For a sense of what endurance mountain biking is like, check out this 9 minute, 15 second video of Cry Me A River shot by tpiotrowicz from his helmet cam.

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