Do you remember your pre-triathlon life? When nutrition used to be called food, swimming was something you did on holidays and bonking was something you did with someone else, not alone at 5am? Back then the ‘C’ word had four letters. Now it has five: cramp.
For a long time I was puzzled by this ailment that left fully-grown Ironman veterans lying prone by the pool. I had never had cramp in my life but I suspected that was because I had not yet trained long enough or hard enough.
Then one Friday morning after Longtoot I took the kids to Dubai Mall. I kicked the release catch on the buggy and felt a stabbing pain in my foot. This was it! Cramp! It hurt like hell, but just as Crossfitters brag about vomiting and liver failure, I felt like I was making my triathlon bones.
So what is it, where does it come from and most importantly, how to avoid it? After a cursory trawl through the internet, it seems there are a couple of reasons why it happens but unhappily, “the elusive question of what causes muscle cramps remains unanswered.” In short, no one knows.
The three principle causes of what is officially called Exercise Associated Muscle Cramp (EAMC) are no big surprise:
1. Loss of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and calcium due to dehydration.
There’s no real consensus but most sports scientists point the finger at depletion of sodium and chloride. Essentially, training in hot weather without proper hydration trips off a chain of reactions within the body as it tries to compensate which results in cramp.
Hydrate adequately before, during and after training or racing.
2. Premature muscle fatigue
This is a tricky one. If your baby is born at 25 weeks it’s a premature birth but what’s the benchmark in muscle fatigue? There is none. Athlete A could complete a hot and sticky race like Ironman Malaysia, need two litres of IV post-race, but never once cramp. But Athlete B could cramp on the run in a sprint distance event.
Electrolyte drinks low in carbohydrates prior to training as well as sips during.
Consider adding more salt to your diet. But if you get your calories from packaged, prepared food, you don’t need to worry: you’re good for extra salt.
Avoid premature muscle fatigue by scaling back your sessions in hot and humid conditions. That is, don’t be a slave to the Garmin: back off if it’s 42 degrees and 80% humidity.
3. Inhibited range of motion as a result of tight muscles
Spend a lot of time with your friend Trigger Point, attend a yoga class or get a massage.
In conclusion, prevention is the key because once it gets your calves in its jaws, the only thing you can do for cramp is stretch it out, massage the area and maybe sip some flat Coke. And as in many things, experts say consistency is paramount. Avoid the Weekend Warrior syndrome. If you haven’t been on your bike for a while, 100 km at Al Qudra in summer is going to be a nail-biting, muscle-cramping experience.