What causes them and how to deal with them.

Muscle Cramps

Have you needed to stop on your ride due to cramping?  Save your tears, fluid loss will only cause more cramps!

Most people experience cramping during high intensity or prolonged exercise. This article will give you insight into how your body is responding during cramping, some tools to avoid it and the best way to manage it.


So, what is a cramp?

In the medical world, the cause of an exercise associated muscle cramp remains unknown. A general understanding is that cramps can be caused by muscle fatigue, dehydration and electrolyte loss or a combination of both. They can be defined as a painful muscle spasm during or immediately following exercise. However, the dehydration-electrolyte imbalance theory is the most common belief.

The human body is very good at retaining water, however when your cycling for hours on end you’re most likely not ingesting enough water to replace the fluid loss. Through sweat you lose both water and electrolytes, which result in sensitization of nerve terminals that initiates a cramp.


How can you avoid cramping?

WATER: Drinking at least 1L of fluid per hour may help to prevent cramping. If the conditions are very hot and humid and you are predisposed to cramps, it is recommended you carry 2 biddons -1 water and 1 electrolyte (Hydralyte/Powerade/Gatorade/etc.) whilst you’re cycling. Sip the electrolyte bottle (approx. 200ml per hour) and aim to finish the water bottle each hour.

TIP: if you’re worried about cramping, with your electrolyte drink add 3.0grams of salt to the drink and mix thoroughly.

Stretching: Nothing is worse that having to stop for cramps. By stretching the affected muscle group you will restore the physiological relationship through inhibition of the alpha motor neuron. Be careful not to overstretch and injure the muscle belly. Deep breathing through the stretching period will help. Aim to stretch the affected muscle for 30 seconds, rest or walk lightly for 30 seconds before returning and completing another 2 -3 rounds. If the cramping persists try further walking, self-massage, applying ice and leg elevation for best results.

Ingesting Sodium: Oral sodium tablets have been used to reduce exercise associated muscle cramping specifically in hot and humid conditions. If you’re exercising for prolonged periods where you may not be able to consume adequate fluid levels, the additional sodium is a great way to prevent cramping.

TIP: when taking salt tablets (600mg – 1.2g) aim to ingest 1L of water/concentrated electrolyte over a 30 minute period.

NOTE: before taking any oral or intravenous sodium(salt), check with your GP or pharmacist for any contraindications that may affect your current health status.


How can you introduce salt into your diet?

Maintenance of hydration and sodium balance has been proven to be an effective prevention strategy for heat related cramps. If you’re struggling with exercise associated cramps, try adding a little extra table salt or nuts to your diet which will be a healthier option than eating processed foods. After intense exercise you may want to also look at incorporating “Hydralyte” into your pre or post workout diet. Their products can be purchased over the counter and are in accordance with the World Health Organisation where they provide an effective treatment for rapid rehydration.

NOTE: again, check with your GP before trying my above suggestions.

A simple way to check the fluid lost after riding is weighing in directly before and after. For best results, weigh in the nude.

As a professional athlete with a degree and Masters in Sports Science, I offer my advice on avoiding cramping during intense exercise. I do however suggest you see your Doctor before embarking on electrolyte therapy of any kind, such as sodium replacement.”

Until next time, be safe and share the road.

Josh McHugh
Professional Triathlete



Bergeron, M. (2008). Muscle Cramps during Exercise-Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte Deficit?. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 7(1), 50-55.

Edouard, P. (2014). Exercise associated muscle cramps: Discussion on causes, prevention and treatment. Science & Sports, 29(6), 299-305.

Miller, K. C., Stone, M. S., Huxel, K. C., & Edwards, J. E. (2010). Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. Sports Health, 2(4), 279–283.

Schwellnus, M., Drew, N., & Collins, M. (2008). Muscle Cramping in Athletes—Risk Factors, Clinical Assessment, and Management. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 27(1), 183-194.

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