May
20

Preventing cramps on your mountain bike – more than hydration and electrolytes

I seem to be getting a lot of questions about cramps right now so I wanted to share my basic advice for preventing them. Cramping can be a bit more complicated than most people realize because there is more than one thing that can be causing it.

imagesUnfortunately, this also means that cramping is not related to your banana intake.

In fact, once your hydration and electrolyte bases are covered (which isn’t hard to do as I outlined in this article) cramping usually boils down to inefficient movement and/ or posture. Inefficient movement and posture put muscles at a disadvantage and eventually one of those muscles will give out, i.e. cramp up.

For a mountain biker this means that if you have a quad dominant pedal stroke and don’t recruit your hips optimally – a very common problem among riders who try to “spin circles” – your quads will always deal with being tight and sometimes cramping up. If you ride with a rounded lower back you make matters even worse and your low back will be tight and at risk of cramping.

With that in mind, here is my basic advice to riders who suffer from cramping while riding:

1 – Don’t ride clipless pedals all the time and make sure you can mimic your flat pedal mid-foot position with your clipless pedals. There is no getting around the fact that it is extremely tough to recruit the hips when you are pushing through the balls of your feet. You need a more mid-foot position – like the one flat pedals naturally put you in – to get the hips behind the pedal stroke.

2 – Foam roll and stretch your quads, hips and calves. The leg muscles produce a lot of tension over the course of a ride and you need to do something to address the knots and adhesions that come along with it. Those knots and adhesions cause the muscle to carry more tension than usual and if you come into a ride with an already tight muscle the odds of cramping it up are much higher.

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3 – Use deadlifts and swings to help develop a more efficient “hip dominant” pedal stroke. Getting your hips strong is the key to developing a strong, hip driven pedal stroke. When you can do a 1.5-2 X BW deadlift and knock out perfect swings with a 24 kg KB your pedal stroke will thank you.

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Sometimes cramping is related to something as simple as hydrating properly and increasing your electrolytes but for a lot of riders there is more to it. By addressing the movement issues that can be causing cramping you will not only eliminate or significantly reduce your cramps but you’ll get a stronger pedal stroke as well. Plus, you won’t have to eat bananas all the time.

-James Wilson-

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  1. HundredDollar says:

    I don’t know if this counts as a data point but in 13 years of riding I have never, ever had problems with muscle cramps. I’m lucky I guess. I never used a foam roller until 2 years ago. I always rode clipless until 2 years ago. The first 5 of those 13 years were in Phoenix, AZ, but I always managed to stay hydrated, drink plenty of electrolytes, and bananas were and are something I just eat every day because I like them, not because I think they are helping me ride. I have been doing dead lifts for the past 13 years as well. Not a lot of fast food but I do add a lot of salt to my food.

    Lots of salt
    Lots of water
    Lots of bananas
    Lots of deadlifting

    Maybe if I took away two of those things I would have to ride flats and foam roll all the time. I don’t know.

    Reply • May 20 at 4:09 pm
  2. Griff Wigley says:

    James,

    I’ve noticed as I’ve aged (now 63) that anytime I start doing a vigorous activity that I’ve not done for a while (e.g., mountain biking in the spring) that I’ll get a variety of lower extremity cramps (primarily quads but also feet and shins) several hours later, usually in the middle of the night (much to my wife’s amusement as I hop out of bed moaning and groaning). They always subside after 5 minutes or so and generally don’t occur a second time.

    Any ideas about how to prevent this? Use rollers?

    Griff

    PS – I’m thrilled with the results of your kettlebell program (swing, Turkish get-ups, goblet squat). I feel like I’m 35 years old again.

    Reply • May 20 at 7:18 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It may just take some time to get your legs used to riding. Realistically it can take a few years before you can ride hard and not expect some sort of tightness from the effort.

      Reply • May 21 at 11:59 am
  3. cookie says:

    Great points James, cramping is a complicated process, basically your muscles are telling you to stop what your doing, a self protection mechanism. I believe if your a novice cyclist (less then 3 years training) you cannot expect to not have leg issues, unless you are genetically gifted it takes time to adapt.
    It always amazes me when people are astonished they get cramps in their 1st or 2nd 100km enduro or XC race.. The first thing they blame is fluid or food. ha!

    cheers

    Reply • May 20 at 9:02 pm
  4. Steve says:

    Coach James,

    I have a question. In reading your stuff now for awhile I caught a hint here and there about your lack of love for Sports Legs supplements. Can you point me in the direction of an article or just tell me what you think? I just came back from riding the Assault on Mount Mitchell on my mountain bike and used Sports Legs to get me the 78 miles to Marion. I missed the time cutoff to start the Assault but I felt I had the legs and lungs for the climb. Keep up the great work and I will continue to be a loyal student.

    Peace and Bikes

    Reply • May 27 at 5:19 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Basically because there is no real evidence that it works, the company behind it based their marketing on old science for a looooong time (telling me they are either not up on the latest science or they knowingly lied), the proposed mechanism for how it works at the dosages they recommend is questionable at best.

      I’ve also asked around and not a single nutrition expert I trust recommends it or agrees with the claims. Unfortunately we have a clear cut case of the placebo affect on our hands – if I hand you some pills and tell you that they will reduce the burn and improve your endurance and you believe it there is a strong chance that it will have some affect.

      Most supplements are pretty worthless and Sports Legs is in that category in my opinion.

      Reply • May 27 at 8:23 am
  5. Colleen says:

    I’ve also learned that water quality will make an enormous difference. Many different types of water are not very hydrating at all… it does not necessarily matter how much we drink but instead how much do we absorb. Are we hydrating our tissues at a deep level allowing for the lymphatic system to deal with all the lactic acid and waste? Many bottled waters are completely stripped of minerals through a process known as reverse osmosis… often leaving aggressive water in plastic bottles with the pH of maybe three or four. When we’re burning our bodies hard for a long period of time the last thing we need is more acid with lack of absorption. You can drink a gallon of water and do nothing more keeping give yourself a colon flush… may not do much for the leg cramps at all.

    We are 75% water… I wonder why are we so focused on nutrition but not the quality of water we are drinking. Proper hydration will make a difference, most professional athletes are aware of this.

    Reply • May 28 at 3:01 am
  6. Cisco says:

    it sucks big time that I send support questions that get answered days later by some girls and then half of my questions are ignored and then I never hear back…I signed up cash you wrote we have access to you…not some secretary that forward emailsl to you and forwards replies to me …thats not cool man specially if then you reply all kinds of question on Facebook and your blog

    Reply • May 26 at 10:47 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Not sure what you are upset about, I checked and all of your questions were answered within the 24-48 hour window we indicate it takes us to respond to emails. I also see no problem with having “some girls” who work very hard to help me keep on top of things come to me with email questions and respond with with my answers – that method saves me time and allows me to give more detailed responses rather than trying to rush through a bunch of emails. There is no way I could keep up with all of the emails and things that come in by myself and many people have personal assistants who help them.

      From what I can see from your emails, they have done a great job of trying to answer your questions, many of which are tough to decipher given the lack of basic punctuation like question marks. If you had questions that did not get answered then I missed them as well and perhaps you were not clear enough with them.

      BTW, I do not personally answer everything on FB or my blog (my “girls” help me with that as well) and it usually takes me 24-48 hours to respond to FB and blog comments as well.

      So again, I am not sure what you are upset about but if you would like my help this is not the best way to go about getting it. You are expecting something that I never promised (email responses to you typed out by me within a few hours) and can not deliver. However, I am more than happy to answer any questions that you have as long as you can wait 24-48 hours like everyone else and can accept emails from “some girls” on my behalf.

      Reply • May 28 at 12:52 pm
  7. Morny says:

    So often I’ve has this issue while riding! And it feels awful during riding having a cramp. However, thanks for the effective advice, will keep in mind these to prevent cramps during mountain biking.

    Reply • December 27 at 3:28 am

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James Wilson
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Mountain Bike Coach
James Wilson