Recently I wrote a column on how to prevent thigh muscle cramping. After doing a good amount of research – on the research – on muscle cramping, I experienced muscle cramping myself. It isn’t the first time I’ve experienced muscle cramps, but I will say that I don’t have a family history of muscle cramps nor do I have a history of tendon or ligament injuries. All three of these items were found to be associated with cramping in one research paper.
In my opinion, based only on my personal race experience, cramps are related to intensity. That is intensity and volume of intensity in a race situation, compared to training.
In short, the mainstay of my training over the summer was directed at doing mountain bike races between 8 and 11 hours long and at altitudes between 9,000 and 12,600 feet. I live at roughly 5000 feet.
In September I had an unexpected opportunity to do a race that I thought might take me between 5.5 and 6 hours. This particular race was at altitudes between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. Unlike my longer races in the season, this race had short, poppy climbs inserted in within an event where most of the altitude gains were in the first half of the race. My longer races had long, sustained climbs for the majority of elevation gains.
Before the September race I decided I was going to ride as many of the short, steep hills as possible and I was going to press the intensity.
Below you can see a chart that displays the heart rate time spent in various zones (using the same heart rate zones for all races) for three of my races. For those of you familiar with the training zones I use, you’ll notice that in the September race I spent two hours and forty-six minutes (2:46) in a zone considered lactate threshold. This was 50-percent of the race time.
(Click on the chart to see a larger image.)
What? How is that possible?
I’ll tell you how that is possible in the next post.
For this post, know that my aggressive approach to the race came with a price. The first charge was a hamstring cramp when I was in the process of quickly dismounting the bike on a steep climb. The second charge was an inner thigh (adductor) cramp on a steep hill that was around two minutes long.
How did I get rid of the cramps?
For the hamstring, I stopped and stretched the hamstring while pressing my fingers into the belly of the muscle right where it hurt the most. Once the cramp was gone, I got back on the bike and started pedaling again at an easy pace. If the hamstring felt like it might cramp again, I changed my position on the bike until I could pedal without threat of cramping. Once the easy pace was doable without cramping, I ramped the speed back up.
No drinking lots of water. No popping electrolyte tablets. (Which I wasn’t carrying.)
Some 30 to 45 minutes later in the race when my adductor on the other leg cramped, I kept pedaling but slowed down. I massaged the muscle that was cramping. I changed positions on the bike so the cramp wasn’t aggravated. Once the easy pace was doable without cramping, I ramped the speed back up.
No drinking lots of water. No popping electrolyte tablets. I continued consuming my electrolyte drink and eating normally, as I had done in other races this season and within the race previous to the cramps.
So why did I cramp?
Intensity. In my opinion, the cause of my cramps - and I suspect many other athletes as well - is high intensity and high volume of intensity. This is intensity that was not adequately trained.
I pushed the intensity at this event much more than in the longer races. As you can see on the chart, I had a 100+ mile race in August, roughly three weeks prior to the September event. I had plenty of endurance.
Though my muscular endurance was well trained, my anaerobic endurance was not well trained. Ouch.
I was able to work my way through the cramps knowing that:
it is possible for me to make them go away, I’ve done it before.
my overall fitness was solid.
hydration and fueling was dialed in.
I used self-talk to say, “no cramping, legs, pedal now”, “shut up legs” (stolen from Jens Voigt), “cramps are temporary, speed will return.”
I knew I hadn’t pushed this hard, for this long in any training or racing sessions – and that’s okay.
Next post…how the heck can anyone spend near three hours at lactate threshold?
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