Don’t let cramping ruin your triathlon performance. Here’s how to avoid cramps in your next race or tough training session.

What are cramps and what causes them?

Cramps are painful, uncontrolled spasms that lock up your muscles. A serious barrier to your best triathlon performance, cramping is something the majority of triathletes will experience at some point, either during training or racing.

When Craig Alexander set a new course record at the Ironman World Championships in 2011, the three-time Aussie world champ had to stop stretch his hamstrings when cramp struck near the end of the run – so it really is something that can affect everyone!

While there’s no concrete scientific proof regarding exactly what causes cramps, anecdotal evidence suggests that cramping is more likely when muscles are tired and/or when sodium levels are low. Cramps are therefore more likely in athletes training and racing for long periods – such as Ironman competitors, those exercising in high temperatures or athletes who have high sweat rates or extremely salty sweat.

Whatever the case, the muscle contraction and relaxing reflex becomes dysfunctional so that the muscles are constantly and painfully firing. Most cramps will subside with a few minutes of rest and stretching, but the tips below will help you avoid cramp and treat it if you feel it coming on.

Tips to avoid cramping

Stay hydrated with isotonic drinks

Despite the question of sodium’s role in relation to cramping, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from racers who have found relief from cramps thanks to the use of salt tablets or electrolyte drinks during competition.

There are plenty of electrolyte drinks out there from the many flavours and caffeine options of High5 or Powerbar to more tailored solutions with varying concentrations like Precision Hydration. Salt capsules are another great way to boost your sodium levels, both before and during your race.

Keeping your electrolytes up can also aid in the digestion of your other sports nutrition and can help avoid hyponatraemia – dilution of sodium in the blood, which occurs when drinking too much water, a condition that’s far more severe than dehydration.

Swill some salt

Some studies have suggested that it’s actually the taste of sodium that creates interference between the brain and muscles, tricking the brain into relaxing the muscles and that it’s this that relieves cramps, rather than actually ingesting sodium itself.

If you’re prone to cramps during the run, pack a couple of salt sachets and when you get the tell-tale tightening and spasms that foreshadow cramping, swill the salt around your mouth with a little water at an aid station. Swallowing the salty mix might cause you to feel sick however, so it’s probably best to spit it out after swilling.

Recover properly

Ensuring good rest and recovery after going hard in training – as well as varying the type of training – can help avoid overusing the same muscle groups and fatiguing muscles into cramping. Plan easy recovery sessions the day after hard ones and try to reduce back-to-back sessions in the same discipline.

Train with specificity

Cramps often come on when you push your body past its comfort zone, which is why many athletes suffer more from cramps in racing than in training. To get your body used to the rigours of race day, set yourself some training sessions that closely replicate the intensity of your race. Be sure to plan rest days afterwards too to let your muscles adapt to the load.

Warm-ups, warm-downs and stretching

To minimise the effects of muscle fatigue, add in easy warm-ups, warm-downs and stretching to maintain muscle flexibility and avoid over-tightening. This is especially important for running, which puts the most strain on the body, with the calves, hamstrings and quads being common points for cramping. After each run, do a stretching routine to keep your legs supple, concentrating on these muscles and holding the stretch for 40 seconds to a minute.

Listen to your body

Most athletes usually get a twinging sensation on the cusp of cramping before a full cramp strikes. Pushing through this will almost certainly make the cramping worse, so even if you’re in a race, stop to stretch the affected muscle right away. This can help stave off a cramp attack – or at least buy you a little time to get to an aid station to get some electrolytes into your system. You might lose a bit of time, but less than if you’re reduced to a hobble all the way to the finish line.

Cramping – the bottom line

With no definitive cause or cure for cramping, you’ll need to find out what works for you. If you’re particularly prone to cramping, try upping your sodium levels and repeating sessions that have caused cramp previously. By gaining as much experience as you can prior to your race, you’re more likely to tackle the physical and mental pain of cramps on the big day.

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