Exactly What To Do If You Start Cramping During A Race

And how to prevent it from happening in the first place.


Amy Hopkins |

I was 30m from the finish line and I couldn’t walk…

Here’s What Happened

Last week I did my first-ever Wines2Whales – a multi-day mountain-bike race which I’d been looking forward to for months. On day one, around 36km (out of 69km), there is a portage, where you have to push and carry your bike for 40 or so minutes up the Gantouw Pass. My cycling shoes kept slipping against rock, but my heart was full of adventure! When we reached the top, we had to hop back on our bikes and start pedalling our butts off to get to the next water station. I was thirsty! And my bottle was nearly empty. We had 10km+ of sandy, rocky single track to go – and no shade.

Suddenly, my left leg completely seized up with pain. I had to jump off my bike before I fell. I don’t get cramps, so I didn’t know what to do. A fellow rider offered me salt tablets, which I took (hesitantly with my limited water) and massaged my leg until I felt I could get back on my bike.

Every little ascent or sudden “hard push” would send my legs into pain again. Luckily it was mostly downhill or flattish (no such thing in mountain biking!), so I kept my cadence high and my pedal strokes as smooth as possible. Out of bitter frustration at the slow pace and my body letting me down, plus exhaustion from the bouts of pain, I eventually broke down crying just before the finish line. See below…

Warning: this video may cause tears. But it’s a very true honest portrayal of what endurance sport sometimes entails. ___ Sometimes your body just lets you down. This is me about 30m from the finish today. I’d been experiencing cramps – something I’ve only had once before at @attakwasmtb – from about 40km into @wines_2_whales 🚵🏽‍♀️🚵🏽‍♀️🚵🏽‍♀️ ___ After pushing/carrying my bike up the Gamtouw pass for 30minutes, we jumped on our bikes to ride single track A to Z and I got intense cramps. Someone gave me salt tablets. I had plenty water and some salty potatoes afterwards, but my muscles would seize after quick ascents and ‘sudden changes of pace’. Which there was a lot of with all the single track. ___ Towards the finish, I was not only in pain, but so frustrated that I couldn’t push through and ride the way I wanted to. I know I’m strong, but my legs kept saying 🙅🏻‍♀️🙅🏻‍♀️🙅🏻‍♀️ and would cramp again suddenly and reduce me to immobility. ___ In preparation for tomorrow I’ve had carbs, salt, loads of @rehidrat And I’m going for a massage. I obviously haven’t been doing something right for my muscles to respond this way. It’s all a learning curve! 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙌🏾 ___ Note: I also didn’t know @bernardbravenboer was still filming on his @goproza and when he showed me this footage it made me cry all over again. 😔 ___ @fnbsa @ciovita @wines_2_whales @foodloversmarket #cycling #MTB #mountainbike #mountainbiking #fitcouple #besties #WYMTM #capetownsouthafrica #capetownliving #cyclinglife #fitnessmotivation #fitness #sport #grit #pedalpower #womenonbikes #liv #livbeyond #thisishowweliv #bikes #cyclist #sweat #challengeyourself #beyourbest #truegrit

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Determination Kept Me Going

I wouldn’t let this thing beat me. I managed to climb back on and slowly pedalled through the finish line with my partner holding my hand.

I booked into the EPT tent and, while my muscles were being squeezed in compression boots, I decided I wouldn’t let this ruin my weekend. I had a painful, but good, Deep Heat Arnica massage. I ate a lot of lunch and dinner. I drank plenty of water and Rehidrat. I bought CrampNOT for the next day, set my clothes out and was asleep by 8pm.

In the morning, I woke up feeling fresh and amped! I was excited for all the foresty single track and I was armed with Rehidrats for every water point. No sugary things, just lots of good stuff. Think baby potatoes and bananas. And I had the best time! To be honest, I took it easy – no hard pushing – and went for another massage later that day to keep my body in check. Day 3 I only took Rehidrat and made sure I ate enough. Yes, it was hot. Yes, it was trying at times. But what an epic experience. Riders who saw me suffer on day one congratulated me for a great ride and good spirits for the rest of the race.

Yesterday was A M A Z I N G 🤩🤩🤩 I have this theory that stage-racing works like this: Day 1: “this is hard, why am I doing this?! Yes, it’s better than being at my desk, but… There’s still 185738km to go 😱☠️” ___ Day 2: “omg this is amazing! I’m so stoked to be here! Best time ever! I can’t believe we’re 2/3rds of the ways through 😢” ___ Day 3: “my body hurts, but I’m still stoked. My sit-bones are on fire, but so is my heart 😬 —> I don’t want this to end. Mental note to take in scenery and more pics —> omg can this be over already! Everything hurts! —> whhhhhyyyy is it over sooooo sooon???!!!! Must come back and do this again! Cheers 🍻 ___ So obvs I’m still on the stoke train 🚂 (And sad today is the last day!) ___ #cycling #MTB #WhyIride #10yearsofgees #mountainbike #mountainbiking #fitcouple #besties #WYMTM #capetownsouthafrica #capetownliving #cyclinglife #fitnessmotivation #fitness #sport #grit #pedalpower #womenonbikes #liv #livbeyond #thisishowweliv #bikes #cyclist #sweat #challengeyourself #beyourbest #truegrit

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After all the glowing endorphins had faded and I’d washed the crusty dust and dirt out of my hair, ears and clothes, I decided to speak to my GP and a dietician (who is also a triathlete) about what went wrong. And, more importantly, how I could prevent getting cramps going forward. I’m riding the Coronation Double Century at the end of November and hopefully my first-ever Cape Town Cycle Tour race in 2019 – both of which could be hot, long days out in the saddle.

Here’s what the experts had to say…

What causes muscles to cramp during a race?

“Cramping can have several causes, but dehydration is often a big culprit. Making sure you are topped up, not only with liquids, but electrolytes, is vital to ensure your body can fire on all cylinders. Where many often go wrong is that they fail to load up on electrolytes prior to the event. This means the body is already dehydrated on the start line, which is not ideal, especially in summer,” explains Mariella Sawyer, dietician and Ironman 70.3 2018 winner.

“There could be multiple of causes, but most commonly they occur secondary to dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities. Electrolytes – for example sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and calcium – all play a role in muscle contraction and when these optimal levels are abnormal/sub optimal, muscle cramping occurs,” says Dr Marisha De Jager of Citimed.

READ MORE: 6 Weird Things Dehydration Does To Your Body

Best thing you can do in the moment to stop cramping?

“Techniques to stop the cramping includes stretching the muscle involved, gentle massaging or applying heat or cold packs,” advises De Jager. Most endurance races will have medic tents at the water points or massage stations – this is quite typical for races where you’ll be out for more than four hours, like mountain bike races or marathons. If this happens to you during the race, try and walk to the closest water point or massage station. If you feel like you can continue, then carry on; otherwise signal to the race marshals or medics that you’re pulling out of the event and need transport to the finish line. Most big races – like the Comrades – have sweeper buses that collect people.”

Sawyer is used to training for many hours at a time and she says: “It’s quite hard to bounce back once the cramps set in – prevention is better than cure – but generally salt tabs help.”

How can you prevent cramping going forward?

We so often forget that race preparation doesn’t just start the night before with a bowl of pasta. “Start drinking enough liquids – two to three litres, excluding liquids from training – and electrolytes three days leading up to the race,” suggests Sawyer. “So, for example, have one Rehidrat per day leading up to the race. Make sure you include electrolytes in your race nutrition. With a multi-stage race it’s also very important to recover well after each day and not go straight to the beer and wine.”

FYI, electrolytes are commonly known as “salts” – they are ions that are essential for our cells and body to function optimally and you lose them as you sweat.

Dr De Jager has put forward a five-point plan for cramp prevention:

1/ Train appropriately before a race (including appropriate rest periods during training leading up to the event).

2/ Prevent dehydration: hydrate well before, during and after a race.

3/ Choose salty foods or sodium-rich sports products before, during and after a race.

4/ Acclimate yourself to the environment before the race, if possible.

5/ Prevent carbohydrate depletion by consuming carbohydrates before and during long endurance races.

READ MORE: 9 Disturbing Signs You’re Actually Not Eating Enough Salt

WE DID IT!!! What an A M A Z I N G weekend! I had a really good day today. No cramp not 👀 and no cramps! Back to normal and feeling strong! It ended up being hot as well 😅 34degrees! We had some incredible riding and spectacular views today! ___ I have been drinking (a lot of!) @rehidrat only in the evenings and during each race. I felt so much better! And I had all the bananas and baby potatoes at each water point. Big thanks to @sarahhillrsa for all her advice and endurance coping mechanisms. ___ I’m so grateful to have had such an incredible experience 🙏🏽🙏🏽 Met such great people on the route! Such great energy out there. #10YearsOfGees ___ Thank you to everyone for all your support throughout the weekend! We had an absolute blast! And I’m definitely a HUGE single-track fan. ❤️❤️❤️ ___ #cycling #MTB #WhyIride #mountainbike #mountainbiking #fitcouple #besties #WYMTM #capetownsouthafrica #capetownliving #cyclinglife #fitnessmotivation #fitness #sport #grit #pedalpower #womenonbikes #liv #livbeyond #thisishowweliv #bikes #cyclist #sweat #challengeyourself #beyourbest #truegrit

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