Charley horse? Here’s how to deal with those annoying leg cramps
When I offered to sub for my student’s original relay teammates at Tri United 3, I had no race-specific training under my belt. All I had was a couple of three-hour rides and not a whole lot of intensity since I was always riding at my students’ pace.
For the first 30 kilometers, I felt great as I passed the triathletes who left T1 ahead of me. I was still okay during the middle 30 kilometers but I could feel my legs starting to get heavy and fatigued. But during the last 30 kilometers, I was already cramping on my arch, inner thighs, and hamstrings.
That’s what I get for riding beyond my abilities that day. The dreaded charley horse reared its ugly head once again.
Leg cramps or “charley horse” are involuntary muscle contractions typically affecting the thigh or calf muscles. They are characterized by intense tightening of skeletal muscles that can come without warning and can be excruciatingly painful. It usually involves a muscle that crosses more than one joint such as the calf, which crosses the ankle and knee, and biceps femoris, which crosses the hip and knee.
Contrary to popular belief, dehydration or electrolyte imbalance is not to blame. Studies have shown that premature muscle fatigue due to sudden increase in pace and/or duration and going beyond an athlete’s current abilities affects a muscle’s capacity to relax, which leads to cramps.
But you can actually prevent it from happening:
- Take your time warming up
- Control your pace and race within your abilities
- Follow a strength training routine that targets the muscles vulnerable to cramping
- Stretch vulnerable muscles regularly and thoroughly
- Train more to improve fitness and prevent premature muscle fatigue
But when you’re already cramping, focus on relaxing the affected muscle by contracting the opposite side. Stay calm, slow down or stop, and stretch if necessary. Once you feel recovered, give it another go but maintain a more comfortable pace to ensure a cramp-less finish.