The other day, I had just finished swimming a quick 800 meters. As I pushed off the wall to start a few drills, my right calf seized up in an agonizing cramp. My friend helped me to the side of the pool, and I was able to stretch it on the wall to relieve the pain. Luckily for me, I was swimming with a buddy and she helped me keep my cool (Be safe when you swim! Either make sure the lifeguards are paying attention, or have a friend there who is).
But what gave me the cramp in the first place? Several factors can lead down the road to crampsville, and knowing a few strategies for preventing them or stopping them quickly allows you to keep swimming, cycling, and/or running enough to complete your training day.
- Overused/fatigued muscles, or not properly warming up
- Imbalance of electrolytes
First off, make sure you’re taking in enough fluids. With recent studies shredding some of our long-held beliefs about how to hydrate, you’ll probably want to do some research in order to find what works best for you. But new studies suggest we should always exercise with a sports drink that will replace sodium and electrolytes, not just plain water. My favorite drink is Fluid by a local company here in SLO. I like the Blueberry Pomegranate flavor, which is very light but still sweet. Plus, it really, really works without causing stomach distress.
Staying properly hydrated is key to cycling and triathlon in general, but even more important when cramps are in the mix. Beyond hydration, you want to make sure you’re taking in enough potassium and sodium. Eat foods like bananas, spinach, and potatoes (probably not of the French fried variety) to keep your levels high. I’ve also heard that drinking 3 ounces of pickle juice will stop cramps in their pain-inducing tracks. But since I’ve never thought to keep an extra bottle of pickle juice with me when I work out, I’ve never had the chance to try it. If you have, please let me know how it went.
Next, it’s important not to add more to your workout than your muscles can handle. As a general rule, don’t add more than ten percent per week to your max distances. Going too far too fast will definitely tire your muscles out, and may keep you from recovering properly after a strong workout.
Speaking of recovery, it’s also a great idea to recover properly! Drink chocolate milk, eat pistachios, or try Fluid’s great recovery products within 30 minutes of an intense workout. I use the chocolate powder mixed with milk. It’s a little tough to get down in just water, but it’s doable if you’re on the go.
Finally, it’s also important to warm up and cool down properly. Don’t stretch until you’re sweating, and get your heart rate up gradually. I usually go easily for the first 10 minutes of whichever sport I’m doing–so 10 minutes of easy spinning, walking/jogging, or kicking with a board. When you’ve done your set or miles, take it easy for several minutes and do some stretching to loosen everything up for tomorrow.