Sunday, December 13, 2009

Double Charley Horse

How do leg cramps happen?

How can you prevent leg cramps?

What's your worst or most inconvenient leg cramp?

Both of my calves cramped up last Friday night. I sprinted to make a gap through heavy traffic for a left turn when my left calf cramped up. I instinctively popped my left foot out and continued pedaling with my right to get myself out of traffic when my right calf cramped up. I'm negotiating my way across three lanes of heavy traffic moving at 30 mph, at night and in the rain while trying to ignore blinding pain from both legs. Not fun.

What caused my muscles to cramp up? I briefly posted this to my Facebook page, and one of my more knowledgeable friends told me electrolyte balance is probably not to blame. I was eight miles into a 26 mile ride in light rain at 45 degrees F. I was dressed "just right" for the weather -- not chilly at all, but not warm either. I was adequately hydrated, though I probably drank a little more caffeine than usual last Friday.

What was the worst place your legs cramped up? I lost control of both legs while I was in traffic; I'm happy I didn't fall over and crash, but it was a pretty near thing for me.

Any tips to prevent leg cramps? This isn't a chronic thing for me. I used to cramp up fairly frequently when I lived in Texas and cycled in the summer heat. I hadn't had a charley horse in several years, but this year I've had two. Do you get leg cramps? How often?


  1. I have had this happen to me recently too. For myself it was at the top of a hill where I was sprinting to clear a 4-way stop. I mostly cramp in the right leg, no left leg cramps yet. I almost always unclip the left so I suspect the extra strain is somehow to blame. In the summer when this happened it was clearly electrolyte balance issues. But my most recent cases were winter riding and I suspect it was a combination of temperature, caffeine, and fatigue.

  2. Katie Compton has talked about sever cramping. Maybe ask her.

  3. Muscle cramps are a surprisingly complex topic due to the combination of multiple causes and typically temporary nature. Fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, nerve impingement, temperature, stress, and injury are all likely candidates, alone or in combination. For me, a banana with some water, five minutes of rest and easy stretching, usually resolve whatever causes mine. If you're a fit cyclist doing 30mph in traffic in the rain, and if the cramps recur, I'm guessing a banana or orange juice (either for the K (potassium)) and stretching might help. Or possibly your muscle fibers are aging, protesting that you should slow down to 27mpg when it rains.

  4. Three words:

    Drink more fluids.

    I get cramps bad in my vastus medialis muscles (the bulge just above your knee), in swimming, running, or cycling. Every time it happens, I've been lax on my fluid intake - either not enough, or assuming that coffee is a good substitute for water. Electrolyte-supplements seem to help, but the biggest factor is always the volume of diuretic-free water (i.e. no caffeine and no alcohol!)

  5. I used to cramp fairly regularly when I cycled in north Central Texas. Before this year, the last time I had a leg cramp was in the 90s, after a bike ride in summer heat and then I foolishly jumped into a cold swimming pool. This year I've had leg cramps twice now.

    @Duncan: It's almost always my left leg, and it's always the calf.

    @getinlost: I wanted to sever my legs for a couple of minutes there.

    @Tinker: I've read that age is a contributing factor.

    @John: That's what I did for the rest of the ride -- slowed way down! About 10 miles down the road my right leg twitched again so I let up. I wasn't going 30 mph -- the traffic around me was, which made cutting across to the sidewalk more challenging.

  6. I'm far from the norm because both my legs have been broken, the left one twice, and the necessary surgeries have 're-arranged' some of my muscles. I've learned that staying both warm and hydrated is essential. The left leg will cramp if it gets cold, so I have to keep it covered at night, and if there's a headwind on a hot day and I'm sweating, there's a good chance it will cramp from the rapid cooling. So I drink lots of water and try to keep some leg warmers handy.

  7. Forgot one more thing: Yoga or Pilates or similar routines are great for stretching muscles in the opposite direction that cycling tenses them. When I do yoga routinely my cramp frequency drops considerably.

  8. ...all kinds of good advice so i could only add by way of suggestion that in the cold &/or damp we tend to do little things to compensate for subliminal physical discomfort by tensing in various spots...

    ...might be as simple as having something w/ you not being as relaxed as you might be under normal conditions...

    ...just sayin'...

  9. I used to get leg cramps after a long ride. Drinking more alone did not help. Now before the ride is over I stop for a bag of Fritos and a can of V8. Mmmmm Boy those electrolites taste good! And my legs no longer cramp. : )

  10. Mmm, Fritos and V8. I'll have to give that shot.

    I think for me the chilled legs theory is probably what happened.