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Legs cramping before they're tired.

Old 09-11-23, 06:37 AM
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Legs cramping before they're tired.

This is killing me. I can NOT figure out what's going on. This year, I've been fighting cramps like never before. I realize that getting older - turned 55 in June - comes with lots of general changes/breakdowns, etc. But this seems like a switch flipped.

Background:
- 6'0, 175lbs
- been ridding for 50 years (really)
- raced off and on since I was 12 - never higher than Cat2 mtb
- I'm that typical "club fast" guy who can hang on most group rides... but wouldn't stand a chance in an actual road race above Cat 4 ;-)

Recently - past two months - my legs have been cramping BAD after 2 hours or so. I mean bad like standing on the side of the road doing lamaze breathing thinking my hamstring is going to tear itself off the bone. Also, not just my hamstrings. 5 weeks ago, I had both quads and one hamstrings conducting a symphony of cramps while I used the bike to balance. You could see the waves running through my quads. It was quite entertaining... for my buddies who stood by. (one of the guys went full Mr. Miyagi and kneaded my hamstring and got it to settle down)

I've been reading articles on hydration, magnesium, potassium, electrolytes... I've changed a lot with my pre-ride (including the day before) diet and fluid intake. I've started using electrolyte tablets, switched to Skratch powder... I make sure to start the ride "topped off', drink 24 oz/hr, etc, etc...

There's been some improvement. Maybe. But I feel like I'm missing something. Like, it shouldn't be this bad this soon. Saturday marked my first ever DNF in a mtn bike race. 2-hours in, one hamstring just imploded. That kind of cramp where there's no "pushing through it." I was simply unable to control my leg. I was done for the day.

The odd part is that the cramps hit HARD with very little warning and before my legs are tired. Earlier this summer, I would've said it happens without any warning. But there is a warning. Just before my hamstrings - either one - goes, my leg feels vaguely loose or numb. Then, within 30 seconds - BAM! the cramp hits. Saturday, I felt that sensation, coasted to a stop, unclipped just before it hit.

If any of you guys have had similar experiences could direct me to some good research, articles, witch doctors...

Thanks!

Last edited by Zaskar; 09-11-23 at 06:45 AM.
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Old 09-11-23, 08:02 AM
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whenever I hear cramps, I think of
  • sodium
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • potassium
I don't normally cramp for average rides. but when I plan all day rides, I take those 4 supplements, the nite before, the morning of & at the 1/2 point. then when done, soak in a warm epsom bath w/ a little red wine & massage those legs
  • I use pills from the drug store
  • the magnesium is a very low dose
  • for the sodium, I just sprinkle table salt in my water, not enough to taste, but I also also add a squeeze of lemon juice so that might mask it pretty well
you sound like a more experienced rider than me, so please excuse my sharing, what you might already know
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Old 09-11-23, 08:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Zaskar
This is killing me. I can NOT figure out what's going on. This year, I've been fighting cramps like never before. I realize that getting older - turned 55 in June - comes with lots of general changes/breakdowns, etc. But this seems like a switch flipped.

Background:
- 6'0, 175lbs
- been ridding for 50 years (really)
- raced off and on since I was 12 - never higher than Cat2 mtb
- I'm that typical "club fast" guy who can hang on most group rides... but wouldn't stand a chance in an actual road race above Cat 4 ;-)

Recently - past two months - my legs have been cramping BAD after 2 hours or so. I mean bad like standing on the side of the road doing lamaze breathing thinking my hamstring is going to tear itself off the bone. Also, not just my hamstrings. 5 weeks ago, I had both quads and one hamstrings conducting a symphony of cramps while I used the bike to balance. You could see the waves running through my quads. It was quite entertaining... for my buddies who stood by. (one of the guys went full Mr. Miyagi and kneaded my hamstring and got it to settle down)

I've been reading articles on hydration, magnesium, potassium, electrolytes... I've changed a lot with my pre-ride (including the day before) diet and fluid intake. I've started using electrolyte tablets, switched to Skratch powder... I make sure to start the ride "topped off', drink 24 oz/hr, etc, etc...

There's been some improvement. Maybe. But I feel like I'm missing something. Like, it shouldn't be this bad this soon. Saturday marked my first ever DNF in a mtn bike race. 2-hours in, one hamstring just imploded. That kind of cramp where there's no "pushing through it." I was simply unable to control my leg. I was done for the day.

The odd part is that the cramps hit HARD with very little warning and before my legs are tired. Earlier this summer, I would've said it happens without any warning. But there is a warning. Just before my hamstrings - either one - goes, my leg feels vaguely loose or numb. Then, within 30 seconds - BAM! the cramp hits. Saturday, I felt that sensation, coasted to a stop, unclipped just before it hit.

If any of you guys have had similar experiences could direct me to some good research, articles, witch doctors...

Thanks!
This is certainly not normal and sounds pretty extreme. I would seek medical advice on this one. This doesnt suddenly happen overnight when you hit 55. As you say a switch has been flipped here and something is not right.
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Old 09-11-23, 08:48 AM
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As we get less young, it seems our intake of medications can increase. Some medications have listed way down in the side effects (somewhere under "may grow extra limbs" and "spontaneous combustion") that they may cause or increase the intensity of cramps. I started noticing this painful phenomenon about when I was in my mid-50s. As in my case it would be worse overall to go off the meds, I do what runrunn6 says and pre-load with potassium and magnesium before a ride, and during the ride if it's a longer one (with my diet, sodium isn't typically a problem). It hasn't eliminated cramping, but it has helped. Another thing I try to do is ride at a power threshold where I am less likely to cramp but still finish in a reasonable time.
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Old 09-11-23, 08:51 AM
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Agreed; with that kind of abrupt change, and no corresponding change in diet or level of effort, you need an explanation. See your doc; something seems off. You didn't suddenly get old one day, or cross some age threshold. I'd go so far as to say if your doc mentions age as cause, find a new doc.
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Old 09-11-23, 10:26 AM
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I also cramp way more than I did when I was young and in some surprising muscle groups. Forget the electrolytes; that's been pretty conclusively ruled out as a cause.
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Old 09-11-23, 11:04 AM
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Thanks guys. I was already thinking this would be the nudge to schedule my annual (every three years) physical. It'd be awesome if the bloodwork would be a clue - "There it is! Your htfubulin is low... " but apparently, that isn't likely. Still, this feels like a necessary step. Scheduled for two days from now.

At one of the feed/aid stops on the course Saturday, a guy (as he handed me three paper shot glasses of pickle juice) said "I swear by potassium glutamate". So, if I combine all of the anecdotal advice so far, I should start the ride with mustard, pickles, hot sauce, Skratch, electrolyte tabs... and potassium glutamate.
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Old 09-11-23, 11:07 AM
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Originally Posted by MoAlpha
I also cramp way more than I did when I was young and in some surprising muscle groups. Forget the electrolytes; that's been pretty conclusively ruled out as a cause.
In my admittedly anecdotal experience, electrolytes are not the only or even the principle cause, but they are also not inconsequential.

If it were purely electrolyte depletion, or even dehydration, the muscles that cramp wouldn't necessarily be the ones that are most tired - i.e., the legs. So simple muscle fatigue is a factor.
If I'm at a high level of fitness, cramps are less likely, so training/fitness is a factor.
But if I hydrate well in a ride, I will be less likely to cramp. So hydration is a factor.
If I hydrate only with water and don't eat, I will be more likely to cramp than if I use electrolyte drinks and keep on top of my nutrition. So electrolytes and/or nutrients are a factor.

There are times when I also get cramps during rides that aren't in my legs - i.e., my hands. Whether they are also fatigued from gripping the bars or collateral damage from dehydration/depletion is hard to say.

Shorter: There's no single cause or remedy. It's a combination. That is, assuming some other medical effect is not intervening.
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Old 09-11-23, 11:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Zaskar
Thanks guys. I was already thinking this would be the nudge to schedule my annual (every three years) physical. It'd be awesome if the bloodwork would be a clue - "There it is! Your htfubulin is low... " but apparently, that isn't likely. Still, this feels like a necessary step. Scheduled for two days from now.

At one of the feed/aid stops on the course Saturday, a guy (as he handed me three paper shot glasses of pickle juice) said "I swear by potassium glutamate". So, if I combine all of the anecdotal advice so far, I should start the ride with mustard, pickles, hot sauce, Skratch, electrolyte tabs... and potassium glutamate.
The pickle juice/mustard thing may be real and if it is it may operate through a brainstem reflex triggered by the sour taste, which somehow inhibits the runaway mechanism in the spinal cord. The brainstem is organized in a hyperconnected way that permits funny crosstalk like that between seemingly unrelated circuits.
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Old 09-11-23, 11:31 AM
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Originally Posted by MoAlpha
The pickle juice/mustard thing may be real and if it is it may operate through a brainstem reflex triggered by the sour taste, which somehow inhibits the runaway mechanism in the spinal cord. The brainstem is organized in a hyperconnected way that permits funny crosstalk like that between seemingly unrelated circuits.
My brain doesnt allow me to put pickle juice in my mouth.
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Old 09-11-23, 11:32 AM
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Originally Posted by MinnMan
In my admittedly anecdotal experience, electrolytes are not the only or even the principle cause, but they are also not inconsequential.

If it were purely electrolyte depletion, or even dehydration, the muscles that cramp wouldn't necessarily be the ones that are most tired - i.e., the legs. So simple muscle fatigue is a factor.
If I'm at a high level of fitness, cramps are less likely, so training/fitness is a factor.
But if I hydrate well in a ride, I will be less likely to cramp. So hydration is a factor.
If I hydrate only with water and don't eat, I will be more likely to cramp than if I use electrolyte drinks and keep on top of my nutrition. So electrolytes and/or nutrients are a factor.

There are times when I also get cramps during rides that aren't in my legs - i.e., my hands. Whether they are also fatigued from gripping the bars or collateral damage from dehydration/depletion is hard to say.

Shorter: There's no single cause or remedy. It's a combination. That is, assuming some other medical effect is not intervening.
There are studies looking at serum electrolytes and hydration status in athletes after completion of long events. No predictors of cramping have been found. Similarly, supplementation does not prevent it. The mechanism(s) is(are) unknown, but the best evidence suggests it's due to an imbalance between spinal reflex mechanisms which regulate muscle length and tension.
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Old 09-11-23, 12:20 PM
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just read a list of causes for cramps during exercise. not covered here yet, are:
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy (lol)
anything apply to the OP?
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Old 09-11-23, 12:38 PM
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Originally Posted by rumrunn6
just read a list of causes for cramps during exercise. not covered here yet, are:
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy (lol)
anything apply to the OP?
In order of likelihood...
  1. Diabetes. I mean, it's possible, I guess. I have no other symptoms, have never had any bloodwork that was remotely close to indicating diabetes, etc., etc.
  2. Pregnancy. I'm a dude. But hey, it's 2023, and apparently anything is possible, right?
  3. Inactivity. Well, admittedly, I do sleep 6-7 hours each day.
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Old 09-11-23, 12:58 PM
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Originally Posted by Zaskar
In order of likelihood...
  1. Diabetes. I mean, it's possible, I guess. I have no other symptoms, have never had any bloodwork that was remotely close to indicating diabetes, etc., etc.
  2. Pregnancy. I'm a dude. But hey, it's 2023, and apparently anything is possible, right?
  3. Inactivity. Well, admittedly, I do sleep 6-7 hours each day.
hehe yeah, just throwing it out there. my blood tests are always "pre"diabetic. so I guess I never know when I might cross the line w/o regular bloodwork
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Old 09-11-23, 01:03 PM
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Have you started taking any new medications lately? When I had cramps both on and off the bike that were severe, it was the particular prescription I'd just started.

Otherwise if you've been doing most everything else the same as always, then maybe just ask yourself if maybe you've been going too hard in hot temperatures that you aren't fully use to yet.
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Old 09-11-23, 02:29 PM
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Originally Posted by rumrunn6
just read a list of causes for cramps during exercise. not covered here yet, are:
  • Inactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy (lol)
anything apply to the OP?
Exercise-related cramping, while it may share mechanistic features with cramping from other causes, is regarded as a separate entity and is not known to have any associations with bad stuff.

I did six months of clinical neurophysiology during my neurology residency and passed the subspecialty board exam during a subsequent research fellowship in human motor control. Being an endurance geek, I was interested in cramps, but I heard or saw the mechanism mentioned maybe three times in those four years. No one knows ****.
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Old 09-11-23, 03:37 PM
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It's probably too late for this year, but a study series I'd like to see is a comprehensive study of riders participating in late summer or fall century rides. Get a look at their training diaries, or just riding diaries. Record age, height, weight, bike style, heck, even tire pressure. Offer blood tests to all riders the week of the ride (night before registration, morning of the ride sign in, etc.), and follow-up checks at the after-ride meal. Muscle biopsies might be ideal, but no, I'm not interested in that. Have the grad students at each SAG stop recording rider numbers, what they eat and drink, with a field for "brought their own" pills, drink mixes, or whatever. Then do a monster statistical exercise of who cramps, when, what solved the cramping, etc. Repeat at 3-4 events across the country, so you get a cross-section of how riders respond to "hot weather of 80F" or "kinda cool, only 87F" or "over 100F in the afternoon, warm but it was a dry heat."

Why bother? Well, every "study" I've seen is flawed as far as "extreme" (usually meaning more than 10 miles) riding. Either the samples are skewed to 20 college kids, or 25 pro or semi-pro athletes, often not even cyclists. Show me an existing study, and I can usually find a good reason to put "N/A" beside it if I were writing a review. A comprehensive study of a 300-500 rider event should make it possible to weed out some of the nonsense that flies around.
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Old 09-11-23, 05:06 PM
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Originally Posted by pdlamb
It's probably too late for this year, but a study series I'd like to see is a comprehensive study of riders participating in late summer or fall century rides. Get a look at their training diaries, or just riding diaries. Record age, height, weight, bike style, heck, even tire pressure. Offer blood tests to all riders the week of the ride (night before registration, morning of the ride sign in, etc.), and follow-up checks at the after-ride meal. Muscle biopsies might be ideal, but no, I'm not interested in that. Have the grad students at each SAG stop recording rider numbers, what they eat and drink, with a field for "brought their own" pills, drink mixes, or whatever. Then do a monster statistical exercise of who cramps, when, what solved the cramping, etc. Repeat at 3-4 events across the country, so you get a cross-section of how riders respond to "hot weather of 80F" or "kinda cool, only 87F" or "over 100F in the afternoon, warm but it was a dry heat."

Why bother? Well, every "study" I've seen is flawed as far as "extreme" (usually meaning more than 10 miles) riding. Either the samples are skewed to 20 college kids, or 25 pro or semi-pro athletes, often not even cyclists. Show me an existing study, and I can usually find a good reason to put "N/A" beside it if I were writing a review. A comprehensive study of a 300-500 rider event should make it possible to weed out some of the nonsense that flies around.
Electrophysiology to test the spinal reflex loops and descending neural control would be key.
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Old 09-11-23, 06:07 PM
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Originally Posted by pdlamb
It's probably too late for this year, but a study series I'd like to see is a comprehensive study of riders participating in late summer or fall century rides. Get a look at their training diaries, or just riding diaries. Record age, height, weight, bike style, heck, even tire pressure. Offer blood tests to all riders the week of the ride (night before registration, morning of the ride sign in, etc.), and follow-up checks at the after-ride meal. Muscle biopsies might be ideal, but no, I'm not interested in that. Have the grad students at each SAG stop recording rider numbers, what they eat and drink, with a field for "brought their own" pills, drink mixes, or whatever. Then do a monster statistical exercise of who cramps, when, what solved the cramping, etc. Repeat at 3-4 events across the country, so you get a cross-section of how riders respond to "hot weather of 80F" or "kinda cool, only 87F" or "over 100F in the afternoon, warm but it was a dry heat."

Why bother? Well, every "study" I've seen is flawed as far as "extreme" (usually meaning more than 10 miles) riding. Either the samples are skewed to 20 college kids, or 25 pro or semi-pro athletes, often not even cyclists. Show me an existing study, and I can usually find a good reason to put "N/A" beside it if I were writing a review. A comprehensive study of a 300-500 rider event should make it possible to weed out some of the nonsense that flies around.
Too late for this year but not too early for next year. Possibly even too late for next year. Planning studies like these takes a long time. Among other things, anything with human subjects has to pass through an IRB.
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Old 09-11-23, 07:22 PM
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I understand that pickle juice can also be prophylactic. You might try that as an experiment. About 3 oz. You're a big boy, you can deal with an astringent flavor. That's not a solution, just a maybe temporary palliative.

Low blood sugar can cause cramping, but that's really unusual during a 2-3 hour ride. It should be well known that hydration and electrolytes don't have much if anything to do with cramping, but bro-science persists.

You haven't done anything different with your saddle lately, have you?
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Old 09-11-23, 09:32 PM
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I'll occasionally get cramps 40-50 miles into a brevet, particularly if it's climby at the start. Inner thigh cramps, very painful, hard to stretch out. Then they go away, and I might ride another 100 or 200 miles with no further issues.

No bananas consumed, no pickles juiced, no pricey tablets, no massive change in hydration.

Causes for cramping are not understood, making it an area rife for crackpotism and quackery.
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Old 09-12-23, 04:15 AM
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The only time I ever get leg cramp during a ride is with fatigue near the end of a very long, hard ride. I do quite often get cramp after a long ride when I get off the bike and sit down for a while. This often happens in the evening when Im sat down for dinner. Fatigue is always the trigger for me. I cant remember ever getting cramp with relatively fresh legs. So cramp 2 hours into a ride would be very unusual for me and sounds unusual for the OP given their riding history and sudden onset.
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Old 09-12-23, 08:19 AM
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Subscribed because I just turned 55 too and am curious about this. Sounds like nothing I've ever experienced (my cramps are usually in the Spring due to a lack of fitness) and sounds like the OP is following all of the conventional wisdom about cramping.

Would be curious what a doc visit might reveal and if a sports/fitness doc would have some insight.
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Old 09-12-23, 08:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy
It should be well known that hydration and electrolytes don't have much if anything to do with cramping, but bro-science persists.
I think you need a boat-load of disclaimers before you make a statement like this. "Among well-trained randonneurs," "for those with low sodium concentrations in their sweat," "for people who think 85F is a hot day for a bike ride," "for heat-adapted athletes" come to mind. Remember the dictum, "All generalities are false?"

As has been mentioned quite a few times, there's no generally accepted cause for cramping. There are an awful lot of things that work for some people, but none that works for everyone. That seems to indicate there are multiple causes for different people. If you start with that premise, it seems reasonable to answer with a checklist: try #1, if that doesn't work move on to #2, etc. Bor science? Whatever!

And given the number of people who say salt/electrolytes helps control their cramping, it's reasonable to put them near the top of the checklist.
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Old 09-12-23, 09:55 AM
  #25  
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New meds - no. (not on any meds)
Changes to fit - no.
Changes to diet - no.
Changes to anything... no.

Do you guys remember that movie "The Highlander"? These badass warriors live hundreds of years? Well, I'm like a super lame highlander. I haven't changed in 30 years. I'm the same height, weight, waste/chest/arm/shoulder size. Other than losing all of my hair and looking exactly as old as I am - I've not changed. I still ride a road bike with a significant bar-stem drop and find it really comfortable. I was recently fitted on a new road bike - to the mm matching my last road bike... and the one before that.

At my yearly (every three years) physical, my doc usually laughs and says something like "Same as ever. All good. Well, except for that bradycardia" - knowing I get the joke.

Maybe my physical tomorrow comes with a big "AH HA!" discovery. I mean, I kinda hope not.

I'll keep trying different bro-science remedies - pickled peppers and mustard shots may be on tap this weekend.
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