Performance limited by muscle cramps

I had my first event since lockdown on Saturday. While it felt good to get out and compete on the bike again, I had forgotten what seems to be limiting my performance. The event was a 21 mile TT with a climb at the end. My time was 1:22 and the temp ranged from about 65 at the start to 75 near the top.

At about an hour into the ride I started trying to push harder at the road went up. I immediately felt like my legs were about to cramp. The same thing happened last time, I had just forgotten about it. I have been eating bananas to ramp up potassium. I had a bottle of electrolyte and drank the whole thing before I got to the end even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

In a previous post on FB it was pointed out that electrolytes are not the only cause of cramps. You have to train your muscles to be able to perform at that level of stress for that length of time.

So finally, my question: Is HIIT not a good choice for training for these longer events where there is no recovery period?

My volcano training plan had one session of 2x25 at tempo and this seems to be the type of training that is needed to be able to sustain high power. Thoughts?

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Hey @Sir.Jeff.Kerr ,
Sorry you’re having to deal with the cramping issue. Here’s a good article with multiple links to more info.

Our TT plans incorporate a mixture of long sustained efforts plus the right doses of intensity.
Hope that helps.



Thanks Spencer. I’ve seen that article before, but didn’t really pursue the sodium aspect in the past. I think it’s time to take a serious look at it now.

I’ve done the TT training plan in the past, but since most of my events are hill climbs, it didn’t seem to align. But since the hillclimbs are mostly done at my limit, it really is more like a TT I guess.

I think I’ll be doing both the higher intensity longer efforts and sodium.

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If you’re well-hydrated, generally fit, and not at the absolute end of your endurance, cramping is often neuromuscular. Often, not always. Every body is different.

Make sure you have enough water and calories to fuel your effort. Most rehydration drinks have enough sodium and potassium to do whatever you need, but if you sweat salty, something like CarboRocket’s RocketLytes is great for long efforts. If you are suffering from cramps, I really like HotShot. For me, it will hold off leg cramps for about 20 minutes, which is usually long enough for me to finish my effort or take care of the other factors.

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I’m not generally a salty sweater. For this effort I had 1 gel (lost one or I would have had two) and 1 small bottle of Skratch electrolytes. I never felt hungry or like I was bonking, but I did feel a little thirsty in the last 10 minutes or so. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll have to do some testing.

@Sir.Jeff.Kerr Brother you went 1:22 in a time trial format on that??? You’re a @#$% hero!

Do you know what your Kcal/J output was for the effort?


I don’t have a power meter so I don’t have any data other than time, distance, and elevation gain. I was in the top half of my age group but the winning time in my age group was 1:08, so I’m not really feeling like a hero. :wink:

While paying attention to hydration and appropriate fueling, including electrolyte drinks I have still cramped so bad I’ve had to get off the bike. This has ruined a race as well as some spirited rides. That is, until I fell upon these. I swear by these as they’ve helped both stop a cramp as well as staved them off when I felt they were about to come. Would not have completed my Knighthood without them, nor a couple of vEverestings since. Of course ymmv. I’ve also found pickle juice to help post ride cramps and I don’t even care why, lol!

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Hi @Sir.Jeff.Kerr

Two main theories for cramping as has been noted above, one being electrolytes. I used to be a horrific cramper until seriously increasing my peri-ride electrolyte intake (predominantly sodium) about 6 months ago. I’d awake in the middle of the night feeling that my quads and hamstrings together were trying desperately to rip off the bone, and at other times I’d have triceps, or back or neck or abdominal wall muscle cramps that caused me so much suffering GvA probably would have smiled. And on the bike … not pleasant. I always had a “standard” electrolyte sports drink in my bottle(s) for any ride longer than an hour - didn’t help.

Through this forum (I think) I got onto the Precision Hydration website (see Coach Spencer’s post above), completed the online questionnaire and ordered a starter pack of PH1500 and PH1000. The night before an event/ serious group ride I pre-load with PH1500 (in 500ml water), repeat that after my pre-ride breakfast and then have PH1000 in my bottles, taking additional with me for longer rides. Depending on how I’m feeling and how long the ride was I’ll then have another PH1500 or PH1000 after. Cramping hardly ever occurs now. Not everyone needs the 1500 and 1000, they have a 500 too. I do have Pickle juice as back-up but have only used it once when I under-prepared. This is a HUGE increase in what I was previously taking (no pre-loading at all, and a sports drink with much lower levels of elecs, especially sodium). It’s great to be suffering due to effort now and not cramps.

(And now here the usual disclaimer of we’re all different, check with your GP if you have medical problems e.g. high blood pressure or heart problems, seek professional advice etc etc.)


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@Glen.Coutts Do people not know about pickle juice? Pickle juice is a secret miracle. I will have to look at the hotshots for my KoS, thanks!

(and pickle juice)


The HotShots are relatively pricey but I like that they come in easy to carry metered “shots”, lol.

Do you mind me asking if you are a heavy or light sweater? I just wonder about this because I don’t really sweat a lot and when I do I don’t get the salty residue on my skin or clothes.

Unfortunately, I absolutely DETEST the taste of pickles, do that option is off the table for me.

So for Hotshots. Do you use them proactively or save them for an emergency when you start to cramp up?

Sir.Jeff.Kerr - I cannot agree with you more about the taste of pickles. BUT I have become a convert during long and/or hot rides. The science of Why is still up for debate. I’ve read that the high level of sourness hitting your throat acts like a hard reset on your nervous system thus causing the cramp to unwind. Whatever the case it really does work for some folks.

@Sir.Jeff.Kerr I usually take them “sorta” proactively, that is, when I feel the telltale signs of cramping coming on. For my Knighthood, I didn’t want to take any chances and I took one prior to the start of each video and was able to stave off the cramps completely without ever feeling like I was going to cramp.

I know the company recommends taking them preventatively, but I’m not 100% sold on that (mostly because I’m cheap and they’re not available in Canada). I have to pay INSANE exchange rates plus shipping so I treat each shot like gold.

I’d say somewhere in between. I tend not to get much visible residue on my clothes but at times my skin sure does feel like I’ve just surfaced from the salt mines rather than the SUF mines!

I recently read a good article about cramping, as I have them too on longer adventures. Below is a few parts of the article that discuss the neuromuscular fatigue and muscle fatigue that inhibits our muscles.

Neuromuscular fatigue
More recent theories about exercise-induced cramp have investigated fatigue-related disturbances in the neuromuscular system.
You’ll have likely found that the most reliable treatment for a cramped muscle is to stretch it immediately. It’s certainly our instinctive response. If one of the most reliable treatments for cramp involves adding tension to the afflicted muscle, then perhaps one of the underlying causes is a lack of tension. Or more precisely, a lack of tension on specific structures.
Embedded within the tendons of muscles are receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). The role of the GTO is to measure, feedback and reduce tension within the muscle when necessary. It’s thought that in the fatigued state there is a reduced inhibitory effect from the GTOs. The regulation of tension becomes unbalanced as the muscle is subjected to greater excitatory signals from the alpha motor neuron. Cramp eventually ensues. This theory is supported by the increase in electrical activity that has been demonstrated in cramping muscles.
It’s also been shown that muscles are more prone to cramp when in their shortened ranges. This is particularly true of two-joint muscles such as the hamstrings. It’s thought that the unloading of the GTO also plays a role in this effect.

Exercise-induced muscle cramps
Exercise-induced muscle cramps seem to occur irrespective of weather conditions and fluid loss. Several studies have confirmed this.
In a trial looking at male runners before and after a marathon, no difference was found in fluid and electrolyte balance between the runners who suffered cramps and those who didn’t. In a South African study on Ironman triathletes, those who suffered from cramp had no significant difference in either percentage body mass loss or serum electrolyte concentrations. Post-race serum sodium concentrations were lower in the cramping group, but these were deemed to be within normal clinical ranges.
Interestingly, this research group also measured electrical activity in muscles that had cramped and compared it to those that hadn’t. They noted increased activity in the cramping muscles which they thought may be due to increased neuromuscular activity. More on the significance of this in a moment.
In a further study using more Ironman triathletes, subjects were surveyed before an event and asked questions about personal-best performances, current training loads and cramp history. The researchers found that athletes who experienced cramp during the event had exercised at a higher intensity during the race and had a faster overall time. This was despite having similar preparation and performance histories to those who didn’t cramp.
The researchers concluded that fatigue is a greater predictor of cramp than dehydration or serum sodium changes.

2. Muscle fatigue
It’s no coincidence that most of us cramp more during early season races or when we’re attempting a particularly challenging ride. In this context cramping can be seen as a message that we need to improve our conditioning.
Studies looking at individuals who always cramp in the same muscles, usually in the later part of endurance events, have shown strength work can be effective in eliminating these type of occurrences. A strength training programme which begins by isolating the muscles involved in cycling is a good place to start.
3. Neuromuscular fatigue
Theories on the fatigue of the neuromuscular system as a likely cause of cramp don’t only give us an effective intervention, they also give us potential areas to focus on to avoid it in the first place.
Resistance train into vulnerable position
We know that muscles are more likely to cramp when taken into their short position. We can, however, train muscles to better tolerate these positions.
For example, two-joint muscles like your hamstrings may be prone to cramp when your hip is extended and your knee is flexed. If you find this to be the case then it’s likely you are also weak in this position. Applying resistance to these positions will not only reduce your risk of cramping but may have the additional effect of improving your performance on the bike.
Change positions on the bike frequently
It also seems that having muscles performing over the exact same length and tension for long periods may cause issues.
This is an indication you should switch up your position on the bike intermittently. Get out of the saddle now and again, drop your heels on the pedals to stretch your calves, straighten each leg fully, and push your pelvis towards the handlebars. Move between the brake hoods and the tops as appropriate as well.

Thanks. This sort of says even though sodium levels are in the normal range, it could still be an issue if the normal range is not correct for a given athlete that cramps. I agree with the strength aspect of the cramping muscles. I get annoyed when the training plans don’t incorporate strength (like the Volcano climbing plan).

I did a 45 minute hard effort his morning and added 1/4 tsp of salt to my Skratch electrolyte bottle (I normally just use water on morning rides). Even though this was shorter than the last event that I was on the edge of cramping on, I was pushing just as hard if not harder. I didn’t feel any signs of any cramping at all. I may have to go back and try this same route again without any electrolyte and see if there is any difference.

Ultimately I think I need to train harder for longer efforts and increase my sodium intake before, during, and after the events.

Thanks for all the inputs and I will report back if I get any insights on this as I experiment.


An unconventional thought/question - could it be happening because your smaller stabilizer muscles are getting fatigued? So the larger muscles supporting your effort are now jumping in to help the stabilizers and because of the double duty - boom! Cramps! I’m not a physiologist or sports scientist so I may be completely off the rails with this one.

Training example:
Today is Mobilise and Activate II, Beginner Strength 4B, Cadence Builds and Holds.

The yoga and strength sessions target the stabilizers and larger muscles. Nice. A little fatigue creeps end by the end of strength.

Get in the bike - so the 4 builds putting strain on the NM system. Then the holds come - because of the fatigue the NM system sends mixed signals to compensate + the rest of the body is competing for nutrients to fuel the efforts. Something’s gotta give resulting in say quad cramps.

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Update: I did a 60 mile ride last weekend with 1/4 tsp of salt in my Skratch electrolyte and a bottle of Hammer Perpetuem. I rode with the group for the first 40 miles trading pulls. At a 40 mile stop I said I needed to go ahead and push hard to train for an event. I went at my race pace for the last hour and really felt good. So I think the additional NaCl and specific longer interval hard training is beneficial.

Yesterday I did a century with the same group. I used the same drink plan and I felt fantastic. We hit a steep hill at about mile 90 and I was able to just stomp up it feeling like Bernal in the Giro. I think I’m on to something. I just hope I don’t jinx myself.