Middaugh Coaching Corner - Don't Cramp My Style!

Jun. 16, 2016


Most of us have experienced cramps at one point or another during a race. Sometimes they go away right away and other times they can be so debilitating that you have to stand in place until they subside or drop out of the race completely. Cramps can derail a race and leave you extremely frustrated. Research is all over the place as to what exactly causes cramping and what you can do to alleviate them and the cause is likely multifactorial. The cure may be different for each athlete as well. We have put together some widely recognized causes of cramping:

  1. Lack of Fitness (Fatigue-induced abnormality of neuromuscular control)

This seems obvious, but lack of fitness often leads to cramping if you push too hard for too long. So get in better shape!  Consider the specific race demands that you will encounter including intensity, duration, terrain, and environment. Do more intervals, and simulate race conditions. If your race has 3,000 feet of climbing and you don’t try to simulate this in your training, you can expect to cramp during that race, believe me I’ve done it. If your preparation is lacking, it’s that much more important to pace yourself during your race and know your limitations. Often athletes race much harder than they do during training. If your race effort is nothing like your training you are much more likely to cramp.

  1. Lack of Fluids and Electrolytes

Every athlete has been told that in order to avoid cramps they need to stay hydrated and ingest electrolytes. Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium help produce nerve impulses which cause your muscles to contract. It makes sense that if electrolytes are depleted your muscles might be more likely to cramp however there is not a lot of research that proves that lack of fluids and electrolytes causes cramping, but they may contribute to it. So what does this mean? Well, each XTERRA can be long and grueling. Over the course of 2-4 hours you need electrolytes and water for optimal performance. We know that a 2% loss in total body water can cause a significant drop in performance. For this reason, even if hydration and electrolytes are not the cause of cramps, still pay close attention to hydration and electrolyte protocols for optimal performance and to help decrease the likelihood of cramping.

  1. Nutrition

Inadequate carbohydrate stores has long been thought to be a potential reason for muscle cramps as well. It makes sense that over worked muscles may cramp as their power source is depleted. Again, research does not seem to support lack of carbohydrates alone as the cause of cramping, but your muscles need fuel to perform so you still want to make sure that you properly fuel during your race. XTERRA races are intense and rely primarily on carbohydrate stores in the muscles and liver, which are limited. Carbohydrate cannot be replenished at the rate it can be burned, so the goal is to delay the depletion of your glycogen stores just long enough to get across the finish line.

  1. Neurological

Ever heard of taking pickle juice for cramping? Many of you have probably tried it yourself and maybe you even found it to work. Many attribute this to the high levels of sodium in the pickle juice, but there is more and more research showing that fatigue causes increased neuron activity causing muscles to contract involuntarily. Pickle juice may calm these hyper-excitable motoneurons and limit cramp duration. The bottom line is that a fatigued muscle is more likely to cramp. Also, muscles that cross more than one joint are more likely to cramp when they get into a shortened position. Examples of this would be the gastrocnemius in the calf, the hamstrings, and the rectus femoris in the quads.  Lengthening that muscle will relieve the cramp.

Take Aways:

Lack of electrolytes, fluids and carbohydrates alone do not seem to be the cause of cramps, but they may contribute to them. They do however impact performance so still adhere to fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolyte protocols. Remember the hotter it is the more fluids and electrolytes you need!

Most cramping seems to occur when fatigued or during races when the intensity is higher or the duration is longer than your body is used to. You need to be ready for race intensity and duration. Don’t skip your long runs, and maintain a consistent strength routine that includes plyometrics. Both will help limit fatigue during racing. You need to train specifically for your race and do intervals that mimic the unique demands it requires. I know I’m not the only one that has cramped up while trying to jump over a boulder or duck under a downed tree. XTERRA races require you to ride and run up and down steep slopes, turn on even surfaces, and climb, jump and duck under obstacles. These are things that you need to keep in mind in training. You might need to use a treadmill to mimic climbing etc. but also take into account the dynamic demands of mountain biking and trail running.  Don’t just practice obstacles while you are fresh! A neurological trick you can try is including strides or form drills at the end of a fatiguing run.  Performing some light plyometric training and dynamic exercises can increase neuromuscular control to help with prevention.

Keep in mind that a proper taper can increase performance by up to 2-3%. This increase in performance can stress the body in a way it was not accustomed to in training so make sure that your training includes intervals above race pace.  Some repetition work during a taper period can prepare you for these demands without adding fatigue.

If you have something that you have been doing to prevent cramping and it seems to be working, keep doing it! Causes can be individual and may even have a genetic component.

Be skeptical but open minded when someone tells you they have a solution to your exercise-induced muscle cramps. Unfortunately, it can be hard to prove a negative, so if you take a product and don’t get a cramp, it doesn’t necessarily mean that product prevents muscle cramps. Take some universal precautions starting with your training and make sure you are ready for the duration and intensity your race will demand.

Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA World Champion, just won the Ultimate Mountain Challenge in his hometown for the 10th straight year, and he dances for good cause!   He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro (drinking the pickle juice) also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at www.middaughcoaching.com.

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