Cycling for many is addictive. Often what drives this addiction is a desire for improvement. Technology now allows us to virtually compete against our friends, and even total strangers, from the comfort of our own home, however the feeling of improving, even by a few seconds, up that hill climb or seeing your average speed increase across your long Sunday morning ride feeds an undeniable pride.
These improvements can come from a variety of avenues. It might be upgraded components, improved fitness or strength from following a periodised turbo or gym plan or through improved nutrition. This article will focus on the latter, nutrition.
The old adage that you wouldn’t put regular unleaded fuel in a Formula 1 car so how can you expect elite performance with inadequate nutrition couldn’t be more right. Through following a few simple rules this is an easy one to nail – and won’t require more blood, sweat and tears on the turbo!
Darren Dutton (techie at BikeZaar) has been falling foul of something that could be a result of gaps in his nutrition. Darren explained that despite being fit for his 42 years, was suffering from debilitating cramp on rides of over 2.5 hrs. Sufficient were these incidents that he would have to dismount and wait for the pain and board-stiff legs to subside. This obviously led to great annoyance, as he’d see virtual and actual fellow riders leaving him behind.
One of the difficulties with cramp is that it is so multi-factorial in it’s triggers. This in itself makes it difficult to combat. Darren also correctly noted that there seems to be an awful lot of sometimes-conflicting evidence regarding performance nutrition. Below, is a round up of the advice given to Darren to help him overcome his cramp by sports nutritionist/physiologist Tom Brownlee.
What is cramp?
Muscular cramp gives a feeling we’re all familiar with. A rapid, tightening of the muscle that feels like someone is winching you tighter and tighter beyond your control.
What are among the causes of cramp?
Muscular contractions are managed by salts such as sodium and potassium moving around the cells to cause contraction and relaxation of the muscle. When we sweat we know it tastes salty. This is the body losing important salt, or electrolytes, which can cause this function to become somewhat impaired.
Another factor considered to be partly to blame for cramp is a reduction in glycogen. Glycogen is how carbohydrate, or more simply sugar, is stored in the body as energy. We are capable of storing glycogen in the muscles, liver and some in the blood. We commonly associate depleted glycogen with hitting the wall or ‘bonking’ but it is also thought to potentially play a role in cramp.
As cyclists we are all aware of the importance of adequate hydration though perhaps we aren’t doing enough to reduce this cramp trigger. Darren interestingly experienced cramp more on colder rides rather than hotter ones. This might seem counter-intuitive but when we dug down we deduced that the heat on hotter rides reminded him to drink more whereas on cooler ones he didn’t feel as compelled to do so.
Finally, and off the topic of nutrition, I wanted to give a nod to some other factors associated with cramp causes. Aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility are all very important in fatigue resistance and ultimately keeping cramp at bay. I advised Darren to consider a decent warm-up and cool-down as well as searching for a lower-body bodyweight circuit.
It’s also worth keeping in mind at this point that in terms of cramp generally, and all of the things that can cause it, we’re all very different. Our genetics mean that some of us will sweat more than others. Also some will have saltier sweat. Some people may never experience cramp and some people may be very sensitive to it. With the advice below on how to combat these issues the single best piece of advice is to find out what works well for you. This will take some time but will be invaluable for realising your potential.
So what can we do about it?
Darren was advised to try an electrolyte supplement which can be added to water to replace his lost salts during a ride. Electrolyte tables also often help with palatability so help encourage drinking during a ride, which is the basic first step. I also suggested a product combining electrolytes and carbohydrate to hit two goals at once. For those who are particularly salty sweaters you may want to consider adding some extra salt to your meals in the 24 hrs prior to a long ride.
Muscle Glycogen (Carbohydrate/Energy)
I discussed carbohydrate loading strategies with Darren from 36 hrs before for rides in excess of 90 minutes. The extent of this would depend on how long the rides would be (a two-hour ride would need less of a carb load than a 6 hr sportive). Carb loading would be achieved by increasing the proportion of carbohydrate in your food, not necessarily increasing the amount of food you eat. The foods you use to accomplish your carb loading are again individual. It really doesn’t have to be complicated with staple carbs such as rice, pasta, potatoes, bread and beans all achieving the same goals. Often the preference is taste and convenience, which is fine.
As well as the product mentioned above, during Darren’s rides I advised an isotonic gel or drink to help provide his body ready energy to keep both cramp and bonking at bay. It is advisable to aim for 1g of carbohydrate per 1 min on rides of over 90 minutes. Most energy products such as gels, bars and drinks contain 25-30g of carbohydrate. So as a rule, one gel/bar etc every 30 mins after the 90 minute mark should keep you fuelled.
Fortunately, ticking the above two boxes will help with your hydration. Adding carbohydrate and/or electrolytes to your fluid will increase the absorption of the fluid from your stomach to blood and then into the working muscles, which is the aim of the game. Other than that, be mindful of environmental conditions. When it’s warmer, you’ll sweat more and need to take on more. Like Darren though, try not to think this is less important on colder days.
As stated above, the addition of appropriate warm-ups, cool-downs, strength and flexibility programmes will add great improvements to your two-wheel performance.
In conclusion, if I were to sum up in a few tips to prevent cramp spoiling your ride;
- Make sure you step on the start line with full fuel (glycogen) tanks, so carb load with simple easy carbs (I like pasta or rice).
- Add an electrolyte source with sufficient carbohydrate to your fluids – and don’t forget to drink it during your ride!
- Consider ways to improve your fitness that don’t involve the bike. It’ll pay you back when you’re back on it.