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What causes leg cramps while cycling?

Ask a Pro — Diane Stibbard

Coach, Personal Trainer, and Two-Time Canadian Duathlete of the Year

Diane Stibbard - two-time dualthlete of the yearQ: My husband has been getting leg cramps during our rides. What causes them?

A: Some people get leg cramps while riding in the summer months. Depending on where you live in Canada or the US, the heat and humidity can soar into the high 30’s C (100’s F). These temperatures not only zap your energy, but they deplete your body of important salts, reducing your electrolyte levels.

Potassium, sodium, magnesium are the three main minerals responsible for all of the muscle contractions in the body. When you cycle, your body uses the large muscles of the lower body as you pedal. Think about the number of pedal revolutions involved in a three-hour ride. For example, if you’re cycling at 90 rpm (revolutions per minute) that is 16,200 revolutions in three hours. Powering these revolutions requires a lot of muscle contractions.

When the body becomes depleted of these minerals, it can cause muscle cramping, dehydration and fatigue. There are a few key essentials that combat cramping that begin with what you drink pre-ride, and continues through to what you drink and eat during the ride.

Hydrate pre-ride with at least 8 oz. of an electrolyte sport drink of your choice. There are many electrolyte sport drinks on the market. You may need to experiment with a few to decide which one you like, and can tolerate, as some of these drinks and powders are quite sweet. Once on the bike, the rule of thumb is to drink at least one 16 oz. sport bottle size per hour. In a 16 oz. bottle the mix usually contains 100 calories and includes 250mg of sodium, and 40mg of potassium. Depending on how much you sweat you may need to consume more than this each hour of cycling, but that would be the minimum amount to drink.

The food that you eat on the bike also contains these important salts. For example, in one standard gel package, you get an additional 55mg of sodium and 45mg of potassium. This additional sodium and potassium is helpful, but you shouldn’t rely on gels and energy bars to supply you with these important salts, as these amounts alone will not be enough.

If you are only going out for an hour ride you can get away with just consuming water, but once you are out for periods longer than 60 minutes, an electrolyte drink is essential. Once you finish the ride, it’s important to refuel with a recovery drink to replace, not just the glycogen you’ve used (energy stored in the muscle), but also these all-important minerals. There are many recovery drinks on the market. A standard recovery drink mix  has 306mg of sodium, 244mg of magnesium and 26mg of potassium. To ensure proper replenishment they should be consumed within 15 – 60 minutes after the ride, and followed up with regular food in the next 60 minutes.

Get out there, keep hydrated, and enjoy the remaining few hot months of this cycling season.

If you have a question you’d like Diane to answer please email it to [email protected] Diane Stibbard Ask a Pro

As a world-class duathlete, Diane Stibbard brings a rare combination of expertise, motivation and knowledge to her coaching. She knows that the driving force to reach any goal comes from a deep desire within. As a trainer, she has a unique ability to help individuals embrace this desire to achieve their athletic potential.

Diane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training.

You want personal training but don’t live near Diane? No problem. Diane does email and telephone consultations. To learn more, contact Diane at [email protected] or at LinkedIn.

Training for a two-day cycling event


Check out Diane’s e-programs: Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist and Keeping Fit in the Off-Season.



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