A muscle cramp (i.e, triathlon cramp), also sometimes called a charlie horse, by definition, is a sudden and involuntary contraction of [one or more of] one’s muscles. These involuntary muscle contractions are not only irritating annoyances, but they can be painful and leave the particular muscle/area sore for hours to days following. In other words, muscle (triathlon) cramps are painful, uncontrolled spasms that “lock up” one’s muscles and can leave the muscle(s) sore for hours to days following the cramp/spasms. They can certainly hinder one’s best triathlon performance.
There are two different types of muscle cramps. Type I cramps will typically involve multiple muscles. Type II cramps are defined as cramps confined to a single leg muscle. Though there is no clear cause of muscle cramps. Type I cramps are typically related to dehydration and/or electrolyte depletion. Type II cramps, however, are typically the result of localized impairment in the muscle tissue (i.e., an injury/illness specific to that muscle) versus a systemic issue.
[Disclaimer: Though one should be able to treat muscle (triathlon) cramps on their own, if your cramps are severe, you get them often, or you have other symptoms (like numbness or weakness) simultaneously with the cramps, it’s recommended that you see a doctor and/or physical therapist (rarely, cramps can signal a more serious issue).]
There are a few triathletes out there with some luck as they have never experienced muscle (triathlon) cramps while training or racing. Most triathletes (any athlete, really), though, are very aware of the uncontrollable contracting(tightening) and relaxing and the “locking up” feeling of the muscle(s) in a calf, hamstring, or quadriceps during intense effort (generally in the heat) during training or on race day, and how it can stop them [dead] in their tracks.
If you’re one of those lucky triathletes/athletes that haven’t ever experienced muscle (triathlon) cramps, keep in mind the majority of triathletes/athletes will experience cramping at some point- whether it be during their training or while racing.
There are no known causes (or cures) for muscle (triathlon) cramps. The pain/discomfort one feels with/from a muscle cramp is a result of the dysfunctional contracting and relaxing of the muscle(s). Though there is no cure, a cramp (cramps) will generally subside within a few minutes of rest, and [gentle] stretching and/or massaging of the affected muscle(s) [can help too].
Conventional thinking frequently links nutritional factors, such as dehydration and electrolyte depletion- particularly sodium and potassium, to exercise-related muscle cramps (i.e., triathlon cramps).
Endurance athletes have heard for decades that muscle cramps were a result of things such as dehydration or electrolyte imbalances (low sodium/potassium).
Athletes, particularly endurance athletes, have been told things like “ ‘eat more bananas’ and/or ‘consume more sports drinks’- you’ll avoid cramps”. However, a more recent theory suggests that muscle cramps are often a result of fatigue, rather than just nutrition, or lack thereof (because fatigue causes nerves and muscles to go haywire).
Thus, duration and intensity are beginning to be viewed as two of the biggest culprits of [causing] muscle (triathlon) cramps. Simply put, if one hasn’t trained their body to withstand a particular number of miles or pace in training, they’re more likely to encounter cramps on race day (during a race).
Even those that have trained adequately are at risk as changes in one’s running form as they fatigue can also cause issues (such as cramping). In other words, the harder one is going/pushing their body, even if they have trained adequately, the more likely they are to cramp up whether it’s during training or a race.
Seemingly, some athletes are more prone to muscle (triathlon) cramps than others. (Further complicating the matters of knowing a definitive cause and finding a cure for muscle cramps.) One study, involving a large group of runners, linked underlying chronic disease, medication use, allergies, prior soft tissue injuries (sprains/strains and even previous cramps), and greater running experience to a greater risk of cramping. More than one study of Ironman athletes has shown that one’s risk of cramps increases with racing at higher-than-normal intensities and/or a faster pace.
Regardless of one’s risk factors or the [exact] cause of one’s muscle (triathlon) cramp(s), muscle cramps can have a negative impact on any athlete. And, the reality is that determining the exact cause that applies to all athletes in every situation (i.e., a definitive cause of muscle cramps) is pretty much impossible.
So, let’s dive a little deeper into what [generally] causes muscle (triathlon) cramps, how to treat them, and how to help prevent them.
Muscle (Triathlon) Cramps
– Sudden pain and tightness in the muscle
– A temporary hard lump or twitching under the skin
– Massage the affected muscle(s)/area
– Gently stretch [the affected muscle(s)]
– Apply heat (heating pad or warm compress) and/or Cold (ice pack)
– Stand up and walk around (“Walk it off”)
- How Do You Prevent Cramps on Swim, Bike & Run Race Day?
- Stay hydrated with isotonic drinks (i.e., electrolyte replenishers)
- Rinse your mouth with some salt/Consume Noxious Liquids (substances)
- Recover Properly
- Train with specificity
- Warm-ups, cool-downs, and stretching
- Listen to your body / Take Note
- Allow injuries to fully heal
- Brick Sessions
- Form Drills
- Talk to your doctor
- What to Do if You Get a Cramp During a Race? How To Get Rid of It Quickly?
- What Causes Different Muscle Cramps? How To Deal with Them!
- How Long Do Quad Cramps Last?
- Should You Run Through a Cramp?
How Do You Prevent Cramps on Swim, Bike & Run Race Day?
Concrete scientific evidence concerning the exact cause of cramps doesn’t exist (nor does a cure for them), but anecdotal evidence suggests that cramping is most likely to occur when muscles are tired and/or when one’s sodium levels are insufficient or they’re dehydrated. Thus, cramps are more likely to occur in athletes that are training and/or racing for long periods– such as those competing in triathlons or Ironman events (i.e., endurance athletes), those exercising in hot environments (high temperatures), or athletes who sweat profusely or have sweat that is extremely salty.
Regardless of the exact cause, the contraction and relaxation of the muscle(s) become dysfunctional so that the muscle(s) is(are) constantly (and painfully) firing. Muscle (triathlon) cramps generally subside with rest and stretching/massaging- just a few minutes is all one needs.
Though cramps will generally subside within a few minutes (with rest and stretching and/or massaging of the muscle), they are still awful. No one wants cramps to ruin their race day or put a halt to their training session. So, then, if the science behind the exact cause(s) of cramps isn’t conclusive, how can one stop – or even better, prevent – them?
Here are some tips one can consider to help prevent cramps on race day/during training
Stay hydrated with isotonic drinks (i.e., electrolyte replenishers)
In other words, one wants to keep their electrolytes in check and balanced (and consume enough fluid/stay hydrated). While there is some question regarding sodium as well as hydration and their role in muscle cramping, there is still sufficient [anecdotal] evidence from athletes who have found that salt tablets and electrolyte drinks help with muscle cramping.
We would also highly recommend having a looking at easy-to-absorb electrolyte sources, especially in warm weather. I highly recommend Nuun tablets Energy (Amazon Link). Aside from the nice flavors offered, I think Nuun is among the few, if not the only electrolyte tablets that have caffeine in them. I Have tested it for a while and just couldn’t find any better substitute. You could have one extra bottle on your bike preloaded with one or two tablets depending on the capacity of your bottle. (1 tablet for every 500 ml of water)
Also, check out our post on Do Energy Gels & Electrolyte Powder Get Expired?
Rinse your mouth with some salt/Consume Noxious Liquids (substances)
Some studies show that it is perhaps not so much the salt itself, but, rather, the taste of salt that helps with muscle cramping. So rather than ingest copious amounts of sodium that may leave one feeling ill, one can opt to simply swish a little saltwater around in their mouth and then spit it out.
Alternatively, one could try a noxious substance such as pickle juice, peppers, mustard, or cinnamon (just to name a few). The idea behind noxious substances (and rinsing the mouth with salt) is that they stimulate nerves in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach that tell the spinal cord to send signals to cramping muscles that will inhibit the cramp. (It may not taste great, but it’s been found to help some).
While we know that determining and meeting hydration and electrolyte needs is otherwise crucial for performance, we don’t want to forget about carbohydrates, either, being that anything that increases fatigue, such as a lack of fuel (i.e., fat, protein, and carbs), could also affect cramping/increase the risk of cramping.
Since nutrition is a crucial part of triathlon training/sport regardless, one should put some focus on it, and eliminate it as a potential cause of cramping.
One will want to ensure adequate rest and recovery in their training program so that they will be able to perform optimally on race day. One will want to be even more diligent with proper recovery (and rest) in the days leading up to race day and immediately following.
Train with specificity
Though the exact cause of cramps is unknown, another factor that contributes to their occurrence is pushing one’s body past its comfort zone. Many cramps that occur on race day stem from inadequate training for the event(s).
Thus, to minimize the likelihood that cramps will occur on race day, one will want to include at least a few training sessions that closely mimic the race course/event(s) and the demands that will be placed on the body throughout the race.
Warm-ups, cool-downs, and stretching
Proper warm-ups and cool-downs help to minimize muscle fatigue and its effects. Stretching helps to maintain muscle flexibility and avoid over-tightening of muscle(s).
Listen to your body / Take Note
Most often one will have a twinge of discomfort as a precursor to a full-on cramp. While one may be tempted to push through this twinge, it is actually best to stop and stretch the muscle(s) in question. Ignoring your body’s signals for the sake of not losing time will typically cause the cramp to worsen and you to end up losing more time (because of hobbling) than if you stop, stretch the muscle/let it get back to proper functioning, and then get back at it/continue.
Allow injuries to fully heal
A triathlete will want to protect any recent muscle-tendon injuries (i.e., strains and sprains, or previous cramps) by allowing them to fully heal. Once the injury is fully healed, one can begin incorporating appropriate stretching and strengthening exercises.
When a cramp strikes, stretching is generally one’s first response, and with good reason- it works. Stretching reduces muscle activity allowing muscles to relax and calming down hyperactive nerves. Just be sure to move into stretches slowly and don’t force them as moving too quickly and/or forcing a stretch could do more harm than good.
For those that are unfamiliar with the term, a brick session is simply a workout in which two disciplines are worked back-to-back with no rest. Not only do these brick sessions help build strength and endurance to combat fatigue in a race, but they also teach you to internalize your ideal race pace. And, because a triathlon stacks [sport] disciplines, it’s a great way to prepare for a triathlon event/race day.
For more on brick workouts, we highly recommend that you check out our post “What Is Triathlon Brick Training? Why You Should Do It & How!“
Form drills are exactly what they sound like- drills (exercises) to work on one’s form [in relation to specific movements/movements patterns utilized in their sport(s)/exercise(s)]. Incorporating form drills a couple of times a week can also play a role in fighting some of the side effects of fatigue. Put simply, when you do form drills following a workout, you’re teaching your body to maintain good form even when you’re tired. These drills should be tailored to a particular athlete.
Talk to your doctor
Medical issues such as thyroid issues, diabetes, vascular issues, and nerve compression all can increase one’s susceptibility to cramping, as can certain medications. So, if cramping happens frequently no matter what you do (or if the cramps are severe, you experience cramping often, or you have other symptoms along with the cramping), consult with your doctor to look into/further investigate any potential underlying issues. (Source A)(Source B)(Source C)(Source D)
As a gerneral guide, to prevent muscle cramps, get enough fluid before and during exercise. Recommendations for fluid intake before and during exercise include:
– Drink 16 to 20 ounces of water/electrolyte replenishment drink 45 minutes before training.
– Drink 2 to 4 ounces of water/electrolyte replenishment drink every 15 minutes during a training session.
– Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally rich in water
What to Do if You Get a Cramp During a Race? How To Get Rid of It Quickly?
A muscle cramp will typically start with spasmodic muscle twitches (spasms) that progress into a painful sustained contraction. They can occur in any muscle- whether it be in the stomach, side, or legs- but typically they occur in the legs (calves, hamstrings, or quads). A bulge in the affected muscle is often easily seen. In short, the normal contraction-relaxation cycle is disrupted, and continuing at one’s race (or training) pace, pretty much, becomes impossible. So, then, what should one do? How do you get rid of a cramp so you can continue your race (or training)?
- First and foremost, if you experience a muscle cramp/cramping during a race (or training), you will want to STOP (slow down/rest). (There is a part of your brain that will try to encourage you to push through it- ignore that part of your brain as pushing through the cramp/spasm can cause more harm.)
- Secondly, there is no magic pill or injection that will instantly stop (relieve) muscle cramps (spasms). However, most cramps generally subside on their own within about a minute. Though they often subside on their own, massaging and/or stretching the affected muscle(s) seems to alleviate the cramp/spasm as both help to break the contraction-relaxation dysfunction and allow the muscle(s) to relax.
- While the what to do if cramping occurs during a race (training) is pretty straightforward– Stop/Rest, the how-to stop (get rid of) a muscle cramp fast is a little more complex. While massaging and stretching generally alleviate muscle cramps, muscle cramps are not a “one size fits all” kind of thing. So, to truly determine the best means of stopping cramps quickly, one needs to look at the underlying cause of their cramps.
Treat the Cause
The two most common theories as to what causes cramps that are backed by scientific research and experts are
Dehydration and Electrolyte Loss
Though this is the most well-known theory, it’s also the one with the least amount of scientific evidence. Furthermore, at least one expert agrees, that if dehydration alone were the cause of muscle cramping, then in theory one would seize up in saunas or hot tubs, or even just walking around on hot days.
Though dehydration may not be the direct cause of muscle cramps, it could speed up muscle fatigue, and muscle fatigue is the second cause believed to be responsible for muscle cramps. While there is some scientific evidence of this, it also holds up with anecdotal evidence in most people who cramp seem to be covering longer distances. Also, runners that are faster seem to be at higher risk of cramping (studies have shown that fast-paced triathletes, as well as ultramarathoners, had more cramps than their slower competitors).
Though these are the two most well-known theories as to the cause/s of [muscle] cramps in general, there could be several reasons why one experiences muscle cramps.
What Causes Different Muscle Cramps? How To Deal with Them!
These reasons will depend on where specifically your cramping is occurring.
Stomach (abdominal) cramps
These cramps can be the result of not breathing deeply [enough] from your lower lungs (i.e., shallow breathing), or poor digestion from eating or drinking too much before your event (i.e., your triathlon training or race). A stomach that is too full (has too much food/liquid in it) makes it difficult to take a large, deep breath. (So, really, ultimately, abdominal (stomach) cramps are a result of shallow breathing because even poor digestion links back to not breathing deeply enough.)
Side cramps are sometimes called side stitches. These cramps typically occur just below the rib cage and are most often a result of shallow breathing (not breathing deeply enough) or an electrolyte (sodium/potassium) imbalance.
Muscle cramps (typically the legs)
If the muscles in your legs- whether it be the calves, quads, or hamstrings- are cramping/spasming, this could be a result of dehydration, poor stretching (or lack of stretching), inadequate carbohydrate intake (poor/lack of nutrition), or simply training/pushing too hard, too soon [in a run]. (Source A)(Source B)(Source C)
When a cramp/spasm strikes- whether when training, racing, or simply sitting/sleeping- There are, five steps one can take to try to alleviate/get rid of the cramp/spasm (& associated soreness):
1. Stretch the affected area (hold each stretch for 30-60 seconds)
2. Massage the affected area with your hands or a massage roller.
3. Stand up and walk around (or stop and rest/walk around)
4. Apply heat or ice (heating pad, warm/hot shower, or icepack)
5. Take medication for pain/discomfort such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
How Long Do Quad Cramps Last?
As anyone who has ever raced a triathlon, trained for a triathlon, or is an endurance athlete, in general, can attest, quad cramps are horrible (i.e., they suck). The occurrence of cramping [in general] is very common amongst triathletes- up to 67% of triathletes have had an occurrence of muscle cramping.
Though one can experience cramps in any muscle(s), the quadriceps are one of the most commonly affected. Quad cramps can range in severity (and duration), from the small short-lived spasm(s) to the painful “locking up” that can stop one [dead] in their tracks. The [quad] cramp can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes. When the spasm passes, one will be able to control the [affected] muscle again.
As with general muscle cramping, because quad cramps are no different, the common factors contributing to the cause of quad cramps are
- nutrition (i.e. hydration/dehydration, electrolyte imbalances/depletion (namely of sodium &/or potassium), and carbs)
- Fatigue (i.e. muscles that are tired)
Also, as with general muscle cramps, if one has a quad cramp, they may find relief from the following actions
1- Stretch and massage
- Lunging calf stretch: lunge forward, keeping your focus on the calf of your rear leg. Feel the stretch and breathe through it. Switch legs and do the same thing.
- Stretch against a wall: Face the wall, place your heel on the wall/as close to the wall as you can. Your toes should be up as if they’re climbing the wall. Lean into your calf (the one with the heel on the wall) and let the simple motion stretch out the muscles. Not only does this stretch the calf, but it also stretches the hamstring.
- Downward dog or quad stretch: To stretch out your quads (front side of the upper legs), try downward dog to stretch. This will also stretch the hamstrings (back upper leg muscles). Or, you can stand- use a chair or wall for balance, if needed- pull the heel of your foot toward your buttock. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Release, and repeat on the other side.
2- Apply heat or cold.
Use a heating pad or a warm towel on tense or tight/sore muscles. Alternatively, taking a warm bath or directing the stream of a hot shower onto the cramped muscle(s) can also help. One could also try massaging the cramped muscle with ice as that may relieve pain as well.
To avoid quad cramps in the future, drink plenty of fluids both before and during exercise. Adequate fluid is needed for muscles to contract and relax properly. A proper warm-up can prevent tightness/cramping by warming up the leg muscles before strenuous training or a race. After training or a race, take a few minutes to stretch out your leg muscles. Also, try doing [another set of] stretches before going to bed if your legs tend to cramp up while you sleep. (Source A)(Source B)
Should You Run Through a Cramp?
You’re running, and bam- out of nowhere, you get a stitch in your side, a cramp in your stomach, or your leg muscle(s) start(s) spasming. It happens to many runners (and triathletes). One can experience cramps/cramping because of several reasons. These [specific] reasons depend on where one’s cramp/cramping is occurring (i.e., whether its origin/occurrence is in the side, stomach, or extremities- namely, the legs). Despite preventative methods, cramps can still happen.
Should one find themself experiencing a cramp while running, they may not need to stop; they may just need to slow their pace and breathing. On the flip side, continuing could do more harm [than good]. So, listen to your body. And, if all else [fails], just to be safe, should you experience cramping while running stop, slow your breathing, stretch the affected muscle(s), and massage the affected area(s) in a circular motion.
If the pain isn’t too bad (and depending on its location/origin), you’ll probably be tempted to ignore it and keep going until the pain becomes so intense that you’re forced to stop. To avoid hitting the point where you are forced to stop, or to at least try, one will want to deal with the cramp at its first signs.
Ways to deal with muscle cramps include
- Slow your pace and focus on breathing (you may need to slow to a walking pace)
- Drink water (rehydrate)
If the muscle cramps become extremely painful (i.e., the pain is causing you to limp or otherwise compensate), you will want to stop running/racing and allow for proper rest/recovery (take care of your body) before training/racing (running) again.
These steps should relieve the cramp/cramping and allow you to make it safely off the race course so that you can allow your body proper time to recover and then get back to training (or, possibly, racing). (Source A)(Source B)
Treatment for Cramps While Running
- Side or stomach cramps: slow down to a walk and work on deep (and slow) breathing for several minutes.
- Stomach cramps: commonly a burp (passing of gas) will get rid of the cramp/cramping
- Muscle cramp (namely, leg cramp): stop training/racing (running). Rest and (re)hydrate (preferably with an electrolyte replenishment beverage that can restore electrolyte balance)
Also, try stretching the affected muscle(s) and massaging the cramped area in a circular motion. The stretching relaxes the muscle(s) and the massaging will get the blood flowing normally again. Thus, stretching and massaging, combined, should relieve the pain and get one back to training/racing (running).
While it’s great to have methods to alleviate and treat muscle cramps, it’d be even better if there was a way to prevent them. While there isn’t a cureall for muscle cramps or a magic wand that takes them away altogether, a good method for preventing cramps- particularly while running- is to ease into training. Don’t be in a rush to run fast or far or try to do so right away (i.e., don’t go too hard, too fast) – it’s much better to follow a training plan that gradually increases your distance and speed [milestones]. Also, one’s training schedule should fit their fitness level.
In addition to easing into training and pre- and post-run stretching, one should incorporate flexibility and strength training into their weekly training schedule. Flexibility and strength training will build up one’s stamina and endurance much more effectively and efficiently than if one were to only run over the course of their training schedule/plan.
So, while there is no cure-all and, at this point, muscle cramps are, ultimately, unavoidable there are things one can do to prevent muscle cramping. And, should one find themself experiencing a muscle cramp there are a few things one can do to alleviate them [relatively] immediately.