Almost every single time someone asks about cramping, the answer I see is “stay hydrated and get more electrolytes.” Even if someone mentions they are already taking electrolyte supplements like Endurolytes, the answer is, “you probably need more electrolytes.”

Granted, scientists haven’t given us a crystal clear answer of why cramping occurs. And Hammer Nutrition is great at marketing Endurolytes as the cure for cramping. But isn’t there any other explanation?

In my experience, yes, yes there is.

The Real Reason Behind Cramps

So what is the cause of cramps for people already properly hydrated and getting enough electrolytes for proper muscle function?

Brace yourself… the problem is… insufficient training!

As with most problems faced during racing, the root cause is insufficient training.

Let me explain…

Going back to my days as a general athlete before starting bicycle racing, I knew about the link between dehydration, electrolyte balance, and cramping. Everyone talked about it. So going into my serious training and racing, I made it a priority to stay on top of that with sports drinks and the like.

But, I would still cramp during races! For me it was always calf and foot cramps. I probably had a few quad and hamstring cramps, too, but they weren’t common enough for me to remember today.

And I still have athletes writing in, complaining of cramping, despite a hefty regimen of Nuun or Endurolytes. Something just doesn’t add up!

I thought about it for a while, analyzing my worst cramping experiences, and it all came together!

See, there were two main times when I would cramp up:

  1. The first race of the season, or my first race after a long layoff.
  2. A really important race where I was pushing myself relentlessly, going much, much harder than usual.

Once I realized this, it was clear as day. I would get cramps from pushing myself in a race harder than I was used to in training.

It could be a higher intensity than usual and/or a greater distance than usual. Or I was pushing myself at my normal race pace even though I hadn’t done enough training at that intensity beforehand.

Either way, the cramping resulted from simply making too big of a jump between training and racing conditions. My muscles weren’t ready for it, and they told me!

My theory is that cramping is a muscle’s reaction to being stressed too much. It’s for stubborn racers like us that keep pushing past the pain and burning sensation. The muscles need to send a stronger message to get us to listen, so they cramp up, so we have no choice but to stop!

Scientific Backing For My Cramping Theory

After waiting years and years for science to prove that dehydration causes cramps (and getting nowhere), we have a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that tells us something. And that something is, dehydration and electrolyte balance are not linked to muscle cramps!

I first heard of the study thanks to Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D. on his Sweat Science website.

Here’s the abstract (if you don’t want to read the details, just skip down for my thoughts):

Background Despite the high prevalence of exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in endurance athletes, the risk factors for this condition are not fully understood.

Aim To identify risk factors associated with EAMC in endurance triathletes.

Methods 210 triathletes competing in an Ironman triathlon were recruited. Prior to the race, subjects completed a detailed validated questionnaire and blood samples were taken for serum electrolytes. Immediately before the race, pre-race body weight was obtained. Body weight and blood samples for serum electrolyte concentrations were obtained immediately after the race. Clinical data on EAMC experienced during or immediately after the race were also collected.

Results 43 triathletes reported EAMC (cramping group) and were compared with the 166 who did not report EAMC (non-cramping group). There were no significant differences between groups in any pre-race-post-race serum electrolyte concentrations and body weight changes. The development of EAMC was associated with faster predicted race times and faster actual race times, despite similarly matched preparation and performance histories in subjects from both groups. A regression analysis identified faster overall race time (and cycling time) and a history of cramping (in the last 10 races) as the only two independent risk factors for EAMC.

Conclusion The results from this study add to the evidence that dehydration and altered serum electrolyte balance are not causes for EAMC. Rather, endurance runners competing at a fast pace, which suggests that they exercise at a high intensity, are at risk for EAMC.

To sum it up in simple terms, this study shows no difference in hydration or electrolyte levels between triathletes that cramped and those that didn’t. Instead, the athletes who were attempting personal best times, were more likely to get cramps. In other words, pushing yourself to the limit (which changes relative to your current fitness level) invites cramping.

Unfortunately this study still doesn’t explain cramping, but it offers a better perspective as to when and why we get cramps, which is the important thing to understand.

Tips to Prevent Cramps

Based on my theory, here are a couple tips to prevent cramps:

1. Specificity in your training.

Your training needs to be race-specific. The more your training resembles your race conditions (intensity, duration, and weather conditions,) the less of a shock it will be to your body when you actually race.

2. Racing within your limits.

It’s not enough to have race-specific fitness, you also have to know how to use it. Basically, you have to know how to pace yourself.

Sure, you might need to push yourself a little harder than that if you want to win, but be aware of the repercussions.

The Final Word on Cramping

Despite the claims that cramps are caused by dehydration and insufficient electrolytes, I have yet to see a study that proves this.

While I wouldn’t throw away your electrolyte supplements, I urge you to spend more time training properly for your events rather than worrying about what supplements to take in order to prevent cramping.

Better training is the answer!

Show References

This article was originally published on July 6, 2011. It was updated and republished on June 29, 2018.

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Levi Bloom is an experienced endurance athlete who has been training and competing for over 17 years. A former Cat 1 road and mountain bike racer (professional class on the regional circuit), he is now a cycling coach (USA Cycling Level 3 Certified) and sports nutrition coach (Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified).

10 Comments
  1. Yes! I’ve been trying to convince my riding buddies that this is true for ages. Instead, they fill camelbacks with saline solutions and electrolyte mixes, and try to convince me to do the same. I only cramp after long layoffs of insane efforts beyond my training.

    I wish more riders would realize this rather than pushing each other to take unhealthy measures to blindly adjust their body chemistry.

  2. I have to agree with you that harder than usual exercise is associated with muscle cramping, but I also think it can be prevented by proper hydration and fueling.
    The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which calls into question its quality.
    The study was performed by the University of Cape Town, which also casts doubt on its quality.
    The study based its measurement of electrolytes from blood samples, pre and post race, not during the actual time of cramping.
    Could if be possible that during harder than normal exercise, athletes fail to increase fluid and electrolyte intake proportionally with the increase in intensity, resulting in cramps?

  3. I agree with the article. Historically I have felt victimized by cramping. Always thinking that I was just more susceptible to them than my riding buddies. I have tried all types of drinks and the results were always the same. This year I experience my usual cramping during the early spring races. Now in the middle of summer my cramping has been conspicuously absent. I have been taking the same supplements that I was in the spring. The only difference has been my mileage. I have almost doubled it since the spring and have also included a couple of race-pace workouts to simulate attacks and breakaway pacelines. The result has been no cramps during races and long rides.

  4. I started mountain biking a while back and I am really enjoying it. I recently got a cramp and now it is still bothering me, so I would just like to know if you could maybe give me advice on how to treat it and when is it safe to start training again.

    • @Calvin

      Bad cramps that leave you sore for days are no fun at all.

      To deal with a bothersome cramp, what I’d do is use a combination of rest and massage (real massage, self massage, a foam roller, whatever you can manage). The rest is so any damage can heal, and the massage is to loosen up the muscle and stimulate blood flow to the muscle tissue.

      Performing self-massage on a consistent basis will help relieve chronic muscle tension, which could also be a great help in preventing future cramps.

      I’d go back to training either whenever you feel like you can or whenever a doctor says you can. Just take it easy the first time out!

  5. What about those who just enjoy riding, are not in training and still get severe cramps? Mine seem to respond to Cytomax and Endurolytes.

    • @Cleveland

      If you can take care of your cramps with sports drinks (Cytomax) and electrolyte supplements (Endurolytes), great! I think the supplements are useful to an extent, because you don’t want to run low on electrolytes. Even when just riding for fun, you’ll still lose electrolytes through sweat, so it makes sense to replenish them.

      The key word there is replenish. You want to have enough, but there is no point in overloading once you hit that point. I imagine the body can do a pretty good job of handling the excess electrolytes, but if you’re overdoing electrolyte supplements, there’s no point in wasting money.

      So it sounds like you have a good strategy in place. That article was more for the riders that are already getting enough electrolytes to keep their bodies functioning well, perhaps even overloading on supplements, but still cramping.

      I specifically titled it “The #1 Reason Behind Cramps… That Everyone Ignores!” because I believe lack of training is a huge cause of cramps, and it is generally ignored. Everyone already talks about insufficient electrolytes playing a role in cramps, so that reason is certainly not ignored!

      There are other reasons you can toss around, too. Excess muscle tension, “knots” in the muscle, etc. That can happen to anyone. And recreational riders are less likely to be disciplined about doing lots of foam rolling, yoga, getting massages, etc., so they could really be susceptible to cramps caused by that.

      And there could be other valid theories out there, too. So for now, I suggest doing whatever you can do to prevent your cramps. In your case, electrolyte supplements take care of it. For everyone else – if you find something that works, stick with it!

  6. What’s the difference between enjoying riding when not in training and riding for training?

    • You bring up a great point Casey. Someone riding for enjoyment could be getting the same effective workouts as someone that’s officially “in training.”

      Nutritionally their needs could be very similar, and either situation would allow for one to push themselves beyond their limits to the point of cramping.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with your assertion. The two bouts of cramping I’ve experienced have both been on longer than normal events for which I hadn’t built a base for yet. Hydration was more than adequate along with electrolyte supplementation and foods mid race like bananas. I’ve done other events involving greater intensity, less hydration, and hotter conditions…but for which I was properly trained and not gotten a single cramp.

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