Cramping is one of those problems that can be very frustrating, and possible solutions are many. I have been subject to debilitating cramping in races from International distance on up, and on long training sessions for my entire tri career.
For me it was always a matter of when not if, and how bad. Add to that a tendency to bonk, and I don’t paint the picture of a model long course triathlete. For the first decade of competing in triathlons I mostly did short course, and the few long course events were all marred by some form of breakdown. I began to think that I was just not suited to longer events.
During my first race this year the cramping monster really nailed me. It was the Patriot 70.3, and I felt ready going in. It was a very humid, but not terribly hot morning. The swim went great and the bike was going well. I was way in front of my age group and as Lance would say, it felt as if someone had forgotten to install a chain on my bike – the pedals turned easily and I was matching the elites. And then, it happened again. 2/3rds through the bike, I felt that familiar twang in my vastus medialis – the usual first muscle to cramp. Then on a climb one leg locked up, and I knew it could get ugly. I finished the bike unable to climb out of the saddle. Aero position was ok, but I was losing time and dropped about 5 mins in the final 20 miles. When I dismounted, both legs cramped. I took a leisurely transition, still well in the lead, and began to run. After 400 yards. both legs went into full lockup and I collapsed onto a parked car. I could not bend either leg and man did it hurt. This went on for many minutes. I made several attempts to run, and something else would lock up each time. My race was over.
This was the worst cramping episode ever. I resolved to put a end to if once and for all. I also decided to do the Providence 70.3 as an experiment to see if I could complete that tough course without any issues. I of course went back and researched all the internet stuff about cramping – which I soon found was all over the map, and that no one really knows what causes cramping. Great. Sure, we all know it can be electrolyte related, or fatigue related, or hydration related, or … I consulted my good friends Coach Al Lyman and 9-flat Ironman, coach and training partner Pete Russo, and we began reverse engineering.
I admittedly took the Patriot preparation very casually, and had about 60 oz of sports drink on the bike with only 1 S-cap for additional sodium. I also had an energy bar. I have tended to be concerned about getting enough calories due to my bonking history. But Al immediately suggested that I stop worrying about calories and instead figure out how much fluid I need along with electrolytes. So the plan was to start weighing myself for all workouts. I also had a Gatorade sweat test report from 2 years ago. For an hour on the treadmill in hot conditions, I lost about 3 lbs, and the sodium loss was something like 1600 mg. So that’s a fair amount, but I weigh close to 200 lbs and it didn’t seem to be that excessive.
The first few weighing sessions during training however showed a more extreme picture. I found that on the run I could drop more than 5lbs in less than an hour in hot conditions at tempo pace. So suddenly we see that I could be suffering some major weight loss on hot days at race effort. Not to mention, huge electrolyte loss. The typical advice out there is to drink up to 32 oz/hr (2 lbs), because the body can’t absorb more than that. Well if that was the best I could do, I wouldn’t come close to replacing lost fluids.
We quickly began to realize that the cramping, and likely the bonking, were all fluid and electrolyte-loss related. So I switched my focus to consuming mass quantities of fluids and electrolytes, and no solid food. I went back to Accelerade, because the protein seems to help. I also pulled out my packets of Gatorlytes, a product made by Gatorade but not widely available – I think they just give it to pro teams and coaches. We have some via the good folks at Gatorade and Fuel Belt’s relationship with them. Each tiny packet gets you 770 mg sodium + 390 mg potassium with some magnesium and calcium. I started adding one packet to each large bottle of Accelerade. I don’t have a sensitive stomach, and found that for me 80+ oz in 2 hrs was very doable. I also felt pretty good on this mixture.
Of course one has to be aware of hyponatremia when taking in large amounts of fluid, but loading it up with electrolytes and avoiding a bloated feeling will go a long way towards preventing this serious condition. So I felt I had my strategy for the Providence 70.3. I would carry about 85 oz of Accelerade in 3 bottles (2 behind the saddle and an aerodrink on the bars) each with a packet of Gatorlytes added. For a 2.5 hour bike this would provide most of what I needed, but I planned on taking two bottles of Gatorade Endurance at the aid stations as well. Plus, I would carry some S-caps and Tums in case cramping started – S-caps are sodium and potassium, and Tums each have 300 mg calcium which is essential for the relaxation phase of muscle contractions. On the run I would carry some S-caps and Tums, but mainly rely on 6-8oz of Gatorade endurance at each mile, or up to 50+oz of fluid/hr.
To this I added a pre-race strategy: load electrolytes in the last 3 days before the race. Drink sports drinks with added Gatorlytes, or drink Nuun. Carry bottles around with me. Eat the occasional Tums and Magnesium tablet too (another essential ingredient for the relaxation phase of muscle contraction). Plus, I had one more weapon: E-Lyte Sport, a concentrated electrolyte liquid. Race morning, I drank a bottle of water with some of this added in the hour before the race. Sure it tastes like seawater, but I love the ocean! Then as a last bit of insurance, I drank a 2-3oz straight shot of E-Lyte as close to my start as I could. This is recommended as a preloading strategy by the E-lyte folks, as the body won’t have time to eliminate the excess eletrolytes before you start the race. It gives you a shot of something like 600mg sodium, 1200 mg Potassium, and 400 mg Magnesium.
Short story – it worked! No cramping, even when pounding down the vertical hill on the run (twice). I did take two bottles of Gatorade Endurance on the bike, and drank it at every aid station on the run. I also chomped some Tums and a couple S-caps on the run. I had a gel at mile 7, mainly because I wanted the caffeine, and during the last few miles I had some coke – this was the only time I had a little water, to dilute the concentrated gel and Coke. Yes I faded in the last 3rd of the run, but not due to cramps – due to it getting hot and also I had no workouts longer than 4 hours this season and no long runs for the last several weeks – so the fade could be expected.
The total intake on the bikes was about 120 oz of electrolyte drinks and no water. At slightly less than 2.5 hours, this makes about 48 oz/hr or 1.5x the typical “maximum absorbable amount” cited in many articles. I had a total of 1000 calories, 4300 mg sodium, and 1700 mg potassium, or per hour, about 400 cals, 1700mg sodium, and 700 mg Potassium. So we can see that even without relying on concentrated calorie sources I took in a fair amount because of the large volume of fluids. Per hour on the run, I took in roughly 300 cals, 1200 mg sodium, and 360 mg potassium just through drinking Gatorade Endurance on the course. To this I added some additional S-caps (sodium, potassium) and calories via coke and gel.
So what are the takeaways?
- I think too many athletes, especially those of larger stature, are too calorie-focused. Coach Al really changed my thinking here. If you absorb enough electrolyte fluid you will get enough calories in most cases.
- Many times when I thought I was bonking it was not due to insufficient calorie intake – I was really bonking due to fluid/electrolyte loss. In this state taking in more calories just makes it worse – you will become even MORE dehydrated. Remember that you really want to be burning fat for most of your energy needs, and you just need some carbs to create the flame in which to burn that fat. And nothing will work well once fluid loss hits 2 or more percent of your bodyweight.
- Your sweat rate may be MUCH higher than the typical rate you read about in so many articles. Your fluid absorption rate may also be MUCH higher. But you won’t know unless you experiment in a controlled manner. You need to test your loss rate in hot conditions when you are working at a race-pace effort. A zone 2 run in nice conditions will tell you nothing about what will happen in a hot 70.3 when you’re going hard.
- Everyone is different – the amounts that worked for me likely WON’T work for you. Again you must experiment. Be careful about drinking too much – you need to find how much (and what) you can absorb, again under race conditions. Too much fluid and it will come out one end or the other. Too much water and you may become hyponatremic, a potentially fatal condition.
- There is no reason to drink water. You are just asking for trouble if you do. It sits in your stomach and will make you prone to bloating, ralphing, the runs, and hyponatremia. Yes you must dilute concentrated calorie sources (gels, bars, heavy carb drinks etc) with water or they will suck water OUT of your body like sponges sitting in your stomach. But then here again you are rolling the dice in my opinion. You can never be sure you are getting enough or too much dilution. Grab water to spray it into your aero helmet or dump it on your body – don’t drink it (much).
- If you have a high sweat rate, you are likely losing tons of electrolytes. Figure out what you need to take in to stave off cramping. Coach Al says he starts at 1000mg/hr and goes up from there. Some supplements have very little sodium. S-caps or Gatorlytes have lots.
- Don’t forget about calcium and magnesium, essential ingredients for the relaxation phase of muscle contraction. Load up in the days prior to a race. Bring some Tums (300mg calcium) – they are a nice change of flavor/texture and I’ve heard several stories of Tums stopping cramps.
So there you have it – the Providence 70.3 was the first long race in 17 years where I had NO cramping issues whatsoever. It was the first time I ignored calorie intake (although I got plenty) and focused on fluid and electrolyte intake. Your mileage may vary, but if you run some simple experiments I feel confident you too can have similar success if cramping has been an issue for you.
(I am not a Doctor – well not a medical Dr anyway – don’t be stupid – hyponatremia can kill you – make sure you know what you’re doing or work with someone who does!)