Cramping in the sporting world is a tricky subject. There are several theories that never panned out. Classic dehydration and the drink more water camp. Electrolytes, drink my gatorade camp. Muscles are tight, stretch more camp. The inability to have proper neuromuscular coordination, ie...the fatigue camp. There have been some interesting tests and studies done with ascetic acid. For example, having a cramp in a laboratory setting and then placing ascetic acid under the tongue and the cramp goes away. The subject does not even ingest the ascetic acid.
(Weirdly, as a life long cramper, I have always likedascetic acid foods. Pickles, vinegar, mustard, kombucha) Is this what they talk about when your body instinctually seeks what it it lacking?)
I've tried lots of products over the years, from salt tablets, hot shot and nothing ever really seemed to be the silver bullet. Some would potentially stop the I can't move and I'm stuck on the side of hill for 15 minutes cramps, but when activity was reengaged, the camps would come back just as hard and just as debilitating.
If you are someone that cramps, you know how even training for a race can feel self defeating. If you are "in shape" but you know a cramp will probably be the limiting factor.
Three years ago I started biking more. I've been drawn to the endurance world, as much for the enjoyment of the bike as well as the ability to see training and physiology at work. Not to mention, getting to explore far away nooks and crannies of your world.
I'm a big believer in the research of Dr. Stephen Seiler. His polarized training approach consisting of 80-85% of your training is easy rides, with only 10 percent being hard interval style approach. Stay away from the middle zone where no adaptations are occurring.
Looking back on the training with anything in my past was always middle or high. Nothing low and easy. So I started just riding my bike easy and longer, a lot longer. 90 minute rides used to be tiring and feeling like I'm packing for an adventure to the wilderness. Now 3 hour rides feel chill, let me grab a water bottle or two.
It took a few years of this to notice changes. But, eventually I did. A few weeks ago I rode 60ish miles of mountain bike trails over 6 hours with almost 6k of elevation gain. Something that even two years ago would have put my quads and calfs into a cramping vice. (my normal biking for feeling cramps was 2 hours, 1 hour 30 min if I was racing)
A few months ago, I discovered the work of Evan Peikon. A scientist that specialize with oxygen usage in sport and athletics. I will dumb down the key take aways that started to make sense of cramping ...for me. I am what is considered an occluder. My muscles and physiology occlude very well. This means I respond to weight lifting very well. I get less oxygen to my tissue, the pump comes faster and harder and the metabolic stress is high. My muscles grow. I responded to weight lifting much quicker then my friends in high school. I gravitated towards fast, power sports. Sprints, football, rugby, bobsled. The first time I pushed a bobsled, it felt natural. The 4 seconds of work, followed by full recovery, was literally what my body was built to do. I'm not sure how accurate the genetic profiling is, but the one I did years ago showed 72% fast twitch and 28% slow twitch. No idea if this is viable information. But, it just confirmed what I knew at 10 years old. My body didn't like sustained work.
There are non occluders, people that muscles seem to just process the work load easier. They have more oxygen to use, they don't pump up as much. They get rid of the metabolic waste faster and more efficient. They can lift for years, and you might not be able to tell, but put them on an aerobic machine and they can keep a sustained work load.
Things started to click. I can remember training a national champion mountain biker and doing some dumbell press. 20lb did 15 reps easy. We bump to 25 and literally she gets burried. Go back to the 20's and she proceeds to rep out 25 reps.
Occluders vs Non Occluders. This research was done with Moxy units and NIRS. They show how at 60% workload produce drastic different results in different athletes, you can even have different bodyparts so you could have occlusion in your thighs, but not you calves. If you stop to think about it, this is adaptation. This is why you train.
The long easy hours, the majority of the training according to Stephen Seiler is to produce a larger base. Elite athletes don't do harder workouts as they get better, they do more easy volume. This is all documented from running, cycling, xc skiing, and rowing.
What is happening with this work? Adaptations. A larger heart, capable of pumping more blood per stroke. Increased capillary density. You grow more capillaries. More blood vessels. You are creating the ability to get more blood and oxygen to your tissue. Your becoming a better non occluder.
I once had a strength coach say, cramping was the lack of training for the event and situation you find yourself in. That was it. Pretty simple. I believe it is true.
I once heard a pro cyclist answer how do I get better at cycling, or what kind of training did he do to get to the level he was at. He responded with perhaps one of the most brutal, but honest pro tips ever. 20 hours a week on the bike for ten years.
I've spent about 450 hours of easy riding, longer rides etc. in the last 3 years to get to the point where I can confidently race a 2 hour ride and not cramp or go ride 5-6 hours of relaxed effort and still feel good. (That is not even that much in the cycling world) It was a long slow build up to this workload for me. It was forced design to not do medium work. The wasted zone. But, I believe this is what it took to build up the adaptations needed to ride hard and not feel the dreaded muscular spasm.
So, if you are a cramper, I don't have a shortcut for you or a magic supplement to take, I do offer an N=1 roadmap. Take a few years and see if it works for you. I believe it will. The body is a remarkable adaptable organism. We just have to give it the right signals, hour after hour, week after week.