Cramp what causes it and what you can do

By Jean Baptiste QUICLET, Pro cyclist coach

Dealing with cramp, first means finding what causes it and then treating the cause; Cramps are a “sign”, a “warning”, they mean something. Cramps are painful, involuntary muscles contractions which are a sign of a lack of water and/or food and/or minerals; but possibly a lack of oxygen too; or that your muscle isn’t working comfortably (a problem of material, a technical movement, etc.)


1 - First of all the sportsperson and their entourage can have a think:

  • Did I drink enough before and during my exercise? The minimum intake must be 500 ml per hour of exercise (in all sports except if they really are low-intensity sports).
  • Is my mineral intake sufficient - mainly salt (during and after exercise) and potassium (after exercise) - especially if I’m sweating a lot, but also magnesium and oligoelements, and amongst these zinc and copper?
  • Was my calorie supply before, during and after exercise well-adapted energy spent? This calorie supply which comes first of all from carbohydrates; but also, especially in the case of an endurance activity, and over a long distance, this calorie supply must include some amino-acids (proteins).
  • Is my daily nutrition balanced and adapted to my training? I may be overweight, or on the contrary, I was on, or am currently on, a “diet”. Maybe my diet is too acidic?
  • Maybe I’m not managing my stress well at the moment. I’m tense, and hence my muscles are too. Are my technical movements smooth? Am I getting enough quality sleep and in general, do I have a healthy lifestyle (tobacco, alcohol, a disorganised diet)? Is my dental hygiene good?
  • Talk to your physiotherapist and your coach too: Is my equipment well adapted? Is it too rigid, have you recently changed trainers, is your bike adapted to your morphology, etc.? Has the surface changed where you train? (tarmac, dry sports ground...). Is your training load, and competition calendar, well-adapted? Is my breathing in phase with my sport? Are my technical movements correct? Is the energy system which results in the formation of lactic acid well managed during training?

2 - What to look for if an obvious answer to its cause hasn’t been found or if the correction of a possible cause hasn’t reduced the cramp. In that case you should consult someone from the medical profession: your GP and, if need be, a sports doctor.

They’ll ask you questions, carry out a check-up and if they think it necessary, they’ll refer you to a specialist and/or a member of a paramedical profession. They may recommend blood tests. Without going into the details, here are the most frequent causes of cramp that are only found if...looked for!!

Venous statis of the lower limbs; a pathology related to the arteries (the pulse must be felt); external iliac artery endofibrosis for cyclists, popliteal artery entrapment, the beginning of an arteritis; asthma; anemia; too much cholestrol, triglycerides, uric acid, sugar in the blood; an iron, magnesium, potassium or sodium deficit; medicine taken (some antibiotics or medicine for lowering cholestrol); an infection; fatigue related to a specific illness; compartment syndrome; foot problems, which appear whilst resting or during exercise, can also cause cramp in the legs through the excessive tension of certain muscles.

Once this “preliminary investigation” has been carried out, WHAT CAN BE DONE? Assuming that a cause has been found and dealt with, I’m going to proceed with a preventative, nutritional strategy as cramp is very often caused by hydration and/or diet problems.

“The expert’s advice”. Anti-cramp food: what we call “alcalines”: potato and carrot puree, mashed carrots, cereals, cooked fruit (except apricots), fruit puree, dairy products such as fruit yoghurt, cooked green vegetables, vegetable soup. A glass of bicarbonate mineral drink an hour before exercise.

3 - Adapted hydration

In average weather conditions (15 to 20°), you must drink at least 500ml per hour during exercise; in very hot weather, for long periods of exercise, this volume must be increased significantly; like this, a cyclist can drink up to 8 litres during a big mountain stage of the Tour de France.

Drinks must meet the following needs:

  • A neutral PH, meaning non-acidic
  • Presence of minerals, essentially sodium (salt); the hotter it is, the more I sweat and the more my sports drink must contain salt.
  • Drink regularly, right from the start, before thirst sets in (“If I’m thirsty, it means I’ve lost water”); don’t drink more than 3 mouthfuls at a time otherwise the stomach delays the passage of ingested liquid.
  • A calorie intake adapted to taste and weather conditions (it must be sweeter if it’s cold as fighting the cold means burning more calories).
  • In order to go through the stomach more quickly, the drink must contain a little fructose and a little salt.
  • The temperature of the drink must be between 12 and 17°. This isn’t easier to respect. The drink mustn’t be freezing cold at least.

OVERSTIM.s sports drinks answer these needs in practically all situations:

  • Malto antioxidant : this is “liquid pasta” which ensures a regular and long-lasting supply of carbohydrates; in this case, we are really concerned with the prevention of cramps as soon as exercise lasts more than 2 hours.
  • Hydrixir antyoxidant offers a quicker carbohydrate supply and must be drunk regularly during exercise.
  • Hydrixir longue distance ensures a supplementary supply of “branch chain amino acids” to limit the use of muscle protein stores; this product is vital for managing long events: long-distance running; road cycling; a day with two tennis matches on clay courts (longer matches) during tournaments lasting 2 or more days; triathlon; Ironman; football, basketball and handball matches.
  • La boisson d’attente : a volume of 300 to 500ml and drunk «a little amount by little amount» during the 90 minutes before the start of a race or match, it helps maintain carbohydrate stores and optimal hydration.
  • A tube of carbohydrate concentrate (gel) taken 10 minutes before the beginning of exercise has an unquestionably useful role in preventing low blood sugar in the first 1/2 hour when your sport starts off intensively and briskly; such as with cycling (against the clock or very quick start), the start in the water then at the bike station followed by your run when it’s a triathlon or an ironman; a marathon; both part times of a football match, etc. Whereas this intake of sugar which is very quickly absorbed before exercise would result in low blood sugar for sports such as hiking, sailing or ten-pin bowling! The tubes of carbohydrate contentrate: they constitute concentrated energy supplies and maintain the necessary calorie level; as well as the different cereal bars, fruit bars, etc.
  • There must be a savoury energy intake, vital in stopping sugar saturation (especially if it’s hot and the sportsperson sweats and therefore loses salt), in the form of a piece of savoury cake for example. However, avoid salt tablets as this is a sure way of having an upset stomach.


No, there’s no magic formula; however, I recommend massaging the area concerned, gentle and gradual stretching (ask your physiotherapist how to do your stretches); I ask the sportsperson to breath more deeply, to imagine themself in a more “comfortable” moment than the one they are experiencing at that moment, to eat a very rapidly absorbed sugar with water as quickly as possible, and then to make sure that they drink sweet and savoury drinks right up to the end of the event; if it’s a static sport, like tennis, to jump around whilst waiting.

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