You’re on a really rewarding training ride, when suddenly it hits: cramp! The pain shoots through your body, and the affected muscle feels like it is being tasered. The ride home will be tough. But what on earth causes cramp? And, more importantly, how can you prevent it?

What is cramp?

Muscle spasms, or cramp, are involuntarily contractions of the muscle-in-question. This is not a comfortable sensation, as you no doubt have experienced. Muscle spasms and cramp are often thought to be the same thing, but they’re not: spasms mainly occur in hips, back, or torso; Cramp mainly affects calves, feet, and hamstrings.

Why do muscles do this?

Picture it: you ride yourself into the ground during an intensive interval training, and then jump straight into the shower. Cramp shoots through your quads and you crumple to the ground.

Dehydration is the main cause of cramp. Another possible cause is a shortage of potassium—easily prevented by eating a lot of bananas. Essentially, once all your energy supply has been drained, more pain might be just around the corner; highly stressed muscles are much more likely to spasm or cramp up.

Young man on a bicycle grabbing his leg in pain

What do you do about the pain?

If you regularly suffer from cramp or muscle spasms, and it appears that the condition is chronic, then you should seek the advice of a doctor or a physiotherapist. There could be more going on than just hard training. However, cramp may also be simple to cure with good advice about posture, training, and specific exercises. Other cures could include acupuncture or a foam roller.

How do you prevent pain?

You don’t have to suffer this pain. As always, prevention is better than a cure, and the answer is hydration. Drink a lot of water, preferably with added electrolytes (minerals) that aid muscle function and recovery. Stretching before training can also help. And, something we often forget, listen to your body; muscle spasms and cramp are often the result of overtraining. Take sufficient rest and make sure you warm up and warm down before and after your training session. Keep an eye on your form. And have a banana locked and loaded at all times.