Dealing with Muscle Cramps

There are varying theories about the causes of muscle cramps, but the problem seems to be much more common in hot-weather races, suggesting that the loss of electrolytes is a significant factor. When you are exercising strenuously, your body heats up. To cool itself, your body sends water to the surface of your skin. The process of evaporation has a cooling effect. The perspiration evaporates at different rates depending on the humidity. When it's humid, the perspiration evaporates more slowly, hampering the cooling process. In response, your body sends more water to the surface.

The fluid your body sends to your skin to try to cool you off contains more than water. It also has sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, known as electrolytes. These substances are critical to the proper functioning of the muscles. Many experts believe that cramps come on when electrolytes get too low.

Cramping usually occurs in the legs, especially in the calf muscles and quadriceps. A truly bad case of cramps will make you feel as though every muscle in your legs has frozen.

Unless you have a chance to acclimate yourself to warm, possibly even hot, and humid conditions, be careful about entering a triathlon in a part of the country that is likely to present significant weather challenges. At the very least in such a case, arrive a couple of days early to get used to the conditions.


Heading off cramps, of course, is preferable to dealing with them during a race. A seized-up muscle can have a devastating effect on your race, costing you considerably in time, not to mention pride. There are few things worse than feeling as though you are cruising in the final stage of your triathlon only to have to limp across the finish line because running is impossible thanks to a leg cramp that won't go away.

Hydration, of course, is a key, but it is critically important that electrolyte replacement take place along with fluid intake. It's good to drink water, but if that's all you take in, you could end up flushing a significant portion of your body's electrolytes from your system as you urinate.

Not Only H2O

During a sprint or Olympic-distance triathlon, if you started with your electrolytes at proper levels, it is unlikely you would be in any danger. In a longer event — a Half Ironman, for example — it is very important for you to drink something other than water.

Aid stations at races always offer a sports drink in addition to water. The sports drink contains a bit of sugar for a quick energy boost. More important, it also contains electrolytes. You can still have a cup of water if you want it, but be sure to include sports drinks at least at every other stop.

Taking in only water for an extended period in hot-weather exertion can lead to a serious condition known as hyponatremia, which occurs when the sodium concentration in the blood gets too low. Hyponatremia can result in death. It is not normally a danger in short races such as sprint triathlons.

As you approach your race, especially if it is going to occur in warm or hot temperatures, increase your intake of salt. Consider electrolyte supplementation starting a week or so before race day, and keep it up at least through the night before. It won't hurt you and could prevent serious problems on race day.

Real Time

If you do enough racing, especially in warm weather or if you perspire heavily, you will probably have to deal with muscle cramps at some point. It is unlikely you will have a muscle cramp during your swim, especially if you warm up first as recommended. If you do, however, it can help to switch from freestyle to the backstroke or some other different way of swimming.

If the cramp is still with you despite a change in strokes, head for a boat or buoy to rest for a bit. Remember, as long as you do not receive aid from anyone, you can hang on to a boat until you feel capable of going on.

Vicious Cycle

During the cycling part of your triathlon, if cramps come on they are most likely to be in your legs, but you could experience cramping in your back. Most often, you will have this experience in hot weather.

In case of cramps on the cycle, stand up on the pedals and try to stretch your limbs for a brief period. Obviously, this will slow you down, but it's better than having to quit because you can't pedal at all. If the cramps don't subside from a bit of stretching on the bicycle, you may have to dismount and stretch.

Is there anything I can do to prevent cramps besides taking in extra salt and other electrolytes?

There are many ergogenic aids that supposedly prevent muscle cramps. If cramping is a chronic problem and simple electrolyte supplementation doesn't work for you, it would be worthwhile to try something new. Any biking, running, or triathlon magazine will help you find these products.

In a short race such as a sprint triathlon, you probably won't have to deal with muscle cramps. If you do, it will almost certainly be during your run. If you feel a cramp developing, which sometimes start as just a twinge, slow down at that point or stop and stretch the endangered muscle. It might just take some periods of walking, even alternating running and walking.

There are folk remedies for getting rid of cramps, such as pinching your upper lip. Don't bother with them. It's better to remember the folk aphorism about “an ounce of prevention.”

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