Cannot figure out why I cramped

Sorry for another cramping thread and the long post, but I just cannot figure out why I cramped. There are maybe some obvious answers, but still it doesn’t make sense to me.

This weekend I did a 90 mile race and both my legs started cramping at around mile 40.

A little background; I ride 36 miles every Tuesday and Thursday early in the morning at 5:30am. This ride is always a hard effort (total riding time of about 1:30 hrs). I do this with one bottle of water for the entire ride and a small breakfast beforehand. It always feels good.
This season I have done a few 50-70 mile rides with long hard efforts and again not a problem with them. For those 2-3 hour rides what I do nutrition wise is a couple of bottles mixed with Scratch Super Fuel and electrolytes plus some extra bars. So far that has been working well.

Now, the 90 mile race had a few short hard efforts throughout the first 30 miles, but nothing extreme and overall I felt comfortable (effort wise) while in the pack. If the cramping would have been more like mile 70-80, then it would make sense to me, since that will be getting closer to my longest ride distance.

One thing to note and this might be the easiest answer as to why the cramping, I raced using my “race” bike which is different than my “daily” bike . This (race) bike I have used many times before, but only for races and nothing that has lasted more than 1:30 hours. For those really hard efforts of up to 1:30 hours, I have never had a problem with that bike.

As far as my normal routine I use my daily bike for my weekly group rides and training. To eliminate the possibility of having any issues to do with bike fit, I have done my best to replicate the saddle position on both bikes. Also, both have the same saddle and same crank length (link to both bikes fit geometry if interested). The reach position I cannot replicate due to the headtube length and one piece handlebar.

Of course the first thing that came to mind, was that I was too tired, plus the race stress of being around many riders and many riding sketchy, and finally carrying additional “life” stress. (We recently moved to a new house). However, I would not think that it will show as soon as 40 miles, since my body is well used to that distance.

The main cause that I’m thinking is maybe my shoes and cleat position? I used a different pair of shoes (nothing new to me though), I have used these shoes many times before in races, but again not my everyday pair.
The reason I’m thinking it was maybe the cleat position, is because at mile 40ish when I started to get that awful feeling that you’re about to cramp, I was able to minimize the cramping to a minimum by just moving my legs/feet a little bit. That worked until mile 70 when we hit a crosswind and had to put a big effort to stay with the group. Then, I cramped badly to the point that I had to get off my bike and stop moving.

I’m sure as it is always the case with cramping, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint a cause, and it is a combination of everything, but what has me puzzled is that it started showing that early in the race.

If it is of any help I’m happy to share my calendar to show my training beforehand.

I’m going to go with “D: Stress from All of the Above.” I honestly think the cleats and shoes and had little to do with it, but they may have been the straw that broke the cyclist’s back. It happens. Probably won’t happen again. Sign up for another long hard ride and see what happens. Do NOT be discouraged.

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was it hotter than normal? since you ride early mornings was heat a factor?

also if heat was factor did you take or consider taking in more salt?

Not sure why but, I learned a long time ago drinking straight Gatorade was the kiss of death. It was almost a guarantee cramp fest with that stuff. This was back when G-aid was it. Even today I mix my GQ6 way diluted and do 2 straight water bottles to 1 mixed. Also learned I tolerate SIS gels really well with the 2-1 combo.

Not that you’re drinking G-aid but, perhaps you over did sugar. IDK. Other than that it’s always too much intensity/time that does it.

Do you have any power data to compare to your normal rides? I suspect the hard efforts and generally higher race pace may be the culprit. It’s possible you were putting out more power than you realised due to the excitement of the race and pushed yourself into cramp territory. Throw in some stress, slightly different riding position and different shoes to amplify the effect and you have catastrophic cramps.

I suffer with cramps occasionally, for me it is never due to hydration. It’s pretty much the scenario you described above. Over-reaching in a big race with greater duration and intensity than I’ve trained for…Bam! Cramps! Sometimes I can throttle my effort to hold them off, sometimes I can’t.

I think Chad debunked the whole ‘cramps caused by dehydration’ thing in his deep dive a while ago. Literature points to it being caused by stripping of glycogen from muscle fibres, or something like that. That fits with what I’ve experienced, lots of hard efforts will take me to cramp town every time.

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Indeed. What was your IF for the race?

I experimented with a higher IF last weekend. Complete fail. I went for 0,85 for the first 1,5 hours totaling around 300 NP. I recently did a 4 day stage race where i ended up at 0,77 never a cramp. With the 0,85 i was completely blocked at 30km in. I’m going to try 0,8-0,82 for a one day race next time.

What might have helped me was that I mixed around 85-90gr of mix in a 750ml bottles that I drink each hour together with 1 gel. Maybe that’s just too much for my stomach in hot (30+ degrees celcius) for me?

Maybe this could be useful

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Every time I have cramped, it has been during a race where I am putting in serious efforts in the beginning, for the first couple hours, and then have a downhill or short rest period. Then when I ask a lot of my legs again, boom cramps.

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@MikeMckinney it was humid, but I wouldn’t say that it was different from what I’m used too. The race started at 5:50am. Very similar time and conditions to my weekly rides.

@KorbenDallas that could be something to play around. I haven’t experimented getting calories right from the beginning which is what I was doing, since it was going to be a 3:30-3:45 hour race. On longer rides I usually start consuming after the 40 min- 1 hour mark. During this race I started drinking small sips of my Super Fuel with electrolytes mix right from the beginning.

@Shockwave / @Exision88 yes that’s is always the case for me. I cramp when I overreach and not due to bad nutrition, or at least that is what I believe and feel like.
However, for the first half of the race I don’t believe I was overreaching by looking at my power numbers. My weekly rides I usually ride for 1:30 hours and end up with 0.90ish IF. The first two hours of the race I was at 0.77 IF and finish in 3:40 hours with 0.81 IF.

Here is a snapshot of the first 1:45 hours which is right were I started feeling that cramps were coming :cold_sweat: .

Comparing to the last 12 weeks:

Snapshot of last three weeks of weekly morning rides:

And here is the entire race snapshot if helpful for the data curious:

I’m a small guy (5’6", 132 lbs.) so the ranges are probably lower than what people are used too :sweat_smile:

I know the total mileage was going to be hard for me due to my endurance this season and was expecting to feel fatigue or even cramp later in the ride, but not as as soon as 45-50 miles in.

Cramps are like fishing: everyone has an explanation that works sometime, but nobody has an explanation that works all the time.

Figuring out “what was different here?” is a good exercise. Bike position may be one difference, and I have also found that riding with a hydration pack or on gravel can beat me up in a different way than I typically ride.

It seems a bit odd that your power on this ride would be quite a bit lower than on your typical group rides. Perhaps you’re a zen master and just did your thing as everyone else hammered the start (generally the case), but consider whether the power data is consistent with your effort of how hard you went on the race. Perhaps the power meter on your race bike doesn’t lend itself to comparison with the power data from your daily bike?

Final question: where did the cramps start (calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, quads? both sides or just one?) and where did they progress to?

I agree with everything that’s already been mentioned here: cramps are multi-factorial. When they happen, it’s usually a cascade of contributing factors, and the straw that breaks the camels back isn’t always the right place the focus.

That said, you mentioned three things that really made me raise my eyebrows:

Now, the 90 mile race had a few short hard efforts throughout the first 30 miles, but nothing extreme and overall I felt comfortable (effort wise) while in the pack.


One thing to note and this might be the easiest answer as to why the cramping, I raced using my “race” bike which is different than my “daily” bike .


I used a different pair of shoes (nothing new to me though), I have used these shoes many times before in races, but again not my everyday pair.

Before I go on, I think it’s worth reiterating that recovery/rest, fuelling (while riding, but also generally), and overall fitness are the cornerstones to start with. Maybe those “few short hard efforts” took more out of you than you realized, maybe your fuelling wasn’t adequate, maybe you just had bad luck - sometimes shit just happens.

And on the shit just happens point, it sounds like you are trying to extract a lot of conclusions from an isolated racing incident? It may be worth just changing nothing and making sure your cornerstones are dialed in and seeing if this situation repeats itself. If you had one night of bad sleep you wouldn’t renovate your entire bedroom.

Now that I’ve made those caveats, the fact that you had two major fit changes (bike + shoes/cleats) and the efforts - at least according to your RPE - weren’t anything out of the ordinary makes me think you have a fit issue that is slightly over-stressing part of your anatomy, and only manifesting past a certain amount of exhaustion.

I had a very similar situation a while back where I was continuously experiencing cramps 120min+ into semi-difficult outdoor rides. The cramps were always in my inner thigh adductor + gracilis region, and when they happened I always had a lot more “in the tank” so to speak, these muscle groups were just reliably failing prematurely relative to how tired I was. After chasing every single phantom, I finally zeroed in on cleat position. My cleats were just slightly too far forward. This never materialized during very hard indoor trainer sessions or even the vast majority of outdoor rides. It was if every pedal stroke was taxing my other muscle groups at 1x, but my adductors and gracilis at 1.0005x… eventually this adds up to a breaking point.

I adjusted my cleats rearward slightly, and the problem stopped instantly.

tl;dr -

  1. This happened once, don’t overthink it.
  2. Cover your bases (rest, nutrition/fuelling, fitness).
  3. Check your fit. This happened with two major fit changes.
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