First gran fondo...all the cramps

I just did my first gran fondo yesterday which also happened to be my first century ride ever. Prior to that my longest ride was 50 miles. It also had twice the climbing I’ve ever done on a single ride at near 7,000 feet. It was the Bike MS waves to wine ride if anyone is familiar with it.

Fitness-wise I was great, I kept up with a spirited group for the first 40 miles and was feeling very confident. Then the cramps hit, hamstrings first and then the quads. I had to drop off the group and spin at 100rpm to keep my left leg from locking up.

At 50 miles I started in on the pickle juice, probably drank 4 cups over the next 50 miles. I had skratch hydration mix in both my 750ml bottles, but had to rely on the pretty thin Gatorade mix at the rest stops at around the 75 mile mark.

My right knee also blew up at the 50 mile mark, which is another issue, but my frustration is mainly with the cramping. I always seem to cramp. I’ll be lying in bed watching tv and suddenly start yelling as my hamstrings or hip adductors just cramp out of nowhere, it scares my wife to death when it happens! Cramps are a major limiting factor on both my performance and enjoyment one the bike.

I know there’s no scientific silver bullet for what causes cramps, but is there at least some sort of consensus on the top potential causes? I sweat a ton and leave salt stains everywhere, which is why I regularly use the skratch hydration mixes. Could they not be effective enough for me? Could it be that I’m just not used to such a long ride?

Thanks in advance for your replies!

Yep. And if you were cramping at 40 miles then you were overreaching. TBH, good work finishing if you were cramping at 40 miles into a 100 mile event, just finishing must have been a real chore. Once you’ve overreached and they’ve started it’s very hard to stop them through eating/drinking. Next time pace it better, that “spirited” group was clearly too fast for you and it sounds like your on the bike nutrition needs be experimented with. Cramping happens to most, if it happens at home after a big day, that’s OK, but if it happens on the bike then it’s worth finding a strategy that works for you to avoid it, and as you said, there is no right answer or one size fits all.

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I have a sensitive stomach and carry all my own drink mix on the bike so I don’t have to worry about whats provided at the aid station working for me. Now if they would just start using more ice in their water!

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so you ran a GF with twice values compared to your maximum, started with a fast group, started drinking a juice after 50 miles, then gatorade (useless), and you wonder why you got cramps ?
you didn’t do a right thing: you had to start more slowly, a GF is not just the first climb or the first 50 miles, you had to eat (the right things), you had to drink (the right things) …
sorry for the frankness: it’s all experience for the next races

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I also salt all over my helmet and HR straps and kit and would reliably have problems at 75-90. I now carry a tube of “base salts” and use a lick of that a few times per hour that seems to help even things out if struggling with the drink levels and is easier than pickle juice to get down (tastes like a pinch of pretzel salt). If it’s really hot out I add a hammer fizz tab to my usual drink mix - it doesn’t change the flavor at all and adds an entertaining sensation of ever-so-slight carbonation to your drink. None of this is particularly scientific though, so…

To build on this, before spring I plant to do a precision hydration test at the Chicago center to determine my actual salt loss rate and use that to customize the electrolyte levels in my Infinit bottle blend that I use on longer 3-6 hour rides.

Other times you’re just effed and gonna cramp… moon phases maybe :man_shrugging:

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Give a listen to the last podcast, it was really good! There are some great follow-up clarifications from the guys crom precision hydration in the associated thread too.
Podcast 221 thread

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There are a couple other threads on here describing your scenario - it is a risk for everyone - even having ridden quite a few centuries, I’ve been burned pushing even just a little bit too hard and then having problems 80 miles in by making poor pacing decisions. Sounds like you took the overreaching to an extreme :slight_smile: But if you have power data, you should be able to get a lot of good insights out of it to know what not to do next time and set some limits.

The vast majority of the scientific literature has debunked salt/electrolytes as the source of these problems - as much as we’d like to hope it’s as easy as modifying drinks/nutrition or relying on pickle juice (most of us have tried them all too…) unless something is grossly wrong in what you’re drinking and eating, the problem is inadequate fitness to sustain 100 miles at the power you aimed for.

I also find that any significant efforts at/above FTP can set me up for failure later. Put a different way, if your NP is much higher than average power, that may be the problem.

If you ride with power, I find it helpful to keep an eye on both average power rand normalized power. For me, I’ve learned in 100 miles, I can do a few efforts at 90-100% of FTP from 10-20 mins on climbs, but then I aim to keep the overall ride at ~70% of FTP. With those efforts, my NP will come out to around 80% of FTP. (you’ll also see people say IF = intensity factor = 0.8) This is after ~20k miles of riding over a few years and quite a few centuries.

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Thanks for the reply. The thing that doesn’t make sense is that 2 weeks prior to the gran fondo, I went on a fast-paced 50 mile ride which was my longest ride up until the fondo. I had no issues cramping at that point and the pace was faster than the group I was with on the fondo.

I agree about the on-the-bike nutrition. I just listened to the precision hydration podcast and I’m going to look into that a bit more. I know I’m a profuse sweater and I’m likely a salty sweater as well.

Thanks for your reply. I was actually drinking Skratch’s hydration blend prior to the race and during the first 50 miles. In fact, I had gone through at least 1,200mg of sodium by the 50 mile mark; it seems like that may not have been enough though.

All in all I think it was a likely combination of fatigue (4 hours of restless sleep the night before), improper pre and on-ride nutrition, and the 12% kickers during the ride :stuck_out_tongue:.

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Pace is extremely misleading. Do you mean the actual velocity at which you were traveling or the normalized power over the course of the 50 miles?

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Thanks for your reply. The thing that frustrates me is that I never got to the point where I felt like I was overreaching. If you look at my power profile I spent 72% of my time in Zone 1 or 2, my avg power the whole ride was 56%. The cramps didn’t start in until I was actually on a relatively flat part of the route, believe it or not!

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That’s a good point. NP for the 50 mile ride was 201 watts while the fondo was 184 watts. So 17 watt difference with twice the miles?

Congrats on first Fondo!

I looked at a friend’s ride, they did the 86 mile route. Similar route (they went straight up Hwy 1 between Olema and Marshall). They started at 7:20am and it was 60F, and by mile 40 it was 90F. Didn’t see you mention the heat, wanted to ask about that. Did you pre-hydrate the day before? I know a few people that cramp up, they pre-hydrate the day before and also take salt tablets in addition to electrolytes in the bottle. In my own case, it took 2-3 practice centuries before nailing nutrition/hydration for the first big Fondo (DeathRide 2016).

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That’s a huge difference in effort - you’re doing a ton more work in that second scenario. For a better apples to apples look at what your NP was for the first 50 miles of the fondo - or at least up until the point you cramped

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Thanks for the comment. I did not pre-hydrate the day before, wasn’t aware this was a thing until I listened to the most recent podcast after the fondo. The heat was noticeable, I checked and for the latter half of the ride it was averaging 83 degrees with max of 93.

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I was lucky to find myself in a club that hosted a series of 10 centuries to prepare for big events like double centuries and the DeathRide - learned a lot from other riders. In addition to this forum and the podcast, hoping you have a club nearby with experienced riders that share tips and tricks! Sorry to hear about the cramping, can’t imagine what it’s like. Best of luck with finding ways to reduce or eliminate the issue!

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What’s your ftp set at? In comparison to the 201 and 184 values, your averages for the rides might just be a bit high

If you can make your profile public or share a Strava link to your ride, it could be interesting - I think you’ll find a lot of people here willing to take a look and make some data based recommendations. I saw you mentioned 12% kickers - would be very interesting to look at the power data as you were going through those - again, that early NP for first 30-40 miles vs. what you’ve done on your closest 50 mile successful ride could provide a lot of insight.

Hydration can play a role, but I’d suggest trying to rule out the obvious factors around overreaching first and make sure you figure out reasonable limits - because otherwise you’ll fall in the trap of thinking “as long as I hydrate, I’ll be fine to go smash it next time” - and that probably won’t end well either. I’ve been there :slight_smile:

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I’ve gone ahead and made the ride public. Please do feel free and check it out. Would love to read some analysis on it.

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Interesting profile - my thoughts with the caveat that I’m just another amateur trying to learn for myself what works and what doesn’t!

You weren’t overreaching as much as I expected :slight_smile: You have really solid 1-1.5 hr power and compliance on a lot of tough 90 min indoor workouts even with your rising FTP. You had an 80 min outdoor ride earlier this month with NP ending around your FTP - that’s strong and no surprise you raised FTP again after all of that! And the 50 mile you rode 9/4 - wow - so much power variation regularly going to 2X+ over FTP - but you obviously survived. Point being, with the limited outdoor rides you have, you seem to have demonstrated up to 50 miles, you can ride with some pretty intense variability way over your FTP.

Given all that, I can see why you’re perplexed that you cramped up 40 miles in - if the ride ended at 40 miles, I wouldn’t say it looked like you were overreaching compared to what you’ve demonstrated previously for similar duration.

Something else that I saw was a couple breaks early, one rather long. Also keep in mind the actual NP/average power you did was a good bit lower than what TR says since TR doesn’t average down over those breaks. That only makes it more surprising that you had cramps as that should give you a lot of recovery time - it makes me wonder if those early breaks were doing more harm than good, especially when you went back out and smashed hard right up the climb after the second longer one? Maybe something to consider as it was also very different from your normal riding pattern?

All that being said, while you’ve shown you’re good to ride hard for 40-50 miles, I would not survive a century very well with the way you rode those first 40 miles - particularly the number of times you were hitting 1.5-2x your FTP. I’m learning that burning matches like that is a surefire recipe for cramps if I’m doing a 70+ mile ride. For weekly 2 hr club rides, that kind of variability doesn’t hurt me, but I find I get a much better result in the long rides if I pace things with a much tighter power ceiling. That can mean losing a group in a fondo/endurance race, but you’d be surprised how many times you’ll later pass some of that same group as they’ve cramped up down the road.

As a contrast, I’ll share a similar climbing century ride that for me worked out well recently - you can see a pretty tight ceiling on power - until 4 hrs / 70 miles in, where I intentionally put in a pretty hard climb effort because I felt good - and that nearly did me in - had to fight some cramps off after that and barely recovered.

I can find other examples of long rides in my history where I didn’t pace as well, too many short surges, and I paid the price. (and then made excuses about hydration…)

You might find it interesting to see how far you can go maintaining very strict discipline with a ceiling on power - say target ~190W (70%) evenly across most terrain - and let yourself go up to a maximum of ~250W only when on a true climb - keep this SS time down to only 20% of your ride. And then see how you feel hour by hour. Aside from being good pacing practice, I’d bet that just by spending that strong 1-2 hr fitness more judiciously over time, you’ll immediately set power PRs all across the 2-5 hr range. It’ll feel silly at times when you don’t just jump up and hammer across every short rise - but it helps you keep going for a long time at a solid pace. And if you still crash and burn too fast, then you really know you need to just spend a lot more time riding long Z2!

My goal for next year is to not be quite so restricted in making efforts above FTP on long rides - consensus on here seems to be that lots and lots of SS time in long intervals to build endurance is the way to go more than VO2 max type work. We’ll see…

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