Race cramps - train more endurance, SS, VO2+ repeats, climbs, or?

Putting aside all concerns about hydration/electrolytes/etc -

What plan would you pick to minimize cramping only experienced in long fondo/race events going at/just above your limits?

I haven’t seen nearly as much written about is what kind of training is best to help improve resistance to cramps induced by over-exertion. I believe this is what happens to me in harder event efforts - only rarely see this in steady or interval power training rides.

This weekend, nearly hit my 2019 PR effort over ~18 minutes trying to hold on first long climb. A few miles later, got light twitches in legs, realized I might blow up, and eased up just enough to get through the remaining ~45 miles in Z2 flat/Z3 climb power holding off cramps until the last ~5 miles after a brutally hard climb that includes ~20% sections that had many people walking. I still managed to get through without getting off bike and I considered it a success for catching my limits this time - but I almost blew it! The cramps I did have were quads just above knees, insides of quads, hamstrings and even a touch of calf - not one particular group that would lead me to think fit issue (have been fitted) - suspect I was just overcooked. No clear hydration excuses.

30 seconds faster up that 18 minute climb would have gotten me with a fast group for the flats that would have gained me many minutes with less work and more recovery - was solo for way too many miles after this.

So, what to focus on to address this?

I could just say more FTP/20 minute power (or less kg :smile:) might have closed the gap that I needed - in which case just stick with steady power build plans. Trust that more FTP makes everything better.

But the first climb was not steady - some surges way over FTP with brief flats. Hard to just do my own pace if I want to not lose a fast group that might help me recover more later. If you say train for what you’ll ride, it might say focus on a road race type of plan instead of exclusively sustained power - but my primary interest is 75-100 mile chip timed fondos that do break up a lot and usually have ample opportunities to catch other groups where you’re racing yourself as much as anyone else.

Nonetheless, I’m still wondering if I need to mix things up more and focus less on steady power intervals. At least in all the endurance and longer power plans that I’ve used on TR so far, there is not much “now go hammer on and off 150-200% of FTP in bursts for 20 mins.” Totally different than a 20 min threshold interval. I have actually tried to start hammering a bit more on a weekly group ride to force some adaptation to this - but that probably lacks enough structure to be very productive.

Another theory would be do more SS/threshold power intervals while climbing? This is usually the only terrain in a fondo where sustained high power is needed. I think more of the longest SS/threshold intervals I do outside are on flatter sections of road, or indoors on flat trainer in winter. Maybe a specificity of terrain problem?

Then again, some argue we should just use a lot more long Z2 endurance riding volume to build fatigue resistance over time and it’ll sort itself out. When I do ride on my own for long rides, I focus hard on minimizing Z1/coasting for this reason and am in a rural area that makes this discipline pretty easy.

Finally, I see many people arguing gym work may be very productive for improving ability to manage these kinds of intense bursts better. I’ve never done any. I’m wondering if now is the time to try. I saw this suggested more than any other idea beyond “just be fitter.”

Basically a ton of opinions out there but I’m not seeing a clear consensus once you accept there is no salt tablet/magic bullet for this kind of effort-based cramping, and I’m trying to decide what to do with the 8 weeks I have before next fondo/race.

Interested in thoughts from others who may have experienced similar!

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Not sure why you would rule out hydration/electrolytes as IME this is nearly always a factor, even if it’s only one factor among several.

As you say, no silver bullet, but apart from hydration/electrolyte then I would look at:

  • gym work. Certainly can’t hurt. Even if it doesn’t address the cramping issue it’s good for general health and resilience, and doesn’t take up much time.
  • Position. Go see a good fitter, make sure all your body angles are good. Things that don’t show up on shorter rides can be a real issue when you go long
  • Stretching and self-massage. Grid or foam rollers, massage sticks, spiky balls, physio bands, there’s a whole array of equipment out there to help you ease off tired and tense muscles. I try and spend a bit of time on this every day in front of the TV, find it makes a huge difference
  • More long rides! Preferably with groups with some stronger riders than you so you’re digging deep trying to hang on like you would in a gran fondo. Not only will this help to train the problem, but also should help you identify under what conditions it happens (weather, hydration, how far into the ride, what kind of terrain, etc).

Also don’t rule out the possibility that you simply dug too deep too early. Even the best riders cramp occasionally (you see it in the Tour) when they’re pushing right to the limit. Maybe you simply need a few more watts and/or a few less lbs so that you can find that extra 30 seconds without needing to dig to a point where you’re cramping.

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I have had cramping since I started cycling almost 20 years ago. However, through a combination of a dialed in electrolyte protocol (not to be underestimated) and training, the amount of cramping (perhaps once every 10 rides?) and the point in the ride has been pushed out dramatically. A few years ago, those twinges and cramping would occur at about 1/3 of the time/distance and probably 3-5x the frequency.

Two weeks ago for example, I was able to do a 102mi/11kft century at an IF of 0.76 without even a twinge. However, on a spirited group ride a week later of 50mi/5kft with a couple of serious VO2M/NMs hills, I had to back off due to twinging on the 2nd one (very late in the ride).

It is hard to isolate a specific type of workout that allowed such major improvements, but if I had to isolate, I would say it has been a combination of sweet spot intervals (I built up to 4x20) and loooong rides. I think the stretching and gym work that @cartsman mentions are also important.

Partially because so much recent research has suggested this isn’t as big a factor as popular opinion has traditionally held - but also because I have focused a ton on this and felt I was well on top of it this time and don’t want to fall back on it as an excuse as I have before :slight_smile: Drank a 20oz bottle per hour, with a cold mix of sustained energy, salt, POM/maple (for potassium) and lemon juice for first couple bottles, and then Endurolytes on refill.

Also looking at my power file, I knew I pushed my limits on the first climb, and those prior PRs were not in a 4-hour ride - hence I’m more inclined to admit I just went a tad beyond capability.
I have done a couple rounds of fits as well and don’t have any real pain issues, so I didn’t focus on that concern as much. Especially since it’s also a very balanced failure - I’ve read if it’s once muscle group all the time, that could be more saddle related, etc. but I can’t say I have that issue.

I should have put foam roller on my list - I need to get one. I tried one and it was great, so totally agree on that point.

What I’m struggling most with is how much to worry about training the specificity of those kinds of efforts vs. trust that working on pure general fitness will give that extra capacity just as well.

It is hard to isolate a specific type of workout that allowed such major improvements, but if I had to isolate, I would say it has been a combination of sweet spot intervals (I built up to 4x20) and loooong rides.

This is definitely the kind of training I’d rather do over focusing a lot more on Z5+ if it will get the results in the long run as I feel like for the vast majority of a fondo, it’s more relevant than a training for a couple surges to try to hold with a group but then having to sacrifice some time working on endurance.

My opinion is to be sure that your training is at least somewhat similar to the events that you will be doing. I have periodic cramps and they are almost always when the difficulty of the event is significantly greater than your training rides. For example, I rode a hard 200mi ride with almost 12000 feet of climbing. I cramped on and off almost the last 50 miles. That was an almost 900 TSS ride. I had only ridden maybe half as hard a ride in the recent past. That is when I tend to cramp- when my ride TSS is way higher than my training ride TSS.


Doesn’t seem like anyone sees over threshold work as the key here. I think for now, I’m going to go for another round of SSB2 outdoors to get some structure back in and focus on the repeatable endurance at the upper end of power I should be using in a longer event, making sure to hit a good hilly variety of terrain for more of those SS interval rides, pick up foam roller while out today and start using it, and keep pushing some stronger 2-4 hr rides over the weekends and see how it goes.

Realistically, the gym may be hard to fold in till fall, but definitely want to try that this year too. If I could do it at home, it would be more realistic and just need to get something setup.

Cramping is a big mystery, which I suppose means that my opinion is as good as any other(!). I don’t think the training plan will make any difference. What I do think will help is strength training and on-bike nutrition and hydration. My own masochistic approach is to find stretches and isometric holds that trigger cramping (in my case, contracting hamstrings from a half-kneeling position). It’s awful, but after doing it a few times a day for a few days, cramping becomes less likely. Add that to the n=1 repertoire, I suppose.

I have had cramping issues the past two years similar to yours. I believe they came about due over exertion on 3+ hr competitive rides. Got them so bad at times about midway through an intense ride (about .85 IF) that I could not get off the bike and the cramps would come and go for the rest of the day (made driving home a challenge). Cramps were in the same areas as you, “quads just above knees, insides of quads, hamstrings and even a touch of calf”.

Rather than doing more training at “race” pace, this year I decided to mix up my training by adding long slow distance rides. I added a long 3-4 hr very slow ride once per week - maintaining Z2 heart rate and low RPE (riding Z2 power always ends up with me riding at tempo HR and RPE).

The results have been extremely good. Cramping has all but subsided. I sometimes feel the twinges, but no cramping, even when riding at the same or greater IF as last year. Just seems my legs are more resilient than in previous years and are able to absorb the hard long efforts better than before.

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Interesting - I’ve recently realized I can also trigger this in my hamstrings at will if I just fold my leg back and then tension my hamstring by contracting muscle. I have been wondering if some kind of resistance training lifting some weight while folding the leg back and/or just triggering this to get muscles more adapted would help or hurt. Couldn’t find anything about this online.

There is some experimental research showing that electrically inducing cramps is associated with reduced cramping:

I’ve just got back into training after a decade of doing next to nothing, airways had a cramping problem when I pushed myself too hard too soon, over stimulation of the nerves rather than an electrolyte imbalance… Anyway had a race at the weekend and cramped, took one of those “HotShots” cramp stopper shots, almost instant relief, it was crazy!!

But going forward I need to keep up with the yoga and build up to the higher levels of exertion more slowly and I will be fine, so maybe integrate some yoga into your routine? I use www.yoga15.com and find the videos really effective!

Another thing I just remembered, when mountain biking I could lower my seat and continue as it worked different muscles…

My own anecdotal experience shows that the only time I cramp is during or shortly after very intense efforts, where I’d be forced to use my muscles at their fullest.
Basically, early season crit races with lots of very hard efforts.

After doing the same race over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, I don’t experience any more cramps.

Hydration or weather never seems to make a difference.

I did an experiment this weekend that was enlightening.

3+ hr ride this weekend with a similar profile to the prior weekend’s fondo race - about 100k of meaningful riding with an early and late climb and rolling terrain in between. Key difference - much more rigorous pacing.

It was a huge success. All time power PRs at all durations over 2 1/4 hr (by about 10W after 3+ hrs). Not a hint of cramps this time.

Two big factors that I think could have mattered most:

  1. I strictly limited early climbs to SS / just below threshold. In the prior race, I went ~20-40W over threshold for many minutes at a time with some surges well beyond that. With more even pacing I hit IF = 0.84 and felt good; in the fondo, it was 0.81 with cramps and limping to the finish at 140W.

  2. For this better ride, it was at least 10-15 degrees (F) cooler - a lot of cloud cover

It’s hard to say with certainty which factor mattered more but I lean towards the pacing. With cooler weather, I intentionally drank a lot less to reduce any bias from hydration - which I am increasingly convinced is only a factor when severely neglected. And if anything, I was not quite as well rested for the better ride this past weekend (TSB ~5 vs +15).

While I was happy with the result, it doesn’t change the fact that if I ride my own pace, I’ll lose groups that could give a lot of free speed later - but at least the boundary conditions are getting clearer!

IF of 0.84 on a 3+ hr cramp free ride not feeling destroyed seems pretty decent to me. But at the same time, I’ve never demonstrated over 0.92 on a 1 hr effort, which may suggest there is more room there to improve.

Saw another good thread with similar discussion, and there too, it seems like focusing on sustained SS/near-threshold at both 1 hr and longer rides is recommended.

Finally, I also got a foam roller last week and it’s GREAT. Not sure if a few days of using it daily prior to rides had any meaningful contribution to the endurance PRs this weekend, but I feel way better each day, and it’s doing wonders for making it enjoyable to hold 20+ min SS+ intervals, aero, in the drops, picking up some KOMs along the way.

In conclusion - I’m going to stick with the feedback to keep focusing on a lot of SSB, increasingly challenging paced SS efforts / long Z2 rides, trust that this steady endurance will also improve my ability to endure a little more variability which is ultimately needed in a race with groups - and hope that some combination of foam rolling + gym work this winter will further help avoid the catastrophic cramps.

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