Lower leg cramps, from my experience, are most likely down to hydration, fuelling and not properly preparing for the race or session you have ahead of you. If it happens in a race, can you manage it and carry on? I believe it is possible. Maybe not at the same speed as before the cramp came on initially, but in an Ironman or 70.3, yes you can get back on track. But let’s start at the beginning.
How to prevent cramp
First of all, prevention is better than cure, right? So do some testing in training, especially at race pace if you know you’re prone to cramping while racing on the run. Look at products with higher levels of sodium and potassium in them and give them a go. Follow their guidelines, but at least 24hours before your training session I’d start to load up on them. Often these products taste a bit salty, so make sure they go down well and sit in your stomach well.
If the race is in hot conditions you could also do some heat acclimatisation. If you read my column last month you’ll recognise this advice but trust me, it’s still applicable for cramp: put a wet towel in the tumble dryer, turn it on, and do a session on the turbo. Weigh yourself before and after. Granted, this won’t give you the concentration of your sweat, which is very important, but sometimes just seeing how much fluid you can lose (a major reason for cramping in races) can help you prep.
Get a sweat test
If it’s of such a concern to you then I’d consider getting a sweat test done. This can be as simple as a sit-down test right through to a full-on analysis while you’re training (that’s a great one). They’d then recommend the right levels of electrolyte for you to take. [Check out www.precisionhydration.com. Their free online ‘sweat test’, which is based on data taken from thousands of sweat samples, works out the best hydration plan for you, including specific product suggestions which you can then buy on the same site.]
How to plan ahead
While racing you can always plan for cramping, and take on extra fluid in the last part of the bike and at the start of the run. If that doesn’t work, slow down or even stop to do some light stretching, and then build up the pace slowly to see if the muscles loosen off. Also try walking the aid stations.
Is there a 100% cure?
There are even some products out there that claim to cure cramping 100% within 5-10mins of taking them. If you go down this route, use them in T2 and run out with it just in case you feel cramps coming on.
I’ve actually seen this in action, first hand, with [fellow pro] Tim Reed at the Island House Triathlon. He was cramping like crazy, his calves were in total spasm, he was going nuts! It was crazy hot, humid and, well, we were all going full gas chasing Lionel Sanders – ha! He took the shot [Reed uses a brand called Hot Shot, www.teamhotshot.com] and about 2mins later he was going full gas again, just ploughing through the field. Everyone was like WTF!
Also, I’ve heard (but not my cup of tea) that pickle juice is good for cramping. Sounds lovely, eh?! Might be worth a go if you’re game or at least look it up online [check out www.picklepower.com for more info].
The holistic approach
Personally, I’m a big believer that something like lower leg cramping can be sorted out, or at least managed, on the fly. Or hopefully before it really sets in and hampers your race too much.
When we train it’s not just about swim, bike, run, but there’s also the holistic approach, i.e. looking at your mindset, your fuelling strategies, your pacing, what equipment you use, the travel/logistics, knowing the course and transition layout… and preventing cramping would come under that. Another one to add to your to-do list! Just remember, piss poor preparation = piss poor performance!