Trygve.Com > Exercise > Minimizing muscle cramps and chafing on long-distance bike rides

...or, "Around the World without Eighty Cramps"

I think I'm the only person I see biking in long sleeves when it's a hundred degrees out. For that matter, I'm often the only cyclist I see in any wardrobe when it's a hundred or hotter, which is just one of the things I like about hitting the trails in hot weather.

The reason is that even if I'm feeling energetic enough for another 150-mile ride, I'm still generally too lazy to apply sunblock more than I need to. A lightweight long-sleeve stretch-fit top (approximately $10 at Walmart for their Starter brand "Men's Long-Sleeve Performance Compression Tee"--though you can always spring for similar products from Under Armor if you'd like to spend a bit more) is faster to put on than sunblock, much less gooey, and fully reusable. In cold weather, a turtleneck sweater does the job, and keeps my sunblock budget to a minimum.

(Oh, by the way, when Walmart says "Compression Tee," they're not kidding. You may want to get at least a size or two bigger than you'd get for a regular cotton t-shirt.)

Much as I like long-distance bicycling, I have to admit that I don't care much for horrible cramping, painful chafing, or having parts of my body rubbed raw until they start bleeding. I don't know what your tastes are like as far as these kinds of things are concerned, but I personally find that they detract from the whole experience, so during my serious biking binges, I've gone to some lengths to avoid them.

I wonder if getting leg cramps on a long ride is more of a problem if you're accustomed to weightlifting. The way you think about moving and the ways you concentrate on your muscles are very different for biking versus weightlifting--at least for me, anyway. In both cases, you want to get a lot of power out of those leg muscles, but when you're under the iron, you generally want to tense up as much as you can, to push with everything you have against the weight that's resisting you with everything it is. When you do that for more than a short time, though, the muscles swell--they "pump up"--and that impedes the blood flow through them and, soon enough, if you still have a lot farther to go up your current hill, those leg muscles will be very unhappy. I don't know what it's like for the rest of the world, but I find the experience of concentrating on getting as much power as I can out of my body while simultaneously staying as relaxed and moving as fluidly as I can a very interesting one. It's an interesting mental state as well as a physical one, and it's an enjoyable challenge switching between that state--mentally and physically--and the kind of state that makes for a really good workout with the weights.

Maintaining the right mental state is the most effective way I have of keeping from cramping on a long ride; I try to sense when fatigue or cramping is thinking of sneaking up on me and mentally work my way around it. The next most valuable thing for me is to use lots of "Lite Salt" in cooking--it's cheap and it's half potassium chloride. In pill form, potassium supplements aren't allowed (at least in the US) to contain more than 99 milligrams, which is just barely this side of useless. A bit of "Lite Salt" contains considerably more and is a whole lot cheaper.

You can--and I do--buy a lot more minerals and some vitamins (notably vitamin C) in powder form. It's usually about an order of magnitude cheaper than pills and is probably more useful, since you can just mix however much of the powders you want into food--seems like the body is probably used to absorbing nutrients as part of foods, so if you have a sensitive stomach, this might be easier on it too.

One quick and easy thing I've been doing lately is to take some instant sugar-free pudding mix and make it with skim milk, some protein powder if I've got some, and some variety of powdered magnesium, calcium, and that kind of thing. You could add EFA supplements like flax oil if you wanted; it's pretty flexible and chocolate is a pretty forgiving flavor. Makes a decent post-ride or post-workout recovery snack and it keeps long enough in the fridge that you can mix up a few days worth at a time if you're lazy like I am.

When doing several century-or-longer rides in a week, underwear suddenly becomes more a more significant concern in my life than it usually is. Seams, in particular, have a way of making a more lasting impression after several rides in a row while wearing the same type of underwear--so the big thing for me is to keep changing between different brands and styles in between rides. Some kinds are actually better to wear inside-out, because they've made the seams thicker and/or rougher on the inside--not a big deal most of the time, but something that you might notice on a long ride. Some kinds of underwear are about the same whether you wear them inside-out or not, but the seams are in different places, so, all old jokes on the subject aside, sometimes it's helpful to alternate whether you wear those pairs of underwear inside-out or not. Talcum powder doesn't hurt either if you find you're chafing a bit, but simply switching between different styles of underwear so you don't have seams rubbing in quite the same places two rides in a row makes a big difference for me.

Just in the last couple of weeks, I've started wearing long underwear under my biking shorts in cold weather. Sounds silly, but it keeps my legs covered and warmer, it's cheap, and I like it. I've done plenty of sillier things anyway--like the time my forearms were chafing a bit where I rest them on the aero bars so I cut the toes off of an old pair of socks and wore those on my elbows until my arms had healed up.

Scotch tape sounds like an odd bicycling accessory, but sometimes it helps me a bunch. Eventually just the constant repetitive rubbing of one's clothing against a sensitive spot (like, um, nipples for me) will start to rub that spot raw after enough hours of riding and it's not a happy thing. I tried a few things to combat this, but the one that's worked best for me is a piece or two of scotch tape. It's a lot cheaper than bandaids and after a long ride, the adhesive has loosened up a bit on its own--it'll still stay on, but it's weakened enough that it comes off without taking a bunch of sensitive hairs in the process.

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