Crushing Cramping

Most athletes’ cramping strategy consists of “hope in a jar.” Sodium, magnesium, potassium, pickle juice… all have been reported to bring relief from cramps.

While placebos are effective for half the people I coach, I’ve taken a different approach with my own athletics. Today I will offer you practical tips you can take to improve your durability.

Sift through this past race season and think carefully about when and where you experienced cramping.


  • Late in a race
  • Transitions between sports
  • Transitions between terrain
  • Transitions between pace


  • Back of lower leg (calf)
  • Back of upper leg (hamstring)
  • Front of upper leg (quad)
  • Forearms, biceps, triceps

Change is difficult and, at this stage, most people start a search for a new supplement, continue what they’ve always done and accept that cramping is inevitable. If you want to improve then consider what you’re willing to change.

Late race cramping: Twinges, tightness, cramps and pain are part of the landscape late in a long course race. If you are experiencing these in the final hour then you probably got your pacing about right. Keeping yourself as smooth as possible (pace, effort, cadence, breathing) will help settle the cramps. A run:walk technique beginning when you leave T2 (even with short powerwalk segments) can change your muscular recruitment and delay the onset of cramping.

Transitions via Dave Scott: Something I learned from Dave was the importance of pace and position transitions. Your training should incorporate different terrain, cadences, cycling positions and paces. Your goal is to become efficient in as many different ways as possible. On race day, this gives you a varied toolbox to apply to the course. For your long events in particular, having the capacity to change efficiently also changes your recruitment patterns. I’ve found this reduces the sensations of fatigue and incidence of cramping.

Transitions via John Hellemans: John was the first Olympic-level ITU coach that I studied under. John’s athletes did a lot of combination training, on both key days and easy days. Swim/bike sessions and aquathons were a frequent part of our training program in New Zealand. In the U.S., these sessions are done far less often. During the winter (Southern Hemisphere summer), aquathons would form the majority of my “fast” run training. If you find yourself cramping early on the bike or run, consider using these sessions in training.

Tips For Calf Cramps

  • Make sure your bike cleats provide a rock-solid interface with your pedals and have no lateral rock. Slide your bike cleat as far backwards as possible (towards the heel) — if it is already back then consider shifting to a mid-foot cleat.
  • As long as you are not a supinator (most of us aren’t) then eccentric calf lowers (up on two legs, down on one) where you keep pressure through your big toe (wear running shoes) will help build necessary calf strength.
  • Get consistent deep tissue release work from your glutes down to the underside of your feet — cramps due to muscular tension have a source above and below the area that’s cramping.
  • Consider your running terrain versus your racing terrain — if they are mismatched then align during specific preparation phase. In general preparation, stay balanced with a mix of terrains.
  • Consider your race pace versus your training pace — if they are mismatched then align during specific preparation phase.
  • Use the run:walk protocol, ensure a midfoot strike and always let your heel unload your calf by touching the ground.

Tips For Hamstring Cramps

  • Consider joint angles and peak torque — that is a fancy way of saying “ride your race bike year round and include race specific efforts/duration in specific preparation.” For example, cramping is widely reported by triathletes who do road and mountain bike racing — this is nearly always due to peak race loads and a different geometry. If your TT position jacks your hamstrings then change the position or ride it until your body adapts.
  • Add in strength training: Dead lifts (include the lowering phase), single leg press, power cleans and single leg hip bridges. The free weight exercises should not be heavy when you start. The exercises can stay light and you’ll still get a benefit.

Tips For Quad Cramps

  • Have an honest look at your run frequency over the last season — if you are a low frequency runner (averaging less than three runs per week) then run five times per week for three months this winter. This one change can eliminate many cramps and boost your running.
  • Through your base training, build strength by doing two or three long runs in the hills. Run the downhills very relaxed. If you are prone to quad cramping then it won’t take much downhill pace to toast your legs.

Tips For Arm Cramps

  • Consider how many swimming TTs you did in training this past season. If you can’t remember then build in a TT progression across a block — even better if you can use your wetsuit. I like to progress from long to short (3000, 2000, 1500, 1000, 800, 400) and mix drafting TTs with non-drafting. This is an example of a session that most of your competition is unwilling to do and can give you an edge!
  • In the gym, I like power cleans and palms away chin-ups (no body rocking, full lock out on bottom). 2×8 of each exercise was enough to make my forearms bulletproof.

If you cramp then remember to breathe. I’ve raced for hours with cramps pinging all over my body.

Sometimes the only cure is to accept what’s happening and keep moving forward.

Categories: Health, Training

About Author