Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Muscle Cramps and the Endurance Athlete

Check out this recent article I wrote for Zoom Performance on muscle cramps in endurance athletes. May be some information you didn't know about!

Exercise Cramps: how they occur and what can be done to prevent them

Article by Carson Christen, USA Cycling and Swimming Level 3 Coach, Graduate Student at UNI (Exercise Physiology)

Research presented over the previous few years has placed extreme emphasis on hydration with different solutions during events last longer than one hour. These drinks are usually simple sugar (carbohydrate) based and new market products are incorporating protein to prevent muscle degeneration. The evidence is not inaccurate, as it is very important to hydrate with something other than water during longer distance sporting events, such as Ironman, trail running, and RAAM. Recent research is taking a different approach to muscle cramps and have presented some new evidence as to the causes of these un-desired events.

Cramps Defined

An exercise-associate muscle cramp (EAMC) can be defined as “an involuntary painful skeletal muscle spasm that occurs during or immediately after physical exercise” (Schwellnus, Drew, & Collins, 2010, p. 1). I have had these cramps occur during important stages of a race, and they affect an athlete physically and psychologically. This study looked at 210 participants of Ironman South Africa to look at risk factors of EAMC. After this study was conducted, researchers found that factors other than hydration and heat play a factor in muscle cramping. Athletes who responded as getting muscle cramps both predicted they would complete the Ironman faster than the non-cramping group, and also exercised at a greater speed. The kicker is there were no significant differences in training volume or intensity for the two groups. There were also no significant differences in body weight and electrolyte levels from pre- to post-race measurements. Cramping athletes also responded as getting more cramps over their last 10 races then the non-cramping group. Researchers made the observation that muscle fatigue, and a previous history of cramping are more potent risk factors for muscle cramping.

Apply the Knowledge

With evidence suggesting that dehydration and electrolyte balance are not the sole causes of muscle cramps, what does that mean for us as athletes? This doesn’t mean you can ignore your hydration levels during a long distance event such as Ironman, but should also pay close attention to your training. If muscle fatigue is in fact a large part of EAMC, then it is important that an athlete not try to race at a pace much greater than one they train at. This seems like a no-brainer, but it happens about 80% of the time. It takes a lot of hard work and self-discipline to not become overwhelmed by race day or the paces of others, it is important to race your race! If your training for a race at a bike speed of 18.0mph and a run speed of 10:00min/mile, there is no reason you should be racing at 22:00mph and 8:30min/mile on race day. This will likely because the muscle fatigue/cramping towards the end of the event as was found from this scientific study.


So in conclusion, long distance events like Ironman or RAAM are extremely fun and rewarding accomplishments. It is an athlete and coaches’ responsibility to make sure an athlete is training at a level they can accomplish in a race to prevent over-pacing and causing excess muscle fatigue. It is also very important to remember, this study does not say that hydration and electrolyte levels are not key factors to success. You need to make sure you stay properly hydrated and fueled as well. If you can control these key elements to prevent exercise-associated muscle cramps, you will have the opportunity to produce the best race you can, and also have fun!! Make sure to practice these plans prior to race day so you know what works and what does not! Most of all, have fun and race hard!


Schwellnus, M. P., Drew, N., & Collins, M. (2011). Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: A prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 650-656.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Well my season has been cut short by an injury. Was planning on dominating the Olympic distance this weekend at the Peregrine Charities Triathlon. Was really pumped for it a couple weeks ago, but after my great first running race ever, I discovered that I had injured my SI joint. This is the first time I have ever had to cut something short because of an injury, and it is quite disheartening. With all my years of swimming, nothing ever happened, except for a small bout of inflammation junior year which was taken care of quickly. My body felt ready, but really wasn't ready to handle a 6 mile road race as fast as you can go.....so that is something I'll learn from.

This joint attaches your sacrum and illium, and boy did it ever hurt. I went to the chiropractor this past week for some adjustments and he discovered via standing x-ray that I actually have an 8mm shorter right leg. So I now have an 8mm heel lift in my shoes. This made my hips even again, and feels better.

Unfortunately, I went out and tried to run yesterday and didn't even make it a block before I had to call it quits. So this adds insult to the all-ready lackluster season I had...speaking of the bike. I'll offer a recap at some point, but I wish the year would have gone better, just never had any luck, and a bout of over-training did me in as well.

But on the bright side, I'll take a week or so recovery and gear up for some cyclocross action. Had a great time last year, and its a great way to stay in shape! I have been swimming very consistently, and I am starting to feel really good in the water again. This will hopefully help a lot with next season!

In other news, my thesis is coming along nicely and I hope to be graduated in December. As for plans after that, no idea!! Bethany and I are toying with idea of moving to Des Moines so I can be more involved with the Zoom and Z3 families. A couple of awesome opportunities are also in the works, and could be amazing job opportunities. More to come later!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Park to Park 10km

Long overdue update!

Been a long time since the state road race fiasco. School has started, and I am really enjoying my one and only class, muscle physiology. For my research topic this semester, I am studying exercise-associate muscle cramping (EAMC) that is often experienced by endurance athletes during the later stages of a race. Kind of interesting, it happened to me a little bit over a month ago! I am also continuing to work on my thesis, which is going awesome, I am really enjoying testing the kids and getting results. I will be done with coursework in December, and hope to also have my thesis defended then as well! Then it will be on to the real world!

I took part in my first running road race yesterday during the Park to Park 5k, 10k, and half-marathon. It was a lot of fun, with over 1300 athletes competing! I didn't know what to expect as I prepared on race day, and during the race. I figured a high fiber meal right before hand wouldn't have been good, so I stuck to cereal and a banana. I was off to George Wyth State Park at 6:15am and ready to race by 6:45. I got a 10min warmup in with a couple pickups. I lined up towards the end of the 7:00-7:30 pace line, hoping to maintain around a 7:20min/mile. Soon we were off, and after the first mile, I was at 7:10 and feeling really good. So I picked up the pace a bit and by mile 2, I had been at 6:55. WOW!!!! I was under 7min/mile pace, but could I hold it. The 10km race split from the half/5k and I was soon in a land by myself with only 1 guy and 1 girl ahead of me. I caught the guy in front of me, and then the lady at the turn around. My heart rate was still doing very well, at around 180bpm(Threshold) as I turned for home. As I made contact with the trail back to the finish line, 5k runners were on the trail and I made it a point to catch as many as possible. I sprinted for the line and finished with a time of 43:20. This time gave me a pace of 6:59min/mile! I was so stoked with this!! Couldn't believe how well I had done, for never running before in my life until about 4 weeks ago!

I ended up 4th place overall out of 62men, and 179 total 10km runners. I did win my age group by 40 seconds! The next Pre? I highly doubt it, but it gives me a lot of confidence that I can continue to improve my running this winter!

So what is up next? I am doing the Peregrine Charities Olympic Distance triathlon next weekend. I did the Pigman earlier this year, and had a lot of fun, and this is exactly what I am looking to do here. HAVE FUN! No pressure on myself, just go out and give everything I can. Swimming has been coming back to me, and feeling good, cycling is cycling and the running is coming around! I am stoked for the challenge!!!

Until next time! Live each day to its fullest!