Cycling is a very exciting and challenging sport for many. Whether you chose to do it in a recreational manner or professionally, it requires a significant amount of fitness and strength to cycle. Some may even call it addictive. However, like any other sport that requires endurance and strength, cycling can result in leg pain and injury, if rest and recovery are not considered.
But why do leg pains occur when cycling, especially when it is not an impact sport? What are the most common types of leg pain for cyclists? And what should be done to avoid these pains? This guide will attempt to answer all these questions.
What Are the Causes of Leg Pain?
There are many causes of leg pain. A cyclist experiences leg pain due to various reasons; from muscle fatigue to external causes like crashing or hitting something. However, the most common reason is muscle fatigue. As a result, we would not be covering the external causes since they are almost always unique.
Muscle fatigue on the leg is defined as the overuse of the muscles in the lower body. As cycling uses the lower body to a great extent, these muscles undergo severe stress, which in turn produces lactic acid. When there is a higher production of lactic acid, the legs start to hurt. The more it hurts, the more you tend to reduce the stress on it. Sudden sprinting on the bicycle, or riding for a long period without proper hydration results in an increase in lactate production.
The most common type of muscle fatigue occurs in the form of pain in the back of the thigh, and calf muscle pains. Depending on how physically fit you are, these are experienced generally during the end of a cycling session or a few hours after your session. These types of leg pains can be largely categorized into two, namely cramps and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
What Causes Cramps in Legs while Cycling?
Leg cramps during cycling are common among all cyclists; amateurs and professionals alike. Moreover, the causes of cramps in the legs are wide and varied. It can be stiff muscles, poor hydration before and during cycling as well as pushing of the legs more than you should.
Cycling is a sport that incorporates all the muscle groups in the legs. Your calves, glutes, quads, and even your foot muscles are used. Due to the repetition of the pedal strokes, these muscles get tired and become complacent in their movement. Stiff muscles make this complacency noticeable and eventually results in a temporary pain that lasts for the duration of the cycling session.
If you ever record yourself cycling for a long period, you will be able to see that your pedal motion slightly shifts outwards from the bicycle to ease the stress caused to the quads. If your legs are stiff you will experience it quite soon in the ride. The reason is that the glutes and quads cannot perform any eccentric contractions since it is stiff. If you force it, you will experience a sharp pain in the area. In other words, a cramp.
Hydration and Nutrition
Another explanation for calves cramping while cycling, is poor hydration and nutrition. Your muscles need fuel to function. That fuel comes in the form of electrolytes, such as sodium, magnesium, and potassium. Electrolytes allow the muscles to perform aerobically[i].
On the other hand, when the muscles have no electrolytes to consume when doing an activity, the muscles work in an anaerobic manner. When the muscles operate in this way, it produces lactic acid, which results in cramps.
Overworking the Legs
The science of how cramps occur this way is similar to poor hydration and nutrition. The muscles can only work so much, even in the most ideal conditions. There is always a limit for the leg muscles and once this limit is passed, the legs produce lactic acid, which results in the typical leg cramps after cycling.
How do you Prevent Leg Cramps when Cycling?
To prevent calf cramps or prevent any muscle cramps for that matter, you should be very strict with how you do your workouts and how you fuel yourself.
Leg stretches to prevent cramps are crucial. Stretching allows the muscles to become loose and flexible, thus allowing you to call on their help when the need arises. Stretching is not something you should take lightly, especially in cycling. Two types of stretches have to be done before and after a session, namely dynamic stretches and static stretches. Stretches like this enable you to avoid the 3 most common cramps from cycling.
Dynamic stretches should be done before a session, as it requires the body to adapt to a particular movement while also stretching out the muscles.
On the other hand, static stretches should be done after the session. The purpose of these stretches is to flush out as much lactic acid as possible and to keep the muscles from getting stiff, thus aiding in the recovery process. In short, these are important exercises to prevent calf cramps.
If you want to avoid calf cramps while cycling, you have to make sure you are fuelling them adequately. That means you have to take in the necessary electrolytes and follow a strict diet that helps the muscles perform. In other words, you will have to make sure that you take the right amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and other important macronutrients. When the muscles are fueled properly, it will not cramp up during a session. Moreover, you will be more confident as well.
Make sure you know your limits when doing a session. Of course, it is important to push your limits if you want to improve your performance. However, you have to be reasonable in your push. Always be sure to gradually increase the intensity of the workouts, as opposed to suddenly cranking it up.
How to Recover from Muscle Cramps in Legs when Cycling?
In the event, you do experience muscle cramps while cycling, there are a few remedies for instant leg cramp relief.
Take it Slow
One of the first things that you should, when you do cramp when cycling is to take it slow. Do not take the pain for granted as it could turn into a long-term injury. Slow down the spin and let the legs rest for a bit. A slow pedal motion enables the muscles to go back into a more aerobic performance, as opposed to an anaerobic one. Of course, this is only a temporary remedy to relieve leg muscle cramps.
Stretch it Out
If you still cramp up, then stop pedalling and stretch the affected area. Stretching the muscles out help the flushing out of lactic build-up, which is responsible for the cramps. Moreover, you are sure to experience instant calf muscle pain relief when you stretch the legs. However, keep in mind that this too is only a temporary solution.
Eating and Drinking on the Go
When you are feeling like you are cramping, slow down, and have some electrolytes. Make sure you slow down as well so that the legs can recover a bit from the intense cycling. It is best to do this while doing the previous two muscle recovery tips for cyclists[i].
What are the Causes of DOMS in Cyclists?
While cramps are a common sight to any type of cyclist, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is more likely to affect the beginner. The root cause of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is repetitive stress as a result of high-intensity cycling. Therefore, damaging the muscle fibres of the legs, which eventually result in soreness that could last up to 72 hours.
More about DOMS can be further understood in our separate article ‘A Guide to DOMS: Definition, Causes, Recovery & Prevention’.
How DOMS Affects Cycling Performance?
Cycling performance is heavily affected by DOMS since it does not allow the legs to perform the way it normally can. The soreness that can last for up to 72 hours makes it difficult to push yourself in any sort of activity.
Due to the severity of the soreness, you will not be able to hop on a bicycle for a while until it subsides. Even then, you will have to take it easy on the workouts. In short, DOMS negatively affects cycling performance, however, only for a short period.
What to do if you are Already Experiencing DOMS?
If you are suffering from soreness, do not panic. Treatment for DOMS are plenty and can be done right at the comfort of your own home. Here are some of the popular ones;
There is no particular style of massage that is recommended for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness relief. As long as a mild massage is done in the sore area, you should be able to ease the soreness for a little while[ii].
Taking cold baths in a regular interval allows the muscles to reduce the swelling that is typical of DOMS. Just 10-15 minutes in a cold bath can drastically reduce the duration of the soreness as a whole[iii].
Anti-inflammatory Ointments and Gels
Additionally, you can also use topical anti-inflammatory applications to aid the healing process and reduce the pain caused by DOMS. By no means is this a permanent solution though.
Mixing in the use of recovery tools like that of SPRYNG to reduce the effects of DOMS helps a great deal. The compression wrap, along with its patent-pending wavetec compression pattern allows excess lactic acid to be flushed away and allows for a better circulation of blood. The recently introduce SPRYNG Knuckles Power Up enables you to have a much better deep tissue massage as well. Therefore, enabling a more effective recovery process.
How to Avoid DOMS?
If you want to prevent Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), you must follow a strict routine before and after cycling sessions;
Firstly, you have to make sure that you warm up properly before any sort of cycling workout. Even if it is a simple recovery workout, it is necessary to do dynamic stretching before hopping on the bike.
Moderately Intense Workout
Do not go all out in your workouts. Gradually increase the intensity of the workout, since it enables the body to adapt more effectively to the change in pace.
Stretching and Cooling Down
Once you have completed the workout, do some static stretches so you can flush out the excess lactic acid. Moreover, schedule a few simple recovery sessions, since it keeps the legs active.
Hydration and Nutrition
Whether you are in a recovery phase or not, you always have to keep a tab on what you eat and drink. It is known that following a high protein diet, along with an increased intake of vitamin D reduces the chances of a severe hit of DOMS, Therefore, the recovery time is much lesser[iv][v].
How to Improve Blood Circulation in the Legs?
When it comes to the recovery stage of cycling, one of the main factors that should be considered is how to maintain or increase circulation in the legs. The pooling of blood is one of the major causes of DOMS and even long-term injuries.
How do you improve circulation in the legs though? Stretching them after every workout and massaging them frequently. Once again SPRYNG plays a major part in this recovery phase, as the sole purpose of the tool is to maintain a healthy circulation throughout the legs and body.
Why is Prevention/Recovery So Important?
If you are a cyclist that is keen on the sport, you would not want to miss a workout session. It goes for amateur cyclists and professionals as well. There are many other reasons to justify why recovery and prevention are so important.
Less Prone to Injury
If you are dealing with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and follow the necessary tips in preventing and recovering from it, your legs will be less prone to injury, since you will not go into the next cycling session with fatigued legs.
Can Maintain Fitness
Following proper Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness recovery methods will allow you to get back on the bicycle quickly. Thereby, allowing you to push yourself and maintain a good base of fitness in the long run.
Comparison Between Foam Rollers, Compression Socks, and SPRYNG
These are relatively inexpensive recovery tools that can be used as a way to loosen up the muscles, especially the legs. As the name suggests, it is made out of a special foam that is shaped cylindrically, so it can be rolled along the ground.
When compared to the compression socks, these tools can only be used after a workout and requires some effort to use. In other words, this is a tool that you have to actively use while exercising. Therefore, using foam rollers may require some guidance and practice at first.
Compression socks are used while doing the activity. They are almost like any sock, except that it is tighter and runs the full length of your calves. The science behind it is that when you use it during a workout, there is less pooling of the blood due to the constriction of the muscles from the sock. Moreover, your muscles will be more stable during the session. In other words, it reduces the effects of soreness and cramps when cycling.
SPRYNG brings the best of both worlds. The compression wrap can be used electronically and is portable due to its wireless technology. The recovery tool also has several settings that can be chosen to your liking. Once it is configured to your preferences, it will begin to systematically mimic the skeletal pump of the calf muscles to flush out any excess lactic acid and pooled blood. The result can be a much faster recovery period from soreness and cramps without much effort. The reasonable price tag makes it all the more enticing for the amateur and professional cyclist as well.
What causes sore muscles?
Repetition of strenuous activity in a particular muscle group.
What massage can I use for sore muscles?
There is no particular type of massage. As long as it is mild and helps loosen up the muscles, it is alright.
What helps sore muscles recover faster?
Massages, recovery tools like SPRYNG, stretching, and cold baths.
What causes muscle cramps?
It can be either stiff muscles, lack of hydration, or overworking the muscles.
What to do for leg cramps?
Slow down the intensity of the activity, stretch, and hydrate.
How to increase blood flow?
Massages, using recovery tools like SPRYNG, and stretching exercises.
Why do my legs ache?
Your legs may ache because you either have been idling for too long, or you have been doing too much activity.
What are compression socks?
They are socks that reduce the pooling of blood and lactic acid build up in the legs while doing a workout.
Why do my calves hurt?
Because of repetitive stress caused by activity in the area.
Why drink water after a massage?
It flushes out the free radicals released by a massage and helps rehydrate the muscles.
Why are my muscles sore for no reason?
It can be due to many reasons, therefore it is best to visit a physician to pinpoint what exactly is the problem.
Are sore muscles a good sign?
Yes, it can be a good sign after a workout. It is an indicator of whether you did the workout right.
Is it okay to exercise with sore muscles?
It is not recommended. However, light exercises that are aimed at reducing the soreness of the muscles can be done.
There we have it! Everything you need to know about leg pain and why it occurs during cycling, along with the solutions for it.