CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS
If the goal is increasing muscle strength, eccentric contractions are actually more effective than concentric contractions. This is counter-intuitive but is a result of the fact that you can apply a greater force to tensed, but relaxing, muscle fibers than in the concentric phase of active muscle contraction. And the muscle strengthens proportionally to the amount of force (weight) applied. In the dumbbell example you can lower a heavier weight than you can initially curl. Research indicates that when the intensity of training is comparable (dumbbell weight is kept constant) with eccentric and concentric contractions, the gains in muscle strength are not significantly different. In other words, a greater increase in strength with eccentric training is only the case when the load (weight used) is higher during eccentric training than in the concentric training.
When it comes to the development of muscle pain, the result of micro trauma (small tears in the tissue) to the muscle fibers from the stress of the activity, eccentric contractions are more likely to be the culprit. In addition to the fact that you can develop more force (higher weights can be used) on the muscle fibers with an eccentric contraction, the shortened muscle fiber also has more engaged cross striations (than the lengthened muscle fiber that is shortening in a concentric contraction) and it is the cross striations that appear to be the site of the micro tears. Thus actual injury to the muscle is more of a risk with an eccentric exercise program than the traditional concentric work out.
There are also three patterns of "exercise associated" muscle pain.
Exercise requiring significant effort, either high energy demands (low resistance, rapid contraction rate) or substantial muscle effort (high resistance, low contraction rate) is often associated with muscle pain or discomfort. No studies have identified a specific cause for this discomfort, although the fact that it occurs more quickly in a muscle with a limited blood supply suggests that the culprit is a byproduct of muscle metabolism. As the ingestion of sodium bicarbonate will delay the onset of the pain, it is thought that the metabolite is acidic in character.
Lactic acid is usually blamed for the discomfort. But recent information suggests that the muscle cell metabolizes lactic acid quickly, and in fact it may be a better fuel to power the muscle than glucose. Thus it is more likely that other acidic metabolites such as pyruvic acid and ammonia are involved. The pain in the actively contracting muscle is almost certainly multifactorial, related to a combination of acidic intermediate metabolites, ionic shifts at the cell membrane level (K, magnesium), and actual changes in the muscle cell proteins themselves. As training increases the level of activity at which discomfort occurs, we know that the muscle cell can adapt to these factors.
It is interesting to note that the body has developed a mechanism to deal with this discomfort. Endorphins, opiate like substances produced internally, are secreted into the central nervous system during endurance exercise and alter the perception of pain during prolonged high intensity exercise. Thus we have a mechanism to warn of muscle overuse (pain) as well as an intrinsic process to help us deal with that pain if we opt to continue.
II. DELAYED ONSET MUSCLE SORENESS (DOMS)
Delayed soreness (or stiffness) does not occur immediately after a workout, but 8 to 24 hours after exercise, peaking at 48 to 72 hours. It is more common after "eccentric" muscle activity (actively resisting lengthening of the muscle such as occurs in raising or lowering a weight) as it is possible to develop a high tension on muscle fibers and connective tissues (read above) than in isometric or static tension activity. The soreness is accompanied by a decrease in muscle strength, a reduced range of motion, and leakage of muscle cell proteins (creatine kinase, myoglobin) into the blood where these enzyme and protein levels can be directly measured. As you might expect, those with a higher CPK (creatine phosphokinase) tend to have greater muscle soreness. These three findings indicate that actual muscle damage is the culprit (most likely minute tears) rather than a buildup of metabolic byproducts (lactic acid) of intense muscular activity. Muscle biopsies have confirmed that the pain is from direct muscle fiber trauma with an inflammatory response.
DOMS is most common at the beginning of the training season when athletes are increasing their training after a period of reduced activity, or as a result of exercise at a greater than normal level. It does not appear that a history of soreness earlier in the season increases the odds of further muscle damage. In fact the adaptive process of healing, even from microscopic injury with minimal pain, appears to have a protective effect against the development of additional muscle damage and soreness from subsequent exercise. Theoretically small doses of damage over time will provide cumulative protection - thus the rationale for a gradually progressive exercise training program.
In 1997, a small group of elite athletes with a combination of chronic fatigue and delayed onset muscle soreness were studied. Muscle biopsies were abnormal and the authors speculated that cumulative, low level, chronic injury might interfere with performance. Whether chronic injury is involved in the symptoms we call overtraining is still considered speculative. But it does lend support to the idea that adequate rest in a training program is as important as the actual physical training itself.
Some interesting facts about DOMS:
A more recent NYT article in 2012, references a more recent study where "the men briskly rode stationary bicycles for that same hour. Before one of those rides, though, they again took 400 milligrams of ibuprofen the night before and the morning of their workouts. At the end of each rest or ride, researchers drew blood to check whether the men's small intestines were leaking. Dr. van Wijck found that blood levels of a protein indicating intestinal leakage were, in fact, much higher when the men combined bike riding with ibuprofen than during the other experimental conditions when they rode or took ibuprofen alone."
Even though more than 50% of elite athletes report taking ibuprofen (vitamin I) before or during an event or race, an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine nicely summarizes the current thinking. "There is no indication or rationale for the current prophylactic use of NSAIDs by athletes, and such ritual use represents misuse."
BOTTOM LINE - Use muscle pain during exercise as well as DOMS to your advantage to fine tune your training. When you are doing intervals (pushing the muscle into an anaerobic state) exercise right to the point of the muscle burn then back off and recover. Pick up the pace again. Repeat this cycle until your muscles feel completely drained of are starting to stiffen (usually when the glycogen stores have been depleted). Then it is time to stop the workout. Depending on how sore your muscles feel the next day either take the next day off or go at a recovery pace. No intervals again until the soreness has gone away completely. Along with perceived exertion, listening to your body's distress signals will help optimize your training program. It is not just about meeting a preplanned training schedule - miles and intensity.
And if you are tempted to use ice or anti inflammatories to treat your discomfort it may actually be harmful. Not only does it appear that those approaches that treat pain may delay healing, the very fact that you don't have the pain to remind you of your limits and to take it easy for a few days increases your risk of exercising beyond your body's limits and further injury.
III. MUSCLE CRAMPS (CRAMPING) It's not unusual to hear the following story:
"I entered my first mountain bike race (18 miles) and at mile 14, my thighs and right calf cramped up. This has happened before on long rides. I thought I trained enough, hydrated enough, and ate enough bananas, but I still cramped up and had to go real slow for the last 4 miles. It was sooooo frustrating. I have another race coming up next month but its only 12 miles but has steeper hills. What should I do? Do tights help reduce cramps? When I get them (cramps) should I massage the cramped area? Should I train the amount of miles of the race?"
A cramp is an intense, active contraction of the muscle. Cramps are much more common when you use your muscles beyond their accustomed limit either for a longer than normal duration or at a higher than normal level of activity. This explains why cramps are more common at the end of a long or particularly strenuous ride or after a particularly vigorous sprint. Cramps are among the most frequent complaint in marathon participants (18% in one study). In another study of cyclists competing in a 100 mile race, 70% of male participants experienced cramps (women, interestingly, had a rate less than half as frequent at 30%). Cramps can occur during activity, in the hours afterwards, or the night after a particularly long ride or competitive event. They become more common with age and also are reported to occur as a side effect of certain drugs (i.e., lipid-lowering agents, anti-hypertensives, beta-agonists, insulin, oral contraceptives, and alcohol).
Although cramps may occasionally be exacerbated by a fluid and electrolyte (sodium) imbalance from sweating, that is not universally the case as individuals involved in activities requiring chronic use of a muscle without sweating (musicians for example) will also experience cramps. In one study of marathon runners, there were no differences in sodium or hydration levels between the 15 participants who developed cramps and the 67 who didn't. This was confirmed in another study in ultra-distance runners. And although a low magnesium level can cause severe muscle cramping, another study of magnesium supplements in triathletes failed to show any benefits in preventing cramping.
As is often the case when there is no consensus on etiology, you will find many conflicting opinions on treatment options. A review of the literature indicates that muscle cramps with exercise cramps are more likely due to an altered spinal cord reflex loop from/to the muscle as a result of muscle fatigue.
Sweat contains approximately 2 grams of sodium/liter, 1 gram chloride/liter, 0.2 gram potassium /liter, and 0.1 gram magnesium/liter (and if you are acclimated to the level of exertion and environmental conditions, these concentrations are even lower). Except in extreme circumstances, dietary intake easily replaces these losses.
If you will be exercising in excessively hot or humid conditions, most trainers will stress paying close attention to salt intake - and perhaps adding 1/2 tsp of salt (1150 mg of sodium) per day to your food (heavy slating of your meal is probably just as effective). Don't worry about elevating your blood pressure as we are talking about a short term supplement while the sodium effect on blood pressure happens over months to years. A sports drink, with its electrolyte content) will help but it is more likely that maintaining adequate hydration is their most important benefit rather than the small amount of electrolytes they contain. And plain water is still a lot less expensive to keep up the hydration level. But remember that with water "more is not necessarily better" and hyponatremia is always a small risk if you aren't paying close attention to the balance of your intake and losses. The role of other micro-nutrients and vitamins in preventing cramps is generally unproven - and anecdotal experience with the benefits of home remedies (except for pickle juice - one study and this was via a neural reflex mechanism, not an effect on body fluid composition) is unproven.
Here are 2 interesting anecdotes (unsupported by the medical studies done to date):
If cramps do occur, gently stretching the affected muscle will give relief, and preventive stretching can prevent cramps. Calf cramps while riding can be relieved by standing on the bike and dropping your heel, while anterior thigh cramps can be stretched out by unclipping and moving your thigh backwards towards your buttocks. Although a number of medications have been suggested as treatments for muscle cramps (vitamin E, verapamil, and nifedipine to name a few) only quinine has been shown to be effective in scientifically controlled studies. But its high incidence of side effects limits its usefulness as a routine treatment. So what would I recommend for those suffering from frequent muscle cramps?
The first 2 readers' questions below highlight the role training can play in the prevention of cramps - even though it relates to the question of cramps in a non cycling event. (The answer was provided by an associate at my clinic.)
Q: I started cycling about 6 months ago and trained really hard this summer for a double century. In all the training and the race itself I rarely suffer from any muscle spasms. However since I started cycling I (may just be coincidence) get EXTREME spasms when I hike down hill. Hiking uphill doesn't bother me, but my quads and calves literally freeze up after only 5-10 minutes of down hill hiking. It becomes so painful I can barely bend my leg. Last time I only hiked 1/2 mile and I thought they were going to have to carry me out. I've tried stretching before and it doesn't help. Within hours the spasms are nearly gone and by morning I feel fine. This probably sounds crazy, but I can't figure out how I can bike 200 miles and can't hike 1/2 mile.
A: Here's the somewhat technical answer: The ankle plantar flexors and quads act concentrically in cycling - that is they generate tension (fire) while shortening. Through the down stroke the ankle plantar flexes and the knee extends under the influence of the gastrocs, soleus and quads. At the bottom of the stroke and through the up stroke, the hamstrings are shortening too.
In walking down hill the opposite is true. Your friend is repeatedly letting himself down hill under the eccentric firing of the quads, plantar flexors and hamstrings. To keep from falling forward the hamstrings fire to keep the pelvis from rotating forwards. During stance phase the ankle dorsiflexes over the planted foot lengthening the plantar flexors and the knee flexes lengthening the quadriceps muscles. A pack will change the equation in that it will greatly amplify the intramuscular tension and therefore the work performed by the muscle. Work that these muscles are not trained (training meaning the physiologic and anatomic adaptations to repeated work) to do.
And the short version: In terms of improving the situation the answer is really cross training - his muscles are well equipped for steady state aerobic concentric work at 90 to 110 rpm but not the greater intensity, near anaerobic threshold eccentric work of hiking down hill. I would bet that eight weeks of running including 20% speed/interval work will turn the problem around.
Q: I am 42 years old and I have been cycling for 19 years. I have one real problem that I can't seem to shake. CRAMPING. I have trained longer, harder, faster, further and taken every conceivable >concoction used, special supplements and the thing I have found that works the best although it does not work 100% is drinking Indian tonic water for the week leading up to the race. Am I right in saying that I am just one of those people prone to cramping or can I really do something about it. I must add that I have developed a strange ability to endure these cramps and ride through them only for them to reappear and literally bite me so hard I have nearly fallen off my bike. Kind regards. James.
A: Muscle cramps are probably multifactorial in origin - exercise beyond your limits (distance ridden or maximum levels of exertion), dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, etc. And age is a factor as well. I never cramped until I got into my 40s, and leg cramps are a common complaint of older patients of mine. Once you have corrected all the variables which you can control (except age of course) it then becomes a matter of learning your triggers and riding within your limits (usually defined by trial and error) and understanding that these triggers may vary depending on how well you are trained at the time.
Q: I recently got back on my bike about 6 months ago about the same time I started a low calorie diet. Thus, far I've lost about 55 lbs or about 2 lbs per week. I eat a lot of protein (fish, steak, fruits, etc.) except for lunch (salads mostly) and not too much carbs. I consume about 1800 calories per day and burn about 800 per day exercising that mostly consist of bike riding and when the weather does not permit the ride, I'll hop on the (moderate walking) treadmill for about 30-35 min each time. On the weekends, I'll ride 20 miles (AM) and another 10 miles (PM) sometimes. This was my regular routine for about 5 months. I am usually riding about the same distance (except for the weekends) and intensity. The past month after a 40 mile ride, I noticed that I am experiencing muscle fatigue and soreness on my entire leg. My legs feel like jelly. The soreness comes almost immediately after the ride after a short rest on the couch. I also notice that I use to ride on the highest gear and now that's getting too difficult for me and I now have to reduce to lower gears. It just seems that after 6 months of riding my leg muscles should improve, so why am I experiencing muscle fatigue and soreness? - EL
A: A few thoughts on your question.
Cooling down speeds up the removal of lactic acid from muscles, but as a buildup of lactic acid does not cause delayed muscle soreness, cooling down will not help to prevent this physical injury and muscle soreness. Stretching does not prevent soreness either - although pre ride stretching may help to prevent the physical micro-tears.
Performing certain exercises beyond your training will almost guarantee delayed soreness: running, hiking or skiing downhill, for example, and lowering weights - what weight lifters refer to as "negatives." In these downhill or downward motions, called eccentric muscle actions, the muscle fibers have to lengthen and then contract, and it's that lengthening-contraction that puts the most strain on the fiber and does the most damage. Cycling is NOT one of the exercises frequently associated with muscle injury and soreness.
So the question - why your soreness? As it started with your low carbohydrate diet (and weight loss) - and there was no increase in exercise intensity or duration - the low carbohydrate diet is at the top of my list of potential culprits. Other possibilities would be associated dietary deficiencies, such as magnesium, associated with your high protein diet - magnesium deficiency can cause increased muscle cramps for example. As muscles require energy in the form of ATP to work effectively, it is possible that low energy levels are leading to muscle weakness and as a result a greater tendency to actual physical damage to the muscle fibers.
What would I suggest? For 1 week, eat as many Calories as you use - and make sure 50% of them are from carbohydrate. If you improve, then you have the answer. (a followup email confirmed that a change in diet had helped).
A reader recently mentioned that he had a physical after a bout of fairly vigorous riding and his creatine phosphokinase (CPK) was elevated. He rides hard and often has tender muscles the next day. Initially his physician wondered if he had a chronic inflammatory condition (myositis) but with 3 days of rest the CPK returned to the normal range.
With a little research I was able to find several articles that described this response to exercise. The first one I tracked down suggested an average 10 fold increase in the serum CPK levels, with quite a bit of individual variation. To quote "Muscle soreness in the eccentrically exercised thigh increased from 0 (range, 0-0), to 1.3 (range, 0.8-2.1) and 1.9 (range, 0.8-2.5) arbitrary units (a.u.) on day 1 and 2, respectively (P < 0.05). Creatine kinase increased from 54 U (range, 32-86 U) before the eccentric exercise to 620 U (range, 117- 1571) on day 1 and 2211 (range, 87-8138 U) on day 2."
The more definitive article notes, and I'll quote directly