Quadricep Cramping On Downhill!

Couldn’t find much about this topic in the forum search or via Google, particularly with respect to unicycling.

Ok here is the scenario:

I’ve got this 10 mile ride I’ve been doing on a regular basis, perhaps 2-3 times a week over the past six weeks or so. All has been good until Monday of last week.

At about mile 3.25 miles the flat route turns uphill and climbs on a gravel road about 600 feet over the next 1.75 miles. I’m able to climb the hill fairly easily on my KH24 GUni with 24x2.5 Maxxis Hookworm and 137mm cranks. I’m a bit out of the saddle on the steeper sections but am in the saddle most of the rest of the way. There are even a few flatter sections where I engage the high-gear. So all the way up, no pain and feel good. But then I start heading downhill…PAIN!

I’m not even 1/10 of a mile down the road from the top and I immediately start feeling my quadricep muscles begin to twitch, the inside and outside quad muscles; all of them! Within a 1/4 mile the pain is too intense and I have to dismount. I am riding downhill in high-gear with the hydraulic brake engaged to “theoretically” lessen the leg strain.

I’ve been riding this route for years BUT I’ve been doing a ton more riding in the last 2 months since I’m unable to run because of a stress fracture in my heel.

So why is this happening?

Is it the sudden ramp up in mileage that is overly fatiguing my legs?

Could I have done some trauma to my legs before or during that first leg cramp episode?

Cranks too short? Too much leg strain from mashing the pedals?

Is my saddle height too low? Too high? (At the 6 o’clock position my leg has a slight bend to it, not totally straight but not severely bent either.)



When I first started MUni back in late '05, I had terrible quad pain after doing dh. I know you are much more experienced now than I was back then, but even experienced riders can get quad pain, especially when you up your mileage a lot at once, and/or increase stress on your quads by doing steep dh. You might be having what John Childs describes in post #6 of this old thread.


[I]It happens mostly with exercise that involves resisting motion, which is exactly what your quads are doing when you muni downhill. Getting the muscles used to the activity will help minimize the effects next time. Working on technique so you minimize how much you are forced to backpedal and how much force you put on the pedals while going downhill will help prevent it from happening in the future. A brake will also help if the terrain is brake friendly.

Try doing the Downieville ride without a brake and you won’t be able to walk normally for the next 48 hours. Last time I went to the Moab Muni Fest (two years ago) I went hiking around Arches National Park after the Muni Fest. I was walking with discomfort in the legs but still managed to hike around to many of the arches. Best bet if you want to hike around to the arches is to do that before the muni fest rather than after.[/I]

My guess would be that your quads are overpowering other structures in your legs. Quads are worked heavily by riding geared MUni, while other muscles like hamstrings tend not to be. If you’re normally a runner whose hamstrings get a lot of work, and you’re not running right now, the imbalance could be pulling things out of alignment.

Try doing hamstring stretching and strengthening exercises while you’re laid up from running.

Another possibility is that in compensating for your foot injury, your leg posture is creating problems. Try to keep your leg as neutral as possible when pedaling.

Saddle height could make a difference.

And you might just need to take a few days off to let things heal.

Thanks guys!

I can buy into the hamstring theory. I’ll make sure I do some stretching and exercises in that regard. I have a tough time believing it’s just the saddle height, because I’ve been riding for years now at various saddle heights, on all sorts of terrain and only now I have issues. I think the sudden change from running to not running and riding a lot are the keys here.

I also don’t think I’m compensating for the foot injury since there is no pain at all when I ride, even mashing down on the pedals. So I think my riding mechanics are the same as always.

Obviously I’ll take a break from this route for a while, it’s evil I tell you! :astonished: I’m sticking to flats for a bit, no issues there, heck I had this cramping episode a week ago Monday and had a great 50 mile road ride this past Saturday?? :roll_eyes: Go figure!

Rode a tour and half at Elsbet this year… haha i couldnt walk down hills normal for the next three week :astonished:

+1 on the arnica and rolling pin.

The arnica ointment is better for decreasing persisting sore muscles many hours and the days after initial application than others like Icy Hot and Ben Gay. Applying imediately after the event that is likely to cause the soreness can often significantly reduce or eliminate the pain. The pills too. Also since arnica doesn’t give that icy burn, you don’t have to wory about getting too close to your nether regions.

W/ the rolling pin, it can help to have someone do it to you. A friend can press a lot harder than I can force myself to, singificantly speeding up the massage session. A friend is especially helpful for areas that are harder to do yourself, like hamstrings.

I have found that muscle cramping for me mainly occurs because of dietary and nutritional reasons- not riding exertion. So the first thing I would do would be to make sure you are getting enough salts.

After one of my big races I make sure to give my quads a good massage to help in the recovery process. Failure to do so means I struggle with stairs etc in the days after an event (and that is not an option for my line of work atm).

My favourite method for this is to get a rolling pin/wine bottle/ pool noodle- lie it on the floor and lie myself on top of it. By pulling myself forward and back you can give your quads a really nice work through- It does, however, look like you are having your way with the floor. Totally worth it though.

I hope you sort this cramping issue out soon- nothing sucks more than cramps.


I am having trouble visualizing your method. Would you post a video? :roll_eyes:


Sounds like you might be suffering from heat cramps. Look it up. essentially, drink more water and maintain you electrolyte levels.

To help DOMS (muscle soreness after workout), stretch and use what napalm is doing. It is called myofascial release or active release. Use a foam roller/golf ball/tennis ball to rub out any soreness in your muscles. Any spots that are too painful to roll over, just hold for about thirty seconds on the spot. It’s a common practice for elite athletes. Icing helps wonders as well.

I had some terrible cramping in my quads during two muni races, one was so bad that I literally had to sit down or I would have fallen down. Funny thing is, I have never had quad cramping from any other sport, even when I did endurance running and endurance biking. And, the cramping happened in both case after I got off the muni, one was immediate, the other after a walked a couple hundred feet of road and went to remount.

Not sure what folks remember from Anatomy and Physiology, but muscle fibers work in a fairly narrow range of “chemical balance”, so if you drop too low on certain electorlytes such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium, you risk passing out of that stability threshold, which could lead to overactive/reactice muscle fibers.

So after the races I recovered quickly and was able to ride the next day. In both scenarios I was well hydrated, temps were not excessive, and my training was appropriate for the rides. I never felt like my body was improperly prepared, it was as though I didn’t “deserve it”.

My cramping was worse in the most recent race, which I admit I was not taking in enough nutrition and completely blew off electrolyte supplements.

Sooooo, I’m going to start using some supplements and see if they make a difference, next race is October 1st.

I’m thinking nutrition, specifically electrolytes, possibly exacerbated by your recent increase in riding/shift from running to riding.

What do you do for nutrition when running? It may be that we’re burning more of something when riding than we do when running, being as running is far more efficient :roll_eyes:

When’s your big ride?

Muscle Cramps
How to Prevent, Break and Flush Muscle Cramps.

by Lulu Weschler
Weschler is a Contributing Editor to UltraCycling, a physical therapist and ultra cyclist.

A muscle cramp is a muscle contracting when you didn’t tell it to, and staying contracted to an exquisitely painful extent when you are begging it to stop. Cramping has happened to many a rider and wrecked more than a few performances.

Many of us have learned from experience that:

If you get a calf cramp at night, when you’re in bed, you leap out and stand up to make the cramp go away. Generally, a muscle cramps when you’ve put it in a shortened position. To get rid of the cramp, stretch it. In this case, move your foot in the toes-to-nose direction and straighten your knee. We all seem to know this. When you get back into bed, keep your knee straight and don’t let those toes point away! Let your foot hang over the end of the bed if you are sleeping on your stomach!
It’s mostly the big muscles that cramp, massive muscles like the calf (Gastrocnemius, not Soleus), hams, and quads. Cycling exceptions to this rule include the intrinsic muscles of the feet and hands. Perhaps you have experienced foot cramps that forced you off your bike. Sitting by the side of the road, you take your shoe off and see your toes pointing every which way. A typical hand muscle cramp is of the muscle along the little finger side, so your little finger points away from your other fingers.
You are much more likely to cramp towards the end of a long hard effort, especially An Event, than on an easy training ride.
Current Hypothesis
The current hypothesis (Bentley, 1996, Schwellnus et al 1997) names both muscle fatigue and contracting an already shortened muscle as the direct causes of cramping. It goes on to implicate adaptive shortening in a muscle (read: a muscle that you work a lot in a shortened position and that you never get around to stretching) as increasing a muscle’s vulnerability to cramping. The theory implies that stretching is preventive medicine for cramping.

The theory has a neuro-physiological basis that takes a little explaining. Put your mind in the big chainring and hang tough: when you understand this, you will be a smarter stretcher as well.

All muscles have two elegant sensing systems physically built into them. The first of these is based on the muscle spindle. Many spindles are found in every muscle belly, running parallel to the muscle fibers. The spindle senses, and things are wired so that the muscle responds to, length, changes in length and the rate of change of length in the muscle. When a muscle is quickly stretched, the spindle tells the muscle to contract, and to do so right now! (Different nerve cells conduct signals at different rates, and these are the fastest conductors in the body.) The spindle itself can, like muscle fibers, contract. If the muscle stays shortened, the spindle will eventually detect this state and will itself shorten. In other words, it re-sets itself so that it will be ready to tell the now shorter muscle to contract when once again it is quickly stretched.

Now take that shortened muscle and make it tired as well. Animal studies (Nelson and Hutton, 1985) show that muscle fatigue makes the spindle more “excitable”, meaning you need less of a stimulus to set it off (ref: Schwellnus et al also cite increased EMG activity in recently cramped muscles as evidence of increased spindle activity).

Spindle operation is why you want to stretch slowly (and never bounce!). A quick stretch makes a muscle contract, or shorten, the exact opposite of what you are trying to do by stretching.

The Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) is the functional unit of the second sensing system. GTO’s are built into every muscle-tendon junction (tendons are at the ends of muscles, attaching them to bones). The GTO responds to tension (or amount of pull), change in tension, and the rate of change in tension of muscle. Its response is inhibitory: increase the amount of tension in a muscle, and the GTO sends signals to decrease its contraction. The GTO prevents a muscle from tearing by not allowing it to develop too much tension.

Unlike the spindle, the GTO cannot itself contract. When you’ve shortened up a muscle, the GTO does not shorten. It just sits there like an un-stretched rubber band. Its ability to sense tension is compromised, and it is less able to “stop a cramp before it happens.” As with the spindle, it may be even worse: the new hypothesis cites animal studies (Hutton and Nelson, 1986) which show that in a fatigued muscle, the GTO is itself inhibited, and hence firing its signals at a slower rate.

Here is how to use your GTO’s to enhance your stretching. Stretch a muscle, for the sake example your hams, as far as they want to go (before pain, of course!). Then, contract isometrically to increase tension in the muscle. To do this for your ham, press your heel or whole leg onto whatever surface you are sitting on. Press hard, without moving, and after 5-10 seconds, gently but completely let go of the contraction, again without moving. Slowly resume your stretch, and see if you go a little further! You may already have heard this referred to as “a PNF method” or as “contract-relax” or "hold-relax.’

To summarize current cramping theory: Fatigue makes the muscle spindles more excitable, making the muscle poised to contract. It also results in an inhibited GTO, thus blocking a defense against too strong a contraction. Breaking a cramp is a matter of stretching the muscle, which both gets the GTO to send its inhibitory signal, and quiets down the muscle spindle. Stretching the muscle stretches the spindle, and the longer the spindle, the less “edgy” it becomes. Then, to flush a cramp, work it in an elongated position to take advantage of the GTO’s inhibiting signal.

My experience says muscles don’t have to be tired to cramp. Get a muscle short, and contract it (that is, make it work) in that short position. This recipe works especially well with two-joint muscles, examples of which are the Gastrocnemius, Hamstrings and Rectus Femoris (see below). You can get a two-joint muscle relatively shorter than a one-joint muscle. After you shorten the muscle over one joint, you can flex another joint to get it even shorter! The fact that two-joint muscles are more predominantly fast-twitch muscles has something to do with their readiness to cramp.

Recipes for Breaking and Flushing Cramps
We’ll inventory cramp-prone cycling muscles and learn what position they want to cramp in. Gently stretching the muscle is the ticket for breaking the cramp, and you can often do this right on the bike. My experience is that you can then flush the cramp, and hence keep it from returning, right on the bike as well. For leg muscles, this means working in a reduced arc of the pedal-stroke, and letting the muscle “go for the ride” the rest of the pedal-stroke.

If the acrobatics on the bike prove too much, then get off the bike, take the muscle to its full-stretch position and resist its isometric (or very short range concentric) contraction there. When you get back on the bike, work the muscle in the range (or arc) suggested below. Gradually increase that arc. You’ll know the cramp is completely gone when you can get the muscle to work exactly as you’d like through the whole pedal-stroke.

The Gastrocnemius (a two-joint muscle) is the fleshy calf muscle which, when you’re standing, raises you up on your toes (or in general, points your foot down, away from your nose). The second joint it crosses is the knee, which it bends. So to make it cramp, bend your knee and point your toes down. To un-cramp it on the bike, put the crank in 5-6 o’clock position, slide back in the saddle, lock your knee straight and slowly drop your heel as far as you can get it to go. To flush the cramp, stay back in the saddle, keep your toes pointing towards your nose, and make the muscle work in the 4-6 o’clock part of your pedal stroke. Let it go “along for the ride” through the rest of the pedal stroke where it is shorter and once again, ready to cramp.

The Hamstrings (two-joint muscles) are the fleshy muscles at the back of the thigh. You can find their tendons: stay seated and put both hands on your right thigh, near the knee, so that your left hand is on the inside of the thigh and your right hand is on the outside. With your thumbs on top of the thigh, use your index and middle fingers to find the cord-like tendons just under the thigh near the knee. (Careful feeling will reveal two, not one, tendons on the inside.) Follow them to where they attach to the leg (if pressing where the inside ones attach to bone evokes tenderness, then you need to stretch both hams and adductors).

These muscles bend the knee and straighten the hip. Here is how to start a cramp that might put you in orbit: lie on your stomach, straight at the hip and with your knee bent so that your heel comes close to the butt. Pull the heel closer to the butt. Better yet, have someone try to pull your heel away from the butt while you resist them! See you on the moon!

To un-cramp on the bike, put the crank at 4-5 o’clock position, slide back in the saddle, bend forward at the hip, and lock your knee straight (don’t point your toes down, but don’t pull them up either). To flush, try a few pedal strokes like this: slide back in the saddle, bend forward at the hip, and pull down on the pedal stroke in the 3-4 o’clock range. This may not give you quite enough resistance; if this is the case, then coast, and try to pedal while you hold the crank stationary in the 3 o’clock position with your other leg.

The Rectus Femoris is the only one of the four quadriceps (muscles in front of the thigh) that is a two-joint muscle. It crosses the knee joint, and like the other quads, straightens the knee. It also crosses the hip and flexes, or bends the hip. Here is how to cramp it: sit with your leg straight out in front, and try to lift your leg (this method may not work if you have tight hamstrings!).

Un-cramping can be tricky because the RF’s stretch position is the hams’ cramp position and if you’ve already cramped one muscle, others are ready to go. The key to keeping the hams happy and un-cramped is to let them go along for the ride; do not contract them as you try to break the RF cramp. Un-clip, reach down and grasp your ankle or the heel of your shoe. Keep straight at the hip and use your hand to pull your heel to your butt. If you sense a ham cramp coming, then you’d best get off the bike. Lie on your un-cramped side, reach with your hand for your ankle or shoe and proceed as above. Or lie on your stomach, and have your crew gently bend your knee, pushing your heel to your butt. Let your crew do it. Do not help to pull the heel to your butt with your hamstring, or you and your crew will wind up on the moon! When the cramp is broken, your crew can hold your leg in that position while you try to straighten the knee, and even allow you a small arc of motion to flush the cramp.

To flush the cramp while riding, sit up as straight as you can and make the cramping leg work the 12-1:30 o’clock arc. This is less effective than the off-the-bike method, but you may be able to get it to work.

The other three quads are one joint muscles; they straighten the knee. Since these muscles don’t cross the hip, you can allow the hip to bend when you’re trying to break their cramps, without the possibility of cramping the hams. Usually, the cramp will be near the knee on the inside of the thigh (Vastus Medialis muscle). To break a cramp at the inside of the thigh, un-clip and pull your ankle so that your heel touches your butt. You will be using your right hand for your right ankle, and it augments the stretch a little if you bring your heel up to a little outside of the thigh. If the cramp is on the outside of the thigh (Vastus Lateralis muscle), then stretch so that your heel comes up a little inside of the thigh.

To flush quad cramps, work with your knee bent at as acute an angle as you can. Make it work only at the top of the pedal stroke, say 12-1:30 o’clock, and let it go “along for the ride” through the rest of the pedal stroke until it flushes.

The Intrinsic Foot Muscles are tiny little muscles that lie between the long bones of the foot, and it is amazing how much misery they can cause. In their shortened position, the toes point down, away from the nose and sideways. To break the cramp, grasp your toes in the palm of your hand and bend them (and perhaps your whole foot) towards your nose as far as your carbon-soled shoe will allow. Be persistent, but if this doesn’t work, you’ve got to stop, sit on the side of the road, take the shoe off, and bend the toes up. Ah, relief! When you get back on the bike, keep your toes pointed up as much as your shoe will allow. This is the best I can say as to how to flush these little devils.

The little finger side of the hand has a small muscle with a big name (Abductor Digiti Quinti Minimi). Its cramping is perceived more as an aching pain. If it hurts there, try treating it as a cramp. The muscle is short when the little finger is bent towards the palm and points away from the others. To break a cramp in your right hand, straighten your right hand and fingers, and use your left hand to bend it back at the wrist and in the direction of the thumb side of your hand. Use the contract-relax technique to flush the cramp: Hold the right hand still in that fully stretched position and make it work against the resistance of your left hand. The comments on the foot intrinsic muscles apply here as well.

You don’t need to be brushed up on anatomy to know what to do for any other muscles. Bend as many joints as you can away from the cramp. If, for example, you cramp on the palm side of your forearm, then bend your hand backwards, and straighten your elbow. Then, just keep the muscle as close to that stretched position as possible, and coax it to work a little.

Experience Also Tells Us:

If you get night cramps, you get them in the summer, not winter. If you get them while you’re riding, it is also more likely to be in the summer than in the winter. Cramping has something to do with heat.
If you’re a woman, you are more likely to cramp during menstruation than at other times during the menstrual cycle. And you are way more likely to cramp if you are pregnant.
Diarrhea makes you more vulnerable to cramping.
The authors of the current hypothesis discount other factors, such as dehydration and electrolyte depletion/imbalance, that we have long thought may contribute to cramps. I argue that these factors, while not the sole cause, are still important. Further, whatever factors cause cramps multiply each other, so that if you can fix even one, you greatly reduce your chances of cramping.

Check out the stretches illustrated at the end of the article

So, maybe it is just a lack of stretching or in the case of riding unis, lack of a relaxation phase.

Now the question is how to incorporate relaxation of the leg muscles while riding…ride easier, yeah :smiley:

The key thing here is that this cramping ONLY happens after a long, sustained, difficult climb and I make the turn to head down and BAM! I’ve been riding for 6 years now, MUni, roads, long, short and under a host of different conditions of weather and nutrition and hydration and have had no cramping issues. I’ve also never had muscle cramps like this in my 20 years of running, never.

Key thing here I think goes back to what Tholub suggested about hamstring/quadricep imbalance coupled with the sudden increase in riding mileage and no running. Big change in my routine if you will. So what I seriously think happened is I was climbing the hill described above this particular time I had very tired or overly tired legs (I’m a masochist okay!?) and probably strained a muscle w/o knowing it, possibly a minor or micro muscle tear. Because when I start to cramp, I first feel this twinge on the inside of my leg, a thin line of pain then it blossoms into full blown quad cramps, starting with the left leg then followed by the right since I’m probably compensating.

Who knows? All I know is I’m trying to stretch more, lift some weights for my underused hamstrings and just trying to stay off the big hills for a bit. I’ve had no issues lately; rode 27 miles on flat rail-to-trail on the 36er today and felt great.

Looking to do my century ride within the next few weeks.


What did you think of that article?

It came from the RAAM folks, they are way into ultra distance road riding, lots of good stuff on that site.

I’m upping my electrolytes and going to start a little pre-ride nutrition work, then when I get the cramping; as rare as it is, I’m gonna try the GTO release as the author suggested.

I think for me, I could increase my long ride in preparation for endurance events, sorta like I did for ultras.

What frustrates me most is that this never happened for ultras running nor ultra biking, just for muni, which I suppose is due to the constant pressure on the quads.

Long ride for me today, then taper for next weekend :slight_smile:

Very interesting article indeed. As a two sport athlete I can definitely now appreciate the similarities and differences between unicycling and running. The biggest difference and what is probably causing my pains is that with running I have the luxury of using different muscle groups at different times depending on the terrain and my pace. No so with unicycling, or bicycling for that matter, it’s all quads all the time with very little opportunity to get any rest. You must stop to rest since there is no coasting. So this is a new experience for me and my legs since I can’t run right now. Before I was able to get enough of leg muscle variety by running and unicycling.

So what’s the solution? Probably need to cross-train as part of my cross-training! Keep my hamstrings and other muscles strong and avoid too many “hard days” unicycling in a row. I think I’ve perhaps been over doing it with all the hills I’ve been doing, in the wicked heat & humidity. So the same advice as in running holds for unicycling. I just didn’t know what was, for me, considered at “hard day” unicycling. I know what it is for running.

Live and learn…

Not being able to rest while riding is a problem for me as well, I guess for all uni riders who push distances. I didn’t cramp yesterday, worked on nutrition and tried some “releases” while riding. I’m now having recurring problems with left knee pain on descents, so next week’s race is iffy :frowning:

It is possible to rest your legs while still riding. On flat to moderate downhill fire trails and smooth single track I can take it easy- and its amazing how much my legs can recuperate after even a small section of easier trail. If you are not used to geared unicycles and are fighting for your balance a lot of the time I can see how your legs might get overused. You will become more efficient over time and learn to make the most of these opportunities to rest your legs without needing to stop.

My few experiences with cramps have been cased by 2 main factors- not paying attention to my intake of electrolytes, combined with massive amounts of climbing. My worst case was in a 4hr enduro where I neglected to sort out my salt intake- and did 70km of a loop with one big sustained climb in it. On the last two laps my quads seized in the sustained climb when they reached full compression (standing up on the pedals, grinding in 1:1). My legs locked out straight and it took a few minutes to convince my knees to bend and stretch out the rebellious muscles.

Since then I have been more prepared and in tune with what my body needs to keep the legs ticking over. If you get it right it is completely doable to ride 100km+ days off road in testing conditions.


Great point! I’m fairly hard coded at this point on what I think my liquid/electrolyte needs are based on my running. I’m learning the hard way that those needs are radically different for long distance unicycling! I’m definitely not getting enough electrolytes in on these training rides. I haven’t had issues on my longest rides/races because I think I do get the right balance of electrolytes and fuel. I guess I just get lazy on my daily long rides and only drink water. Dumb!

Ah, to be twenty again, those were the days :wink:

I’m right there with you, gettiing lazy on training, then doing it right for a race, so yesterday I did it right for training and felt pretty good, no cramping even on big climbs.

As to knee pain, maybe NSAID’s, that seemd to help at the last race and for running, but I worry about the pain becoming more than just “a pain”, can’t afford to damage by knees as I think they’ll come in handy for the next forty years :slight_smile:

Its important not to conflate age with ability NurseBen ;). Remember that most enduro sports (MTB, Marathon, etc) are dominated by mature people- 30-40yrs.