Matt Hanson | Professional Triathlete
5x Ironman Champion/ 4x 70.3 Champion

Why I was cramping and what am doing about it!

The last half of the 2018 season and the first three races of 2019 definitely did not go as well as I would have liked. I certainly had a few decent results and was performing at a fairly high level. However, the biggest weapon I’ve had throughout my career just wasn’t to the level it had been up through the first ½ of 2018. I was dealing with some major cramping issues throughout those races. The cramps would show up early on the bike and really prevent me from being able to open up my stride at all on the run. Sometimes I was able to run alright and would immediately cramp as soon as I tried to open up the stride. At a few races, I was cramping so bad I couldn’t really do much more than a shuffle. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out why these cramps were occurring. However, I think I finally have figured out the root cause of the issue.

The first thing that anyone thinks to look at when you start cramping is nutrition. I never have any issues in training, so I was trying to figure out what I was doing different leading up/during the race. I’ve done an exhausting amount of testing to set up my race nutrition/hydration plan. I went to the heat lab at UCONN and did a full panel sweat test there. I have done numerous physiological testing both in and out of the lab to determine calories per hour needed at different power and paces. Not to mention the numerous conversations I have had with First Endurance on my needs and what would fit best based on all of the data I had available. Of course, I’ve tested this out in training as well. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I hung on to the idea that the cramping in races was related to nutrition for a bit too long.

Research still has not provided a clear picture on the cause of cramping, however the most recent studies have suggested that cramping begins in the nerve. So when I was triaging what happened at Ironman Texas post race, I took a step back and tried to think about when the cramping was occurring and where it was starting. I finally came to the realization that the cramping was following the same myotome (muscle nerve path) on both legs. That finally set off the lightbulb for me. I have been dealing with a Spondy (small fracture on the side of a vertebrae in the spine) since my days as a college wrestler. Spondys occur due to forced back extension, so they are often irritated by prolonged back extension as well…like what happens when you do an open water swim (not the case in pool swimming being you get a flip turn every 15-17 seconds). So what I believe what was happening is that the open water swim was irritating the spondy causing the spinalis muscles on both side of the vertebrae to spasm putting pressure on the nerve root. I have always struggled with back pain during races but do not have near the issue in training (every now and then I have a bad day, but the last two years have been pretty good!).

I have spoken with a few sports med docs and a few PTs who think that I am definitely on the right track here and have help me put together a plan to address everything. So after months of pounding my head against the wall trying to figure out why I have been cramping so much the last year, I finally think I am on a path to a solution. I have been working on specific exercises to strengthen, mobilize specific areas, and stabilize other areas. I have a great team behind me helping me on this new plan. I have only been working at it for 2 weeks, but was happy to find that during Chattanooga 70.3 I was able to find my run stride. I didn’t put up a lights out split by any means, but I was able to hold form through the entire run for the first time since Augusta last September. I really believe that now that I have a solution, I’ll be able to get rid of these pesky cramps and return to my old running self!

This is a good lesson for many of you out there. I let this issue linger for way to long before actually accepting this was a problem and putting all my resources to finding a solution. This cost me nearly a years worth of frustrating racing. Ever since Ironman Texas in 2018, I have had some pain in my hip flexors that was nearly always there. I just attributed it to being an old man and needing to do more mobility/flexibility (I’m 34yo now…no spring chicken!). My running workouts were fine…but not what they were leading up to the 2018 IMTX when I had the best run of my career. I wasn’t able to get the hip extension that makes my stride so efficient, so I was having to muscle through everything and was losing 10-15 seconds per mile on almost all of my runs. The same nerve that is causing issue during the races innervates the hip flexors. Basically, as the nerve got a little irritated, it was causing a constant spasm of the hip flexors. Now that I am addressing the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms, I’ve had 2-3 runs in the last 2 weeks that were completely pain free…something I haven’t been able to say for a long time. So now I just have to get my brain to shut off and trust that my normal stride won’t hurt any more, and get to work rebuilding the run fitness that I’ve had in the past.

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