Often painful and debilitating, stomach cramps can seriously impact your ability to complete an exercise session. Whether you are running, cycling, swimming, rowing or walking, stomach cramps can occur for a wide variety of reasons. In fact, abdominal cramps while cycling can be just as distressing as muscle cramps in the legs or feet.
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As with any form of exercise, your cycling performance depends heavily on your hydration level. As you exercise, your body loses a tremendous amount of water through perspiration. If you do not replace this water, you become dehydrated. Early signs of dehydration include a dry mouth, thirst, fatigue and headache. However, as the dehydration worsens, the body’s internal functioning suffers and additional symptoms appear. Symptoms of severe dehydration include stomach cramps, muscle cramps, lack of sweat, low blood pressure and rapid heart rate.
When you sweat, your body releases more than just water -- a copious amount of salt is also released through the sweat. If you do not replace this sodium while you are cycling, it can cause significant problems. Sodium attracts water, so it is important for maintaining fluid balance in the body. Lack of sodium, or hyponatremia, often causes muscle cramps in the feet, legs, arms and hands, as well as in the stomach muscles. Drinking large amounts of water while cycling can further exacerbate the problem. Since sodium is responsible for moving water between the stomach and the blood, the water you drink ends up sitting inside the stomach and causing major discomfort. Along with stomach cramps, hyponatremia also causes bloating, nausea, headaches and confusion.
Eating too much before or during a long cycling session can easily result in stomach discomfort and abdominal cramping. When you have food inside the stomach, your body must send blood and energy to the organ to assist with digestion. As your stomach churns and processes the food, the stomach muscle must compete with your leg muscles that are working to pedal your bike. Before cycling, avoid eating foods that are high in fiber. If you have a sensitive stomach, avoid eating three to four hours before riding. Otherwise, avoid eating in the two hours before riding. If you plan on cycling for longer than two hours, stick with sports drinks and carbohydrate energy gels to meet your calorie needs.
Although a side stitch does not actually affect the abdominal muscles, it causes sharp pain near the stomach, directly underneath the rib cage. A side stitch occurs when the diaphragm muscle spasms. Side stitches can be caused by a wide variety of factors, from exercising too vigorously or shallow breathing during a workout. Having undigested food in your stomach while cycling can also cause a side stitch, although it is more likely to cause a stomach cramp. Once the pain develops, take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds before exhaling suddenly. If the pain persists, slow down and bend backwards gently to stretch the muscle. If necessary, get off your bike and lie down for a few minutes until the side stitch relieves itself.