Cycling is not only an eco-friendly mode of transportation but also a great way to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, improve blood flow and circulation and cut your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Cycling is a low-impact activity and is easy on your joints, especially the knees. It's still possible, however, to suffer from muscle strains and cramps, especially in the calf muscles, while cycling.
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The gastrocnemii, or calf muscles, are located in the back of the legs, just below the knees. The quadriceps play a big role in producing the power that turns a bicycle's cranks, but the calf muscles are involved as well. During hard efforts, cycling stresses the muscles, tendons and bones of the leg, therefore resulting in muscle tears and pain. Muscular imbalances can place additional stress on the calves, making them tight and more vulnerable to injury.
Any time you overexert a muscle, the muscle fiber is more prone to suffering from tiny tears. Calf strain can also be caused by overstretching or heavy work to the muscle before it's warmed up. Depending on the extent of the damaged tissue, muscle strains can cause pain for days or weeks. Symptoms include pain, tenderness and stiffness in the calf. If you suffer from a strain, treat it with rest, avoid cycling until the pain is gone and apply ice up to four times a day, and compress and elevate the leg.
Muscle cramps produce a sudden pain that can be either mild or agonizing. They can occur anywhere from a few seconds to 20 minutes or longer. While the cause is still unknown, muscle cramps are more common in athletes who suddenly ramp up their routine, exercise in extreme heat or who are depleted of electrolytes or are dehydrated. When you experience a cramp, gently stretch and massage the calf and stop cycling until it goes away. To prevent cramps, slowly build up the intensity of your exercise routine, stretch, properly hydrate and make sure you have consumed enough sodium and calories, especially from carbohydrates.
There are other conditions that cause calf pain. Tennis leg occurs when there is a tear in the medial of the calf, which is felt as a sharp and sudden pain during the power phase of your pedal stroke. It's important to allow the tear to heal before you begin cycling again. Peripheral artery disease can be caused by an arterial blockage in the leg that subsides after cycling but causes pain in the calf while pedaling. You can also experience bruising, changes in skin color and numbness. If you experience these symptoms, call your physician right away.