Often the simplest solution is the right one. Let me share my experience with you in hopes that it will help.
Several years ago I attended a 2-day Spinning® event and somehow managed to survive a demanding self-inflicted program of participating in each and every Spinning® session offered. When it was time to drive 4 hours home after the final class, I was both amused and shocked by severe cramping in my calf muscles. I drive a manual shift and each time I would put my foot on the clutch, brake or accelerator, a “golf ball” would pop out on my lower leg muscles. It would probably have made a good sit-com, but it was plenty uncomfortable.
Back home I researched cramps and learned all the good stuff we’re supposed to know – and which you already know, I’m sure: plenty of fluids, electrolytes and, yes, even some salty food along the way, helps. Bananas are a dietary staple. Stretching post exercise, foam rolling before the training and compression socks or sleeves are all beneficial.
The following year I followed all my own good advice, even wore recovery tights for my evening outings, and experienced only mild discomfort on my drive home.
During the summer months I found the same thing happening after long LSD rides or Centuries. Back to the drawing board. This summer the discomfort increased to the point that I backed off of one Century distance to a metric and worried that I might “tear” what I had come to believe was a problem with my posterior tibialis and not gastrocnemius. (check them out on an anatomy chart). I had my bike fit reassessed. I began to foam roll in earnest prior to each ride and I met with my friend and Physical Therapist – a world class triathlete who knows this stuff. (I have a huge advantage – another friend with whom I trade personal training for a massage –and she sort of glued me back together each time so I didn’t miss a training mile.)
And then came the oh-so-simple solution. My PT friend said to check out the sciatic nerve. That all seemed ok but I poked around in my anatomy book and came up with the tibial nerve that runs from under the foot, up the calf (near the posterior tib) and into the back of the knee relating somewhat to the sciatic. Hold on – one of the symptoms of tibial nerve distress is numbness in the foot. Aha. Been there, done that. Another is, you guessed it, a sense of tearing and accompanying pain in the calf area all the way up to the back of the knee. (Interestingly, the cramping was unrelated and my precautions there were working.)
A possible cause? Cranking down one’s cycling shoes too tightly. Oh, DUH! So, within a few weeks and with shoes that are comfortably adjusted, I am totally free of the problem.
So, my suggestion is: if something is bothering you, do your best to find a cause. A bandaid approach will come back to haunt you. Go to the source. Along the way avoid despondency unless and until you get a solid professional diagnosis that mandates other action or inaction. Often, the solution is simple. And, “if the shoe fits,” wear it – but not too tight!