Ask the Coach: Severe cramps

Q. I have a question about cramps. Im 22 and began training for triathlons about two months ago. Before then, I was fit, but I never fully exerted myself. Usually, about 20 minutes into hard workouts I begin to get severe cramps that feel exactly like menstrual cramps. Usually I just slow down and the cramps subside within five or 10 minutes, but sometimes they get worse, and I have to make a run for the bathroom.

I've been to the doctor who took tons of blood and did tests and he says that Im in exceptional health. I was thinking that perhaps when exercising the female body releases the same hormone that gets released during PMS that causes cramps. Have you ever heard of this? Is there anything I can do, its really taking away from the enjoyment of training.

A. Your issue with gastro-intestinal (GI) problems happens to quite a few athletes, male and female. Im glad to read that youve been to your doctor for a check-up, a great first step.

Because youre a female, know that some women do experience unpredictable bowel movements in the few days prior to their menstrual cycle and during the first few days of menstruation. Although it can be an issue in any sport, more women seem to have problems while running.

For these days, some find relief with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium (trade names such as Advil and Aleve). NSAIDS work to inhibit prostaglandins, which are the substances released by your body to cause your uterus, intestines and other smooth muscles to contract.

If your GI problems arent associated with your menstrual cycle, then perhaps take a look at your diet. Some women, and men, have GI systems that are more sensitive to particular foods when exercise intensity increases. On the days you plan an intense workout, you may need to eliminate fibrous foods from the one or two meals prior to the workout.

Additionally, you may need to change the number of meals you eat and the timing of those meals. For example, if your intense workout is at the end of your work day you might be more comfortable eating several small meals throughout that day rather than a couple of larger meals. Place your largest meal four to five hours prior to the intense workout and have a small snack one or two hours before the workout.

If you get this issue sorted out for intense workouts, your eating plan can transfer to your prerace meals as well.

Do you have a specific training or sport related question? Have world-renowned coach Gale Bernhardt answer it! Send your questions to

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Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic Coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

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