Between 20 to 25% of mountain bikers suffer from chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS), the medical term for a common, performance-related issue: arm pump. But, it’s not a just a physical problem. Stress, anxiousness, distraction – all of these brain drainers lead to a tighter grip and an exacerbation of somatic symptoms. Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do about it.
What causes arm pump?
From a purely physical standpoint, arm pump has several integrated causes. Overtraining, poor conditioning, and tight muscles can all contribute to the emergence of pain and pressure within the forearm compartment during a ride or race. Things we do know: ischemia, increased sympathetic stimulation, excess catecholamine release, muscular fatigue, edema, and attenuated venous outflow are all major players in syndrome causality. But despite the forward progress of physical medicine, there are still misconceptions hanging around (i.e. lactic acid is not a contributor to pain associated with arm pump, and you can read why in an article I wrote discussing this specific topic).
Another concept we understand — and perhaps underestimate — is the mind-body connection and it’s relationship to CECS. These two seemingly “separate” systems are often treated in an isolated fashion, however, CECS is a great example of them working in tandem. Together, the mind and the body propel a positive feedback loop. When a rider can’t “get out of their head” and calm down, it leads to pain and fatigue of the lower arm musculature and hand. As this happens, it can lead to more distraction and stress.
Poor mental conditioning is a powerful contributor to both the prevalence and severity of CECS. Physiological loading is a major response to the concentration, arousal, and emotional intensity required to perform a sport like mountain biking or motocross. I stated something similar in an article written in response to Eli Tomac’s fifth place finish at the 2017 AMA Supercross opener in Anaheim:
“At gate drop during a motocross race, there is a surge in catecholamine (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and cortisol levels in response to the mental demands to get out ahead of your peers, then push through, maintain confidence and a competitive edge, be rad, and win safely. Then, add in the following thoughts: ‘What is the obstacle in front of me? Who is behind me? How close are they?’”
Tomac needed a win but his head got to his body (and who knows what else was going on). At the end, and to the press, he blamed his performance on a severe case of arm pump.
This same exact concept applies to a downhill racing, shuttle runs, enduro, or nervousness before attempting to shred some new, techy terrain. Many of us have been there, and some, plenty of times. But can we decrease the chances of our mind controlling our body with negative repercussions? Yes.
Things you can practice before a ride and as a part of your lifestyle to help combat worry, stress, and a potential case of arm pump:
1. Real-time resilience (RTR).
This short, in-the-moment technique will keep you mindful, and increase focus on your ride. If you’re having negative, nervous, or distracting thoughts, take a moment to analyze them. Ask yourself two things:
- Are these thoughts realistic (based on evidence)?
- How is my present situation positive?
By taking the time to practice some RTR, you’ll realign your thought patterns and dispel any impeding and unnecessary stress or anxiety.
It is the simplest and most effective technique you can use to gain mindful awareness of the present. You can practice it anytime, anywhere. How? First, stop whatever it is you are doing. Inhale slowly and deeply, ensuring to “breathe with your belly.” Focus on your body, either your chest or stomach as it expands, or even the air as it moves across your nostrils. Exhale slowly and deeply. Do this a total of five times. If it helps, close your eyes. You should be more relaxed and clear-thinking. That’s it 🙂
This age-old practice has been around for thousands of years, so there must be something to it. With enough of it, you will positively re-wire your thought patterns to take a more positive outlook on day to day life (I highly recommend reading the book Buddha’s Brain by Dr. Rick Hansen).
Some advice for beginners: Find a quiet place to sit comfortably. Ensure you have good posture — a straight spine, with your gaze a few feet in front of where you are sitting (head should be tilted slightly down). Practice the breathing technique mentioned above. You can use a guided meditation to help you, or simply a timer. Don’t focus on not thinking, but rather acknowledge thoughts that pop up and realign your focus to your breath or sensations in your body.
You can meditate any time of the day and as often as you want. In fact, with practice, you can meditate while on a walk, sitting in a class, or even at work (don’t let your boss find out, ha!). Whatever works for you, when you need it.
More useful tips:
Loosen your grip.
If you start to feel tension and a build up of pressure in your forearm compartment during a ride, relax your hand to loosen your grip. This will release the muscle tension within your lower arm and allow blood and fluid to move back toward the heart. Simultaneously, you’ll increase oxygen delivery to those muscles and decrease the metabolic rate by giving them a break, even if only for a few moments. Repeat as needed.
Tight muscles will always inhibit optimal performance. Ensure you take the time to stretch at least 2-3 times per week. Try to include both dynamic (moving) and static stretching.
Check your handlebar grips.
Grips with a small circumference will require more muscle tension in the forearm and hand in order to hold on. If you suffer from arm pump often, try getting a set of grips with a larger circumference.
Exercise is free, and so are the benefits. Use a light set of dumbbells (or cables on a machine) to perform wrist curls and extensions to strengthen the forearm flexors and extensors. Hammer curls will strengthen the brachioradialis (a forearm muscle). You can also choose to tackle multiple muscle groups with lifts such as the deadlift. You’ll not only strengthen your lower arms, but your back and hamstrings, too.