Wouldn't it be great if you could go to the motocross track and ride all day long without having to deal with arm pump. For some of you this may seem impossible, but there are ways of reducing, and maybe even eliminating arm pump altogether.
In this post we'll look at what arm pump is, what causes it, useless things that people recommend, and things that actually work! we'll also look at the science, and find out what's happening inside your forearms.
It's important to fully understand arm pump if you really want to find a cure, so don't skip any part of this post.
What is arm pump?
If you've never experienced arm pump, the best way to describe it is like a kind of cramp in your forearms, wrists, and hands. You begin to loose strength, your whole forearm feels like it's going to pop, and your fingers can lock-up around the grips.
I've experienced it so bad that I couldn't let go of the grips to brake, or to pull the clutch. I had to stop the bike and peel my fingers off the grips one at a time, and the pain was unbearable.
The process that leads to this pain begins as soon as you start to ride your dirt bike, and sometimes even before you get on it, as you'll find out later.
Riders will grip the bars, which causes increased blood flow to the muscles in the hands and forearms. The muscles contract with such force that blood gets trapped in the forearm. New blood is still being pumped into the forearm, but if the old blood is not removed, back-pressure then builds up, which causes the sensation of swelling.
The medical term for this is chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS).
As you can see, your muscles sit inside a compartment, wrapped in connective tissue called the fascia. The fascia is not elastic, so when muscles swell as blood is forced into them, pressure increases within the compartment.
The increased pressure that builds up inside the fascia causes the swelling sensation, and makes the forearm muscle feel solid. When this happens, and pressure continues to build inside the compartment, blood vessels can collapse and restrict, or totally stop blood flow.
Veins in the forearm have a lower internal pressure, and much thinner walls than arteries. This means veins will collapse from the pressure long before arteries. When this happens, arterial blood continues to enter the fascial compartment, but is restricted from leaving as blood flow through the small veins is reduced.
If the pressure continues to rise, blood flow to the muscle also decreases, resulting in oxygen deprivation, and a build up of lactic acid. This lactic acid build-up causes pain, numbness and tingling, and without enough oxygen the muscles simply stop working.
Arm pump can get so bad, that riders go to extreme lengths to stop it. Many professional racers are opting for arm pump surgery, also known as a fasciotomy. This procedure involves cutting through the fascia, with the intention of relieving pressure and tension. This then lets the trapped blood leave the hands and forearm muscles, thus reducing swelling and pain.
Things that don't work for reducing arm pump
If you've been searching the web for arm pump cures, you've likely already read a lot of tips and some very poor advice. So let's find out which tips you should totally ignore.
Drinking salty water
I've seen a few people recommending a small amount of pink Himalayan salt, mixed into your drinking water to replace lost electrolytes. Unfortunately there are a lot of myths surrounding pink Himalayan salt, and although it does contain trace minerals, it's still 98% sodium chloride!
It is indeed true that sodium is necessary to maintain proper fluid balance within the body, but people eating a western diet are already eating way too much sodium. This will increase blood volume which leads to higher blood pressure, which will eventually damage your kidneys.
There's also many more performance inhibiting effects of taking salt, plus a host of diseases that are related to it, so it's definitely not recommended for any athlete.
If you want a healthy electrolyte level, a good diet full of healthy fruits and vegetables will serve you better than any supplement.
Building muscle in your arms
Building muscle won't help in the slightest. I hit the gym for many years to increase the size of my arms, and an extra 3 inches on my biceps / triceps didn't make a single bit of difference. I've also researched this a lot, and I've found a lot of riders saying exactly the same, many even say it made their arm pump worse!
Think about it: the fascial compartment will not stretch, and will only cater for a slight increase in muscle volume. If you increase the size of your forearms, arm pump can only happen quicker due to there being even less space inside the compartment.
I can't comment on all supplements, but I've tried a heck of a lot and they did nothing for my arm pump. It's very unlikely that a powder will do anything to help blood flow or oxygen delivery to your muscles. I also read here that taking creatine can be a direct cause of arm pump!
How to prevent arm pump
There's various ways to prevent motocross arm pump, and all of the following tips need to come together. If you do one or two things but neglect the rest, your arm pump may get better, but it's unlikely your problems will completely go away.
1. Bike setup
The first thing you should do when you get a new bike is set it up correctly. If you decided to skip this part, this could be a contributing factor to your arm pump.
Front and rear suspension are the first things to look at. You'll also need to keep your levers set at the right angle, so that you're not awkwardly twisting your hands to pull them. Handlebar height and angle can change your riding position, so this will also make a huge difference.
Be sure that the clutch cable and lever are well lubricated, so that it's as easy as possible to pull. And lastly, make sure the front brake lever is oiled, and that the caliper is operating as it should. If the brake is tight or hard to pull, you'll need to apply more pressure to the lever to stop the bike. This causes further muscle fatigue and more arm pump.
2. Ride ride ride, and ride some more!
Ride your dirt bike as often as possible, and be sure to push it to the point where you're getting arm pump. There's no better exercise for motocross than simply riding, and the more you ride, the more you'll encourage neovascularization, covered next.
3. Improve your cardiovascular fitness
Improving your cardiovascular health and fitness is the most important thing you can do to rid yourself of arm pump.
We learned earlier that during arm pump, blood is getting trapped inside the forearm muscles, and is unable to escape. It turns out that the more fit you are, the easier it will be for your body to remove blood from muscle.
Endurance training is a very important step that's needed to promote the growth of more small veins in your body. This happens through a process called neovascularization, and it will provide more ways for the trapped blood to leave the muscle, and for more oxygen rich blood to enter it.
Hiking, jogging, running, mountain biking, even brisk walking will all improve your cardiovascular fitness.
4. Improve your cardiovascular health
You're working on your cardiovascular fitness, but the health of your cardiovascular system is also important. Physical exercise and endurance training will improve your cardiovascular health, but you also need to eat a good diet.
Eat foods high in nitrates to increase blood flow, and help your blood vessels dilate. Many athletes drink beetroot juice before exercise, which is one of the most nitrate rich foods.
5. Stop eating junk food
Certain foods will restrict blood flow, and even paralyse your arteries by impairing endothelial (cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels) function. This is the exact opposite of what you want happening inside your forearm arteries during racing.
Watch this video to find out how fatty meals impair artery function, and avoid the bacon and eggs the morning before riding. You should also avoid oily foods, as oils have been shown to make blood sticky, slowing blood flow, sometimes to a complete stop.
Bare in mind that many snacks that you take to the track will contain oils and saturated fats. Always check the ingredients, or trade these for bananas.
6. Work on your technique
The way you ride the dirt bike can have a massive affect on arm pump. Gripping the handlebars too tight, sitting down to much, and using the wrong gear, can all be big causes.
To avoid gripping too tightly (the death grip), use your legs more by squeezing the bike with your knees to take pressure off your arms. And practice loosening your grip to the handlebars while riding over rough ground. Remember that your muscles only get adequate blood flow when they're relaxed.
You can also move your body forward as you accelerate, so that the bike is pushing you, instead of pulling you. Do the opposite while braking by moving your body backwards, pushing your feet into the pegs so that your legs take the braking force.
7. Warm up
Before riding, it's important to warm up your muscles and get the blood pumping by doing some light exercises. Many of the top riders will use a stationary bike to get their body ready before racing. This may not be possible, so a gentle jog or a skipping rope will work just as well.
8. Keep calm
Stress and anxiety produce the exact same fight or flight responses in the body. Blood flow is restricted in smaller muscles and sent to the larger muscles in the legs (so that you can run faster). And muscles tighten up to create a kind of shield to protect your internal organs during a fight.
Less blood flow and tighter muscles is already a recipe for arm pump before you even get onto the bike. This may explain why riders can be fine during practice, but when it comes to racing their arms always pump up; because they were nervous about the race!
9. Strength training
When you're strength training for motocross, it's best not to pump triceps, biceps, and chest. Instead, focus on the lower half of your body to strengthen the muscles in your legs. Concentrate on the adductors as you'll now be using these to grip the bike.
10. Bike modifications
There are a few things that you can change on your bike that are said to improve arm pump. These things are going to be less effective than the previous points we've already looked at, but if your arm pump is still causing problems then give them a go.
- Steering dampeners
- Seat grippers
- Shock absorbing flex grips
- Larger grips
Put all of these tips into action and you're sure to see a massive improvement in your arm pump problems. Remember that your cardiovascular fitness, and your diet are the two most important things to get in check if you really wish to be arm pump free. If these two are neglected then you probably won't find much relief.
Any more motocross arm pump tips are welcome below in the comments section below.