A week ago last Tuesday I found myself in a conversation with a friend (more of an acquaintance, actually – I don’t really like him, if the truth’s known) about arm pump. This character, who’s done a couple of trackdays and is a solid ‘medium group’ rider has never experienced it. And because of that, thinks it’s a complete myth. Until my conversation with him, I didn’t realise it’s existence was up for debate. It obviously is. I decided to try and persuade him that arm pump was an actual thing by describing my experience of it to him; so I thought I’d share that with you too…
First of all, let’s get the science out the way. This is, according to Fagan, what the doctors say…
Arm pump is a clinical condition in which an individual develops intermittent marked pain in the forearms after a period of exercise or exertion. The pain is thought to arise due to swelling of the muscles in the forearm which affects the blood flow, causing oxygen levels to drop.
So there you go, if the doctors say it’s real, surely that means it is. Although they don’t always call it ‘arm pump’. They quite often call it Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome; I think I’ll stick to arm pump, thanks. Because I don’t have a medical degree.
So what’s it like?
Well if you’ve ever ridden a bike as fast as you possibly can, there’s a good chance you’ll know. But if you haven’t, I’ll try and explain. The first thing that happens is you get a bit of discomfort in your forearms. That discomfort quickly turns into pain. Before long, you’re hands stop getting the oxygen they need (like the doc said), and then they start to hurt. But it’s not just a case of them hurting. You can grit your teeth and fight a bit of pain if you need to; we’ve all seen world class racers flying round nursing recent fractures and what-not.
No it’s not the pain that’s the problem. It’s the fact that the only feeling you get from your hands is pain. The front brake, clutch and throttle become almost impossible to operate with any degree of control. And it gets worse with every lap. More pain and less control means one thing when you’re racing; it means you’re going to go backwards, or you’re going to go down.
Some people only get arm pump in one arm (usually the right – throttle and brake – hand), but I was one of the unlucky ones that got it in both. I’d come in from a race with two arms pumped up, rock solid, like Popeye.
I used to suffer with it a lot. It was a nightmare. And I tried all sorts to combat it. I tried to focus my training regime to strengthen my arms, I tried altering the position of my handlebars and levers and such, I tried supplements but all to no avail.
Surgery looked like the last resort and I seriously considered it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), it was never actually going to happen. That’s because it would have probably cost me the thick end of £5k, and back then (late ‘00s, early ‘10s), I didn’t have a penny to scratch my arse with.
A few of my friends have had arm pump surgery and all of them have said it’s worked. As far as I’m told, the surgery involves opening up the ‘sack’ the forearm muscle is in, so that it’s allowed to swell, without it constricting the blood vessels. But again, I’m not a doctor.
Fortunately for me, I found a way to alleviate the symptoms of arm pump, albeit only slightly. And it was all in my head, sort of. I forced myself to relax more on the bike, rest when I could (on the straights) and breathe properly. Being relaxed and concentrating on getting big lung-fulls of oxygen whenever I could, really made a difference.
Nowadays, I sometimes get a little bit of arm pump, but it’s only when I’m really, really trying. And It’s never enough to really slow me down.
But it’s enough to remind me that it is definitely a real thing, and an absolute nightmare if it rears its ugly head when you’re trying to win races. Or just finish races for that matter. And if you’re one of the idiots that think it’s just an excuse racers use when they don’t have the pace to win, well you’re exactly that; an idiot.