Dealing with that bolt from the blue... cramp!
No one is a fan of cramps but they are a rite of passage in swimming. If you haven’t had a few, you are probably not pushing your limits.
For quick swim cramp relief, try this:
Stretch and massage the cramping muscles as well as the surrounding area. Apply heat OR cold and have a drink of water or electrolytes.
If the pain stops try a few gentle laps. Continue to train if the cramp doesn’t return but don’t return to your session if the sensation doesn’t ease.That’s the temporary fix but it doesn’t deal with the root cause. To really get rid of swim cramps, you need to understand why they happen and take action.
Here’s the top five reasons swimmers get cramps:
- Dehydration or Electrolyte Imbalance
- Lack of Conditioning
- Overuse of muscles and fatigue
- Cold Water
- Swimming with Unnecessary Tension
Many swimmers focus on preventing specific issues, like shoulder pain, so it is easy to forget swimming is a whole-body cardiovascular exercise that calls on almost all our muscles. That means there is a line up of muscles ready to bite back.
TYPES OF CRAMPS
The cramping swimmers get isn’t that different to cramps experienced by other athletes. There is even a name for it: exercise-associated muscle cramps or EAMC for short.
It can affect muscles all over the body and usually feels like a locking sensation that seems to be a bolt from the blue. One minute you are focused on your workout or race then suddenly you're writhing in agony trying to figure out how to make it stop. Here’s some intel on where cramp is likely to hit and why:
SWIMMER'S FOOT AND ANKLE CRAMPS
Foot and ankle cramps can happen in swimmers of all abilities. Over 100 tendons, ligaments, and muscles make the foot a high cramp risk! Even when you are race-ready and in top condition, cramps can cause the muscles in the foot to lock up mid-swim, making it impossible to continue with good form.
SWIMMER'S CALF MUSCLE CRAMPS
Cramps in the calf muscle are the most common for swimmers. It’s sudden, sharp and serious pain. Trying to continue swimming with this type of muscle cramp will put you in a world of pain so stop and sort it out.
SWIMMER'S HAMSTRING CRAMPS
The hamstring is another cramp hot spot. Any hamstring cramp will restrict your range of motion. Think you can swim through a mild cramp? It’s usually better to stop and stretch rather than try to tough it out.
As with all pain, it’s better to nail the cause rather than just treating the symptoms. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons muscle cramps occur but there are a few elements that pop up time and time again.
All athletes need to properly hydrate and are well aware of this. However, it's easy to get dehydrated without knowing it’s happening. One reason swimmers are more susceptible to dehydration than other athletes is the fact that their sport occurs in the water. It is impossible to know how much you have sweated.
Some researchers have found that when an athlete experiences an improper balance of hydration and electrolytes (like sodium), cramping is a byproduct. This is due to the "sensitization of select nerve terminals" which cause the muscle to stay contracted.
Though pools are heated, temperatures differ from one pool to the next. colder pools are riskier for muscle cramps. This is especially true for open water swimmers. When your body doesn't have time to warm up, your muscles will contract due to the cold water and sudden change in temperature. Moving straight into a swimming workout or race without letting your body regulate its temperature will make you in a high cramp risk.
Too much and not enough
Proper conditioning is vital for any athlete to stay cramp-free. If you try to build speed and endurance too quickly, muscles have been known to complain. This is often when swimmers have taken a season off and try jumping back in where they left off. Another sure-fire cramp factory is trying to do high-intensity swimming for too long.
Swimmers who haven't built their kick strength and the neuromuscular firing patterns (which is what allows the muscle to undergo proper contractions) required for this range of motion, put themselves at risk for muscle cramping throughout the feet, calves, and hamstrings.
Dehydration and overuse are common across various sports but improper plantar flexion is something of a pain point for swimmers alone.
Some swimmers keep their feet and ankles too rigid. Try pointing your toes right now and you'll feel the muscle contractions taking place. Keeping toes and feet actively pointed while swimming can lead to unnecessary tension. This continuous tension in your leg muscles makes you a high cramp risk.
SWIMMER'S CRAMP PREVENTION
Now that you understand the possible causes of muscle cramping, it's important to know what to do to keep it from happening.
Get Enough Water and Electrolytes by drinking plenty of water before your work out kicks off. Sipping water throughout the day and being consistent will ensure you're properly hydrated. Keep a water bottle at beside the pool so it’s easy to top up mid work out.
Sweating a lot during a swim session can lead to increased electrolyte loss. Eating something salty 2 hours prior to your workout, or add a little bit of salt to your water bottle to keep your electrolyte levels balanced.
Warm-up properly before getting in the water. During warm-up, pay special attention to your ankles and feet. Give your feet their own few minutes of proper warm-up and your muscles will reward you by being ready and set to perform at their best.
Gradually increase conditioning to help avoid cramping from overuse. Muscles need time to be conditioned properly. As the saying goes you need to walk before you can run. You need to give your body time and space as well as sets in order for it to deliver on your goals.
And if you have taken a break from swimming, make sure you adjust your training plan to account for time off. You can’t start where you left off!
Try this to soothe muscle cramps from swimming:
- Head to the side of the pool as comfortably as you can.
- Stop swimming and get out of the water.
- Stretch and massage. Begin by massaging the cramped muscle and then perform a stretch that targets the affected muscle group.
- Apply heat as a compress. A cold (ice) compress can help relieve the cramp in a similar way.
- Don't try to swim on the cramped muscle until the feeling eases.