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Conquering Swimming Cramps

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Ow! What the H$%L was that?

Suffering breathtakingly painful muscle cramps while swimming can stop you mid-stroke.

Swimming cramps are a distraction and are commonly experienced by all levels of athletes.

Read on to learn the causes, treatment, and prevention of swimming muscle cramps.

What is a muscle cramp or EAMC?

A muscle cramp is a sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles.

- Mayo Clinic

More specifically, I’m talking about exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC). The cramp or contraction is a sudden shortening of the muscle – and it hurts.

The most common swimmer cramps are:

  • Calf cramps
  • Toe cramps
  • Foot cramps

Swimming Cramp Causes & Cures

Swimming cramp cures & causes are interrelated and vary by athlete.

Hot Tip:

  • Don’t: Use reductionist logic by focusing on one cramp cause / cure – this leads to frustration and gives cramps the upper hand.
  • Do: Instead, embrace a holistic approach to cramp prevention strategy, considering all contributing factors and cures.

Here are predominant factors in Swimming EAMC’s:

Sports Conditioning Deficit

  • Cause: Fitness & fatigue go hand in hand with muscle cramps. During the early season, swimmers lack proper conditioning and are prone to cramping.
  • Prevention:
    • Get in shape! A consistent training routine that includes recovery & stretching builds endurance and increases the body’s ability to adapt to higher performance levels.
    • Bonus: Swim a minimum of 3 times weekly. Stretch calves, feet, hamstrings, and quads daily – before, during, and after swim workouts.
    • Super Bonus: Calf and foot cramps are common during kicking. A flexed ankle and pointed toe relax the calf muscle. The shortened and relaxed muscle is more prone to sudden contraction in response to stress. Increased strength and repetition of athletic motion will help prevent these cramps.

Dehydration & Electrolyte Deficiency

  • Cause: Exercise accelerates fluid and electrolyte loss, caused by elevated body temperature and perspiration levels (you sweat in the pool). Depletion of water and electrolytes sensitizes motor nerve endings that control muscles and also reduces interstitial spaces. This overcrowding of the nervous system subjects nerves to increased mechanical pressure, causing them to fire off contractions.
  • Prevention:
    • Maintain fluid levels before, during, and after swimming.
    • Bonus:
      • Conveniently locate replacement fluids in a sports bottle at the pool wall.
      • Make sure your diet includes adequate sources of magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Obvious choices are leafy greens, dairy, and bananas.
      • Find a good sports drink that compensates for electrolyte deficiencies.

Improper Swim Workout Warm-Up

  • Cause: Tight muscles and cooler pool temperatures can encourage cramps because cold, taught muscles are less relaxed.
  • Prevention:
    • Start your swim workout with a longer set of continuous full body swimming to loosen and warm muscles.
    • Bonus: Save drills and efforts with intense turning and kicking for later – after muscles are warmed up and in harmony with simple swimming motion.
    • Extra Bonus: Read my article on how to warming up in a cold pool.

Swimming Cramp Remedies – What To Do When You Cramp

  • What Works:
    • Immediately massage and stretch the cramped muscle, removing yourself from the water if possible. It’s possible to return to the swim workout if you can relieve the cramp, so don’t rush it.
    • For toe cramps, massage the surrounding muscles and move toe backward and forward to help release the cramp.
    • Bonus: Back off intensity on swim turns, starts, and kicking sets.
    • Extra Bonus: Heat can helps muscles relax. Submerse your cramp in a hot tub and apply massages and stretching.
  • What Does NOT Work: 
  • Guzzling sports drink, taking handfuls of salt tabs, and eating bananas hand over fist will not help you complete your swim practice – unless you’ve got hours to kill.

Know any other techniques to prevent swim cramps? Drop me a line.

Until then, stay loose – I’ll see you at the pool.

Looking for more swimming advice? Read about 15M Resurfacing Markers and Backstroke Flags

About Robin Kiefer

Robin Spencer Kiefer is a lifetime fitness swimmer and endurance athlete. After becoming an Ironman in 2008, Robin continues to push the limits of marketing & parenting. He is the Vice President of Digital Marketing and Ecommerce at Kiefer.

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