Conquering Swimming Cramps

Conquering Swimming Cramps

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 Kiefer Swim Products

Performance Gear For Swimmers. Today Kiefer is a multifaceted company but still purely focused on serving the aquatic industry. We have expertise in engineering world class products like our custom starting blocks and racing lanes for all levels of aquatic facilities. We serve the lifeguard and aquatic safety and rescue industry with a full line of products that absolutely perform when you most need them to, and we serve the competitive swim business with the products needed to swim at the highest level.

10 Comments
  • Andrea says:

    What is the best water to buy with the electrolytes and stuff? I get horrid toe cramps and night cramps. I have been drinking G2 but trying to give up artificial sugars, because the cause dementia
    Thanks!

    • Emily Milak says:

      Hi Andrea, I use a powdered mix from a company I’ve been with for years. Doesn’t have the same sugar issues as the bottled stuff and as a bonus you can use a water bottle and not single use plastic ones to mix them. There are several companies who sell similar products if you are willing to do a little internet shopping.

  • Brad says:

    Simple… Magnesium, preferably chelated magnesium because it is more effectively absorbed. It really works!

      • Robert Evans says:

        Last night I had the cramps as usual and had to use the pull buoy for the rest of my workout. But I had to go to the bathroom so bad because I was drinking so much water to prevent the cramps, that I stopped and when I got back to the pool I noticed the cramps were completely gone and my legs were reved up and I finished the workout strong instead of wimpering at the finish with the pull buoy!!!! So a few minutes walking on the pool deck did it, (I think). Even doubling up on potassium and magnesium didn’t help. But walking on the pool deck to go to the bathroom did. Will try this remedy again tomorrow. I resisted going to the bathroom before in order to keep on going and finish the workout. Maybe I’ll be strong for all 4500 yards of it with another trip to the bathroom.

        Wonder if you can do that during a long distance race.

        • Emily Milak says:

          Oh Robert! I don’t think you can get out and walk during your race, but I am so pleased you have found something that helps you finish your workout. Sometimes a little stretch is just the things to make those cramps go away.

  • Jennifer says:

    Hi, In 2013 I had a hip replacement and 2016 I had a major back surgery. I am doing well cycling in spring summer and fall swimming in the winter (it’s cold here). I walked in the pool until about a month ago. I graduated to lap swim.I do an hour of kicking pulling and swimming and change it up. The problem is I have been getting leg and foot cramps and hip cramps since the surgeries (anytime of day). Some days swimming I get no cramps and other days I get cramps by the end of my workout. Now my question, will I live with cramps forever or could they improve in time with more workouts. I always start with kicking laps first with smaller fins which maybe the wrong way to go. I am doing about 64 laps in an hour. Haven’t swam laps since swimteam many many years ago. Thanks Jennifer

    • Emily Milak says:

      Hi Jennifer, while I can’t speak to the cramps being a lifelong issue, I can give you a few tips that might help. First are you hydrating appropriately? Most of us aren’t, myself included. Second, are you stretching daily? Starting a stretching regimen could be extremely beneficial! If neither of those two things work, take a better look into your diet, magnesium can help combat cramping. Best wishes and keep up the good work rehabbing your body after surgery and keeping yourself active, that is AWESOME!

  • Emily Milak says:

    Danny drinking fluids slowly before, during, and after a workout is one thing, but chugging fluids to relieve a cramp will leave you disappointed in the results. Imagine how you would feel drinking an entire beverage in one go, water or sports drink, over 12 ounces and then training hard? All that sloshing around in your belly would be equally as uncomfortable as a cramp 🙂 Likewise eating 10 bananas in a day will not alleviate a cramp, however consuming more potassium on a regular basis may help.

  • Danny Lee says:

    At one instructon you tell us to consume a sport but later tell us to not (guzzle) them. Confused, are you simply saying don’t overdo it ? Also same with bananas. I am an open water swimmer 3x week and have been getting toe cramps. Will do some of the excersises you recommended but hoping you could elaborate on the nutrition.

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