Leg Cramps During Swimming - What You Can Do About Them
Swimming for fun or for fitness remains popular because it is ideal for many, from competitive athletes, young adults, active athletes, seniors, to the physically disabled. Swimming can be an intense physical activity that demands a lot from the body.
The whole issue of FOOT CRAMPS in the water can be summed up simply by the inappropriate action of plantar FLEXING of your foot.
When you were young, your swimming teacher may have told you to "point your toes" when kicking. For young minds this can be a useful phrase and yet for adults it tends to achieve the opposite effect – pain and confusion!
What we mean by "plantar flexing" is to point your toes by contracting all the muscles that run up the back of the lower leg – the toes, the arch and the calf. This flattens out the top of your foot exposing it to more water when we kick in the propulsive phase. This is obviously beneficial, given that more propulsion helps us to move forwards.
The problem with pointing your toes as a deliberate (or even unconscious) action, however, is that it remains the primary reason behind the cause of your foot cramp. The fact of this matter is that if we simply allow our feet to flick around as we kick, the ankles will actually pull back into this correct position automatically. And even more importantly, when relaxed the toes will pull the foot back into the correct position without tension, ie correct kicking action, less energy.
WHEN DOES IT OCCUR?
a) Pushing off walls hard and then sprinting – the explosive and repeated plantar flexing action of the ankles (eg. when sprinting) can quickly sneak up on the body causing tightness and finally a foot cramp.
b) Wearing fins and kicking fast – for some reason the body insists on trying to control any swimming-aid attached to the foot. These unnecessary muscle contractions eventually lead to cramp unless you have the ability to be and stay relaxed.
c) In times of physical nervousness – for example when an inexperienced swimmer is learning a new drill and gets water up their nose without expecting it, the whole body may instantly tense. This instant tension tends to radiate to every other part of the body, and hence the feet may point unconsciously as well.
There are 3 areas where A CRAMP will originate, and it should be no wonder that all 3 of those areas pull with muscle contractions upon one other when you point your toes:
1) Calf (the most common)
2) Arch of the foot
Regardless of where it occurs, leg cramps in the pool are due to the same reasons:
WHAT CAUSES THAT CRAMP?
1. Electrolyte Imbalance or Hard Exercise Prior to Swimming – generally this can be ruled out as the primary cause unless you’ve done a 4-hour bike ride or 2 hour run immediately before the swim. Any hard physical activity can counterbalance your muscles. These long session can be a possible reason for cramp though, as they can upset your body’s electrolyte balance due to salt loss through sweating.
2. Muscular Conditioning (or lack of it) – when you are very unfit and are just starting back into swim training (or you are new), you may find cramping to be more prevalent, than when you are fit. If this is the case, then your muscle fibres may be less conditioned to the pull on them with each kick movement. Due to this they may react negatively and cramp. Generally though, this is not the main reason why cramp will occur.
3. Unnecessary Tension – the primary cause of leg cramps in swimming! This underlying tension is usually an unconscious reaction as well rather than as a conscious error. This can make the problem hard to identify for the swimmer unless you can be very aware of what you are doing, voluntarily or not. Sometime this tension may also exist due to a lack of flexibility in the ankle joint. If the ankle has become tense over time and lacks range of movement due to this then cramp may occur more often. The answer to this aspect should be obvious.
HOW TO ASSESS THE PROBLEM
a) Stand on one leg on dry land trying to perform small kicking flicks with the foot. Aim to let the ankle simply flick around like a leaf in the wind as you shake the leg quickly up and down (just a small movement – 1ft). If you can honestly see that your ankle IS relaxed and does flick around as you move the rest of the leg, then this is a good sign. For most of us however, you will realise that you are in fact tensing the shin to pull up and then pointing down in order to move the foot. In this case, you have some major relaxing to learn in the water. This confirms the reason why cramp will be occurring – you are not relaxed through the ankles when kicking.
b) Take your propert nutritional vitamins, minerals and supplements. HYDRATE. HYDRATE. HYDRATE. Drink lots of water. Below are the BEST vitamins and supplement recommendations that are beneficial for ADULT swimmers:
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