Cramp When You Swim? Some Tips To Shake It

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Getting cramp when you swim is not only unpleasant but can be a serious disruption to your training. Worse still, in races it can completely ruin your performance. So what can you do to avoid this annoying problem?

Cramp isn't completely understood in the medical and sports science worlds but there’s definitely some risk factors unique to swimming:

- Swimming in a pool or open water the lower leg gets cooled by the water - this happens even in a wetsuit.

- Swimming with good technique with your toes pointed holds the calf muscles in a shortened state.

- Swimming a length with the lower leg doing relatively little and then suddenly flexing and pushing off hard from the end of the pool places a great deal of stress on the calf and foot muscles.

These three factors combine to mean that swimmers tend to suffer from cramp more than in other sports, particularly in the lower leg. If you do suffer from cramp when you swim here’s some tips to try and improve the situation:

- Make sure you’re not dehydrated before swimming - a leading cause of cramp.

- Drinking coffee before swimming seems to be a factor for many swimmers (over and above the dehydrating effects) - try cutting it out.

- Introduce a regular stretching routine on the foot and calves; gently perform these stretches before swimming. Our recommended routine is the Swim Smooth Coach System here.

- If you have quite large calf muscles then the tightness of a wetsuit over them can squeeze the muscles and cause cramp. This is one reason why we designed calf-releases into HUUB wetsuits to reduce the pressure on the calf:

- In races, warm-up properly beforehand if at all possible. Going from cold to full-pace swimming without a warm-up places a lot of stress on the body.

- You could try drinking a source of quinine (e.g. tonic water) before swimming as this has been shown to be effective in reducing cramp for some people. (Sorry, you'll have to pass on the gin with tonic water!)

- If it’s a major problem for your swimming you could try some regular sports massage on the effected muscles in the build up to a key race - helping to remove any knots and flush out waste products.

- Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to cramping. A balanced diet containing these minerals is recommended but you could also experiment with taking a salt tablet a couple of hours before swimming to see if it helps.

- Swimming with fins can cause cramp in the foot and calves. Make sure you are using a long flexible fin or avoid longer fin based drill sets.

Unfortunately there's no silver-bullet to curing cramp but hopefully the tips above will help alleviate the symptoms.

Let us know your own experiences by posting on the blog comments here!

Swim Smooth!


Cam said...

Has been a significant issue for me (marathon running background - stiff calves!).

I often found jogging to the pool helped, so that the legs are a little warmed up prior hitting the pool. Also pushing off the wall more gently helped tremendously. This obviously affects lap times, but since I am training for open water events this doesn't really bother me. Check the ego (not always easy).

Unknown said...

I really suffered from calf cramps last open water swim season and had a bout of severe calf cramp at the finish of a 5 mile lake swim and have it re-occuring in the pool and in open water and after distances of 1 mile plus.

So annoying - I have big calf muscles so that doesn't help.
I have bought some 2xu calf compression guards to wear under my swim suit. I will be able to test them out in a couple of weeks, Ill post back with any findings.

Anonymous said...

Paul - this is really useful, thanks!
Do you think that general better fitness helps, and also gradual training with fins to get more used to the muscle stretch/foot position?


Unknown said...

When I feel a starting cramp in my lower leg or in my foot or sole, then I start to increase the air pressure in the lungs during exhalation. (I groan like the tennis players when they hit the ball). I think nobody hear it, because it happens under the water. I do it for 1 or 2 minutes and the cramp passes away.
(It works for me during running too)

Try it!


Unknown said...

Hydration has been shown to have nothing to do with cramp.

Maybe a read of "Waterlogged" by Prof Tim Noakes might be in order


Unknown said...

I used to suffer badly. In addition to the things suggested two things worked for me.

First, if you can relax your ankle (which is not easy) when your foot rises on the kick backswing your calf muscles will extend naturally. You don't lose any propulsion.

Second, try a 2 beat kick. Not sure why this helps but it seems to work.

Emma said...

Hi, Thanks for these tips, I will use them and pass them onto my club members! I am definitely going to try the tonic.

On a personal note, adding salt to my food the day before I swim has helped as I don't add salt to anything.

From a female perspective, not wearing heels as much has also helped I think too - not as glamorous but never mind!

Thanks, Emma

graBffiti said...

Thanks for this 'cramp-post'. It saved me hours of frustrating google search (so much paid junk there on search engine front pages). It also answered "why I got cramps?" question much better that my GP who brushed away my problem by stating "cramps are mystery".
Just for curiosity. I have occasional always unexpected cramps in my left leg calf since my childhood. Not just sports, sometimes in bed or because of some particular movement of my legs. It could be connected with calcium management by my body - e.g. I happen to have twice saliva duck stones problem. But the most interesting is that my mother had the same problem exactly in the same spot of her body as mine. Blame DNA code a ques too.

Anonymous said...

No problem with cramping until I reached 68 years old! Was doing up to 5K/session. Then was cramping at about 3.5K. Magnesium and stretching seem to have helped- back up to 4300M with no problems.

GeBe said...

I have experience with cramps in my tri-training and also during sleep. One pill magnesium every day is almost keeping the cramp away even if I train hard for a sustained period. Weeks with "normal" endurance training is now OK. Self-treating with knobber-balls and rollers + stretching helps!

Finaha said...

The nutritionist I work with says that a lack of magnesium is often a cause for cramp.
Supplements are cheap and easy to take and help with calcium absorbtion which is important in swimming which does not prevent bone density loss.
Altefrnately,putting a cup of Epsom Salts in the bath is a way of releiving painful muscles and the magnesium can be absorbed thru the skin.

Christy said...

Can you explain more about the relationship between fins and cramps? I use short speedo fins and am getting cramps, particularly right behind and below my knee. I get cramps in my arches when I use them too.

Pawl said...

I find a firm (but not over-intense) push-off actually helps with foot and toe cramps. Sorry this won't help you open-water people. I suspect that some cramps are caused by inappropriately stimulated nerve pulses, and so being stressed, tired or pushing some muscles too far will contribute.

Anonymous said...

"on the effected muscles" - it is "affected muscles", Coach.

Mike Kay said...

Some great ideas here on dealing with cramps.

I use a technique for dealing with the onset of cramps during swimming that may work well for others. A few years ago at the start of an open water event one of my legs began to cramp up. Looking forward to this race, I was not going to give up so easily right at the beginning. The start of such a race can be a bit tense with hundreds of swimmers splashing and knocking into each other. This tension, along with the cold and sudden start must have contributed to my cramping. So I just calmed myself, not worrying about the others. Breathing in a relaxed manner, I let my legs and body relax as much as possible, focusing on smooth continuous movement rather than intense force. Rather than the cramp worsening it was mostly gone in a few seconds, so that I could then build up the speed. Try this the next time you are in the pool and a cramp starts to get a hold of you. Since that day I have never worried about another cramp.

Paul said...

Hi Christy

Generally the shorter, stubby fins are much stiffer than the long, rubber flexible ones that we recommend from Finis. This stiffness which doesn't encourage as good and as easy plantar flexion of the foot can be what causes the cramp in the underside of the foot and also then refers up into the calf. Try some of the longer rubber fins and see how you go!


Swim Guru said...

Random question here: What are your thoughts on proper breathing relating to cramping? I have found a sorts of research promoting nutrition, relaxing muscle fatigue etc. However, not a lot of evidence that proper breathing techniques would aid in possible elimination of cramping.. thoughts or resources that any one knows of? Thanks in advance!

Cyndy said...

Sorry we don't have any evidence that you can eliminate cramping by proper breathing. I see swimmers who breathe properly and those that hold their breath a bit and they both get leg cramps. Regards, Cyndy

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