Swimming Muscle Cramps – Types, Causes, Prevention and Treatment
Muscle cramps during swimming, especially leg cramps, are very common among swimmers. I experienced muscle cramps as a swimmer, and I have to deal with them frequently as a coach. If you are just looking for a quick swim cramp relief, here is a summary of what to do:
To relieve muscle cramps during swimming, stretch, and massage cramped muscles and the surrounding area. Apply heat OR cold, and drink water/electrolytes. You can return to practice after the pain stops. Do not drink too much since a full stomach can reduce your ability to train properly.
Remember that the temporary fix doesn’t help you long-term. If you really want to get rid of swim cramps, you need to understand why cramps happen. In order to do that, I will first explain to you what causes these muscle cramps.
So, why do swimmers get muscle cramps?
There are various reasons swimming muscle cramps occur, including:
- Dehydration or Electrolyte Imbalance
- Lack of Conditioning
- Overuse of muscles and fatigue
- Cold Water
- Swimming with Unnecessary Tension
Swimming is a whole-body cardiovascular exercise that utilizes most of the muscles in the body. Leg muscles, in particular, are prone to cramping, especially feet, ankles, calves, and hamstrings. Here's everything you need to know about types of muscle cramps, causes, prevention, and how to treat them.
Types of Cramps Swimmers Get
The cramping that swimmers get is similar to what is often experienced by other athletes. It's so common, in fact, that researchers have a specific name for it: exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC).
It can occur in muscles all over the body. It often feels like a locking sensation that seems to come out of nowhere. Just moments before, you could be completing your workout or race without issue when suddenly you're stuck trying to figure out how you can make this painful cramp go away. It can put a huge damper on your training or competition.
Before we go into what you can do about it, we'll talk about the types of cramping that are most common.
Foot and Ankle Cramps
Foot and ankle cramps can happen in swimmers of all abilities. With over 100 tendons, ligaments, and muscles it's easy to see why muscle cramps occur in swimmers even when they are well-trained. These can range from mild discomfort to pain. Severe cramps will cause the muscles within the foot to lock up mid-swim, making it impossible to continue swimming with the correct form.
Calf Muscle Cramps
Cramps occurring within the calf muscle are probably the most common muscle cramp that swimmers experience. There will be no question whether this is happening to you or not, the seizing sensation will be quite obvious. Your mobility in that particular leg will suffer greatly. It usually comes on suddenly, with varying degree. In many cases, trying to continue swimming with this type of muscle cramp will put you in a world of pain.
The hamstring, the large muscle in the back of your upper leg, is another area in which swimmers may get a cramp. A variety of reasons can lead to hamstring cramping while swimming, and it's definitely not something that you want to experience. Just as with other muscle cramps in other parts of the lower body, hamstring cramps will restrict your range of motion. Plus, it's going to hurt if you try to keep swimming with this painful sensation.
Causes of Muscle Cramps
It is important to know the cause so you can prevent cramps in the future. I wish I could tell you there was one clear cause of muscle cramps because then they'd be a lot easier to fix. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons muscle cramps occur so frequently in swimmers, but there are a few likely causes. Here are some
Dehydration or Electrolyte Imbalance
All athletes need to properly hydrate and most know this fact. However, it's often easier said than done. One problem is not realizing you haven't hydrated properly until it's too late. Swimmers are often more susceptible to dehydration than other athletes due to the fact that their sport occurs in the water. Because of this, it's sometimes difficult for a swimmer to determine how much they are actually sweating. This is one possible cause of muscle cramps that have been researched extensively, though there is conflicting evidence as discussed in this study. What some researchers have found is that when an athlete experiences an improper balance of hydration and electrolytes (think sodium/salt), cramping is a byproduct. This is due to the "sensitization of select nerve terminals" which cause the muscle to stay contracted.
Swimming in Cold Water
Though pools are heated, temperatures differ from one pool to the next. A colder pool will be riskier in terms of muscle cramps forming. Even more so is swimming in open water such as a lake. This kind of water will likely be much colder than a pool. When your body temperature doesn't have time to warm up, your muscles will contract as a result of the cold water and quick change in temperature. Moving straight into a swimming workout or race without allowing your body to regulate its temperature is putting yourself at risk for muscle cramping.
Lack of Proper Conditioning and Overuse
For any athlete undergoing aerobic exercise such as swimming, proper conditioning is vital to staying cramp-free. When a swimmer tries to build their speed or endurance too quickly, muscle cramps can occur as a result. This can happen to swimmers who may have taken the season off and then try to jump right back into the duration of the swimming they used to be doing. Or it can happen to someone trying to do high-intensity swimming for too long.
Swimmers who haven't built up proper kicking 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.
Swimming with Unnecessary Tension
Though causes of muscle cramping such as dehydration and overuse are common across various sports, improper plantar flexion is something that is much more likely to occur in a sport such as swimming.
Some swimmers keep their feet and ankles too rigid while they swim. Try pointing your toes right now while you're reading this and you'll feel the muscle contractions taking place. Keeping the toes and feet actively pointed can lead to unnecessary tension. By creating this continuous tension in your leg muscles, cramping becomes very likely.
Muscle 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 again.
1. Get Enough Water and Electrolytes to prevent cramps
One way to start the process of preventing dehydration is by drinking plenty of water before your swim begins. You don't need to overdrink, just be mindful of your water consumption prior to your workout. Sipping water throughout the day and being consistent will ensure you're properly hydrated. Keep a water bottle at the pool's edge so you have easy access to it. That way you don't risk getting dehydrated mid-workout.
This goes for outdoor open water swimming as well - keep your water intake consistent. Additionally, sweating a lot during a swim session can lead to increased electrolyte loss. Eating something salty 2 hours prior to your workout, or adding a little bit of salt to your water bottle are easy ways to keep your electrolyte levels balanced.
2. Warm-up properly before getting in the water
It is important to warm up before getting in the pool to prevent injuries and cramps. During warm-up, pay special attention to the muscles in your ankles and feet. By giving yourself a few minutes to properly warm-up, you will ensure your muscles are ready to perform at the highest level.
3. Gradually increase your conditioning
In order to prevent muscle cramps related to overuse, muscles need time to be conditioned properly. Trying to race or log miles of swimming without acclimating your muscles is not a good idea. You need to give your body ample time to get where you want it to be.
Sometimes it can be difficult to feel like you are holding yourself back, but I promise, your muscles will thank you. If you properly condition your muscles, you won't have to worry about a muscle cramp sabotaging your swim training or important race. If you have taken a break from swimming, make sure you adjust your practices to account for time off.
Bonus tip: If you over flex your feet and ankles, try to relax them to prevent unnecessary tension in your legs
Treating a Cramp Mid-Swim
Here are the steps you'll want to take to soothe a muscle cramp that occurs while you're swimming:
- Make your way as safely and comfortably as you can to the side of the pool. This might mean relying heavily on your arms to do so.
- 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, such as these calf or hamstring stretches.
- Apply heat as a compress, or by submerging in a warm bath. 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 goes away.
I hope that this article helped answer all your questions about cramps during swimming. Have more questions? Let us know in the comments below.