Muscle cramps can be a common and annoying aspect of swimming, affecting both professional and novice swimmers alike. These are most commonly felt after a freestyle kick, when pushing off the wall, during longer sessions as your muscles start to fatigue, or my absolute worst when getting out the pool.
Cramp occurs as your muscles become tired, when you start to become dehydrated during your session, when you have an electrolyte deficit or if you’re swimming with pre-existing tight muscles. It can affect a variety of muscles but during swimming most commonly impacts muscles in the feet, toes, calves and hamstrings (calves are my nemesis and OW it flipping hurts). It isn’t something just subjective to pool swimming and can happen when open water swimming too (and can be quite scary when it does).
Whilst I don’t think you can ever totally eradicate cramp, sometimes it just seems to come from nowhere, there are some steps you can take to help try to prevent cramp developing, here are some of the ones I’ve found work for me:
Hydration is key: swimming is a workout too and I think a lot of us (myself included when I first started) forget to drink water because we’re surrounded by the stuff. It’s a case of water water everywhere, and bring some to drink! Even better drink electrolytes. This can help prevent the electrolyte deficits that can cause cramp, because gross as it is, yes, you can sweat in the water. For sessions around 1hour15 and less I use a Science in Sport Go Hydro hydration tablet in a water bottle and I have a sip every 400-500m which is around 8-10 minutes for me, or at a suitable space between sets. The harder I work the more I’ll drink. For sessions longer than this I use a Science in Sport Go Electrolyte powder mixed with water. This offers the carbs I need for longer sessions. Yes I’m an ambassador for Science in Sport, but I whole heartedly recommend these products as the best hydration ones I’ve tried. Admittedly I’ve used other brands borrowed from friends after realising I’ve left my hydration tablets at home (rookie error) and I’ve had cramp during these sessions. You can get 15% off your purchases with my code BECCA15 and I highly recommend the strawberry and lime tablets, they’re a game changer and my absolute favourite. And don’t forget to keep hydrated before and after your session, before I swim I am mindful of the amount of water I drink throughout the day and after I use a scoop of SiS Rego Rapid Recovery Powder in water, especially after an evening session, as I find this stops me from waking up in the night with cramps.
Photo credit: Andy Astfalck
Work on your technique: most cramp comes from freestyle kicks, so making sure you’re kicking effectively in a good rhythm and maintaining good form can potentially help ease the onset of cramp. Similarly working on your technique pushing off the wall can be beneficial. I’ve found that making sure most of my foot hits the wall rather than just pushing from my toes really helps.
Conditioning and consistency help your body adapt to swimming, and in particular plantar flexion (pointing your toes) whilst swimming. The more you swim the more your body adapts and hopefully the more your technique improves. Additionally, a good warm up before you go into any drills, speed work or kick work helps to keep cramp at bay. Furthermore, stretching- both before and after swimming can help prevent cramp associated with tight muscles.
If you’re starting to cramp during a session but want to continue try giving your legs a rest by using a pull buoy or switching to breaststroke until it passes. Mixing in some breaststroke can be a really useful solution if you’re in open water and can feel cramp starting- this is was my coping strategy when I got cramp during Swim Serpentine in 2018. Similarly reducing the power and frequency of your kicks until the sensation passes can help ease any early warning signs of cramp.
Finally, don’t be over ambitious getting out the pool. Enthusiastically getting out involving flailing your legs can result in cramp at the end of your session. If possible use the stairs!
Photo credit: the race organiser
And most importantly, this is all trial and error. The above works for me, it might not work for you, you might have other tips and tricks (add them in the comments if you do!). I’m learning what my body responds to and feel like I’ve found a series of training solutions to help enjoy my swimming to the full. Hopefully some of the above might help you enjoy your time in the pool