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Gold in the Water: The Extraordinary Pursuit of Olympic Glory

Cramping Your Style "Dealing With Cramps In The Pool"

by Haydn Wooley

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Ever been half way through a hard swim or kick set and all-of-a-sudden, whammo - your calf tightens up like someone just kicked you? Well, that type of cramping is such a common complaint that I hear it at least once in every squad session. The good news is that it is quite easy to diagnose and also easy to fix, if you can be honest about what you feel.

The whole issue of cramp in the water can be summed up simply by the inappropriate action of plantar flexing 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 problemwith pointing your toes as a deliberate (or even unconscious) action, however, is that it remains the primary reason behind the cramp that many triathletes experience at swim practice. 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.

This article elaborates on this often confusing subject...

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 cramp.

b) Wearing fins and kicking fast – for some reason the body insists on trying to control any swimming-aid attached to the foot (especially with short fins because the foot has to bend instead of the flexible blade on long fins doing the work). 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 cramp will set up camp, 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
3) Toes

Regardless of where it occurs, cramp in the pool is due to the same reasons ...

There are 3 Possible reasons why a leg cramp will occur...

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 ... and it was a hot day! 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, 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.

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) Get in the pool and kick with flippers on your back (arms sides, looking at the roof). Put your feelings in your ankles and kick slowly (look at the roof, not at your feet – a balance issue that will separately make you tense). Be honest about what you feel as you kick along slowly and ask the question – "Is my ankle totally relaxed or am I consciously / unconsciously trying to control the flipper by tensing somewhere?" If so, then you will find yourself tense in either the calf, or shin. This will be the cause, over time, of cramp. As above you need to learn how to relax.

1. Kick on your Back with Short Fins, and Learn to RELAX - short fins will demand that you let your ankle actually bend with the weight of the water as you kick up and down. If you don’t relax and let this happen then the result will be simple – you’ll get cramp. So your aim is to let those ankles flick round in the water like they are floppy things on the end of your feet. Start by kicking slowly, which will ensure you stay aware of what is happening, and also help keep you relaxed.

There is a another very positive side to this – when you can learn to totally relax your ankles, the feet begin waving around in the water more and this allows you to pull backwards with the weight of water collecting on the top of the fins’ blade. This will produce more propulsion than if you are tense. So there are two benefits from being more relaxed (1) no cramp, and (2) faster kicking technique.

2. Be more progressive with hard swimming, short sprint work or hard kick sets. By taking slightly longer over the weeks to build your sprinting sets up, the stresses on the body are coped with better and you will have less chance of getting cramp.

3. Stretch the ankle by regularly sitting on top of them (heels together). As you improve the range of movement your ankle has, so will kicking be that much easier. It just takes dedication over time for your ankle flexibility to improve.

So, it should be obvious now WHY cramp occurs when in the pool, how to diagnose it and even how to solve the issue. The biggest hurdle you will face with eliminating this annoying problem is usually accepting the reasons, that you ARE tense. Once you accept that you could possibly be a little tenser than you need to be, then results will come easily. Always make the assumption that some area that can be more relaxed and as you become more aware of your body you will find this generally does ring true.

Like most things in swimming, it’s kind of a passive-action thing. To swim correctly and avoid the pitfalls is usually all about one thing - RELAXATION!

Good luck with all your training programs and remember...


This article first appeared in Extreme Tri Magazine of August 2001

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