If the unbearable pain of feet and leg cramps during your swim is not something you’ve ever felt before then count yourself lucky! They appear to come out of nowhere, completely throwing you off the pace, leaving you unable to continue until the pain passes.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for scientists to do research on cramps to give a definitive cure as they are so unpredictable. However, there are certainly preventative measures you can take to minimise the risk of these cramps from happening, especially If you enjoy the more competitive side of swimming. Cramps whilst in deep, open waters could be potentially life-threatening.
What causes feet cramps?
Foot cramp in swimming consists of a short, sharp muscle spasm where the targeted muscle temporarily shortens. It occurs when a muscle is fatigued, when a swimmer is dehydrated or the muscle is tight from overdoing it at a previous session.
If you do get cramps, start by asking yourself questions related to your energy levels, hydration and stretching regime and decide from our list of preventions which might be the best for you.
It can be easy to ignore our water bottle during training because we don’t see obvious signs of dehydration. There are no beads of sweat and if we’re warm we simply dip our heads underwater to cool off. But we are potentially still losing more water than ingesting – that’s dehydration – and we are inadvertently sensitizing nerves in our muscles, causing them to spasm and cramp.
Kevin C. Miller, Ph.D., an associate professor of athletic training at Central Michigan University and devoted cramp researcher believes that muscle fatigue is the likely cause of cramps. Fatigue can happen either way, with studies showing cramping to happen towards the end of the competition or shortly after when the muscle is already shortened and fatigued. On the other hand, you’ll probably also notice that your feet cramp when you haven’t trained for a while, because they’re not used to the strain put on them.
How to prevent feet cramps when you’re swimming
Interesting fact – whilst at room temperature your body sweats around 200 milligrams of sweat over the course of an hour. This goes up to 700mg/hour during exercise and includes when you’re in the swimming pool. A study of 21 female and 20 male swimmers found that the average male releases 552 milligrams of sweat while the women released 428 milligrams.
Therefore, in order to maintain a healthy balance of fluids whilst training, you should be drinking a litre of water one hour prior to training and at least half a litre of water over the course of your workout.
TOP TIP: Keep a bottle of water or an electrolyte drink near the poolside to stay hydrated.
Eat the right foods before and after training
Food plays a vital part in how you feel before, during and after your swim – so eating the right things are crucial to a productive training session.
With all recommendations, no one thing has been scientifically proven as the cure. However, magnesium plays a key role in muscle contractions, therefore it has been hypothesised that a deficiency may cause muscle cramps. Foods that are rich in magnesium include whole grain unrefined bread, brown rice, lentils (especially chickpeas) and bananas. You may also feel muscle weakness and fatigue if your diet does not have a healthy balance of key electrolytes, and so it is important to include natural sources of this from fruit and vegetables.
TOP TIP: Snack on a banana a few minutes before training for an extra release of magnesium.
The key to minimising muscle tiredness and weakness is to maintain a regime of training on the specific muscles that are prone to cramping and steadily increase the distances you work towards. However, it is important to not push yourself too hard without conditioning and warm ups. This is where stretching plays a vital part to minimising risk of feet cramps.
Try these four stretches as recommended by Swim England by holding each stretch for two minutes with a 20 or 30 second interval break in between.
- Stand with one leg in front of the other and lean against a wall with your palms.
- Keep your back leg straight and bend the front leg whilst keeping your heel on the floor until you feel the muscle stretch in between your heel and knee.
- Stand back to step 1 of the gastrocnemius stretch with your hands on the wall.
- Bend both of your knees and transfer the weight to back leg, making sure the heel of your back leg stays on the floor. This will stretch the muscle in the back of the lower leg.
Plantar Fascia stretch
- Stand with one leg in front of the other with the toes of your front foot on or up against a raised platform (bottom of a wall, barbell or golf ball works well).
- Bend both knees until you can feel a stretch in the sole of your foot
Alternative Plantar Fascia Relief
- Roll your foot over a golf or tennis ball. The hardness of the ball will help to massage and relieve tension in the pain area. If you’re in the gym, try using a barbell.
TOP TIP: Incorporate kick stretches into your warm and warm down swim.
What to do when your foot cramps
As mentioned, there is no definitive cure for feet cramping that can be backed by scientific research, and even by following these prevention tips a cramp may strike. The key thing to remember is to try to remain calm, as panic whilst in water could be life-threatening.
If you’re in a swimming pool, remove yourself from the water and massage the cramped muscle. Move the toe backwards and forwards, and if there’s a hot tub nearby, jump in as heat can help muscles relax. If you’re in open water and unable to exit, take a large, calm deep breath before going underwater to massage the foot.
With these handy tips and a routine training regime, there’s hope that feet cramps won’t be so unsuspecting. And if they do happen, you’ll be prepared to relieve the discomfort effectively. Don’t forget your pair of SwimFreak goggles to help in case you need to massage the cramped muscle whilst in water.
Do you have any tips for preventing feet cramps when swimming? Let us know on our social and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for more swimming tips!