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by Laura Thornton

May 28, 2018

Here are some tricks to avoiding those painful set-killers

Foot and calf cramps have a knack for striking swimmers mid-pool, leaving them gripping their legs and feet and grimacing in pain. Given the chance, a cramp will turn a beautiful sprint set into mush in less than a second.

Fortunately, we can help fend off these frustrating cramps by following these four tips.

Hydrate Often

Coach Charles McPeak takes hydration seriously—any swimmer showing up to one of his practices without water or a sports drink has to stand up and tell a joke.

Since most of his swimmers would prefer to avoid that situation, they almost always remember to bring something to drink to practice, says McPeak, head coach and co-founder of the nonprofit SilverPeak Performance, a U.S. Masters Swimming club in Los Angeles.

“You don’t have to drink a ton” to keep your muscles limber, adds Lance Ogren, head coach of Palmetto Masters in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “Just be sure to bring a water bottle to practice to sip on.” Because swimmers exercise mostly in the water, he explains, they don’t realize how much they’re sweating during a typical practice.

Ogren also advises drinking water before practice. If you swim in the morning, have a glass of water when you first wake up. If you swim in the evening, sip on water during the afternoon.

“Wintertime can be worse than summer,” he adds. We’re apt to drink less water in the winter because of the colder temperatures, “and you may even reach for something hot, like coffee or caffeinated tea, which can dehydrate you” because of the caffeine.

And watch your wine. If you have a glass of wine the night before a practice, you’re already behind on your hydration when you wake up. In that case, “speaking from experience, I recommend having an extra glass of water in the morning,” Ogren says.

Stretch Frequently

Most swimming strokes call for pointed toes, and that’s one of the reasons feet and calves cramp up in the pool, says Clay Evans, Olympian and head coach of LA-based Southern California Aquatic Masters.

“Only in swimming and ballet do you point your toes,” he says, and that’s not a normal position for people to hold.

Counter all that toe pointing with a good stretch before practice. Sit with your feet flexed and your legs straight out in front of you, and then fold over and hold for a few seconds, McPeak suggests. Then, lie back, with your legs still straight out in front of you, but with your toes now pointed. Repeat the pair of stretches a few times.

Another good prepractice stretch: Sit on the pool deck with one ankle on the opposite knee, and pull the top of that foot back to give it a little stretch. Then, repeat with the other side, says Ogren, who founded Ogren Swim Coaching in 2015 and is certified by USMS. You can also do this stretch in the pool, with your back against the wall, and your ankle flexed over your knee. The stretch develops ankle flexibility, which helps ward off foot and calf cramps, Ogren says.

Calf stretches help, too. Facing a wall, extend one leg behind the other, with your feet flat on the floor and parallel to each other, Ogren says. Press into the wall with your arms and hands, stretching the calf of the extended leg, then switch legs and repeat.

When not at practice, be mindful of your activity level, Ogren adds. If you work at a computer, get up and walk around at least a few times during the workday. Too often, he says, swimmers “spend the day at a desk, get up once or twice, jump in the pool, and their calf cramps.”

And consider giving weekly yoga classes a try, McPeak adds. It’s a great way to get in some stretching and develop flexibility in the lower legs.

Warm Up Slowly and Stay in Shape

McPeak’s practices generally include slow-paced warm-ups of at least 1,000 yards. Of course, that may be the length of your workout. That’s OK—just be sure to spend some time warming up at every practice. “That will help avoid cramping in the long term,” McPeak says.

Kick sets help, too. McPeak recommends kicking with short fins and not spending too much time behind a kickboard, because boards force swimmers into an unnatural body position, which can also lead to foot and calf cramps.

But don’t kick too hard at first with fins, Ogren cautions. Build the pace up slowly, letting your calves and shins get used to the fins’ force.

Unfortunately, when it comes to foot and calf cramps, it doesn’t help if a swimmer is out of shape, Evans says. “Too much, too soon,” Ogren adds, can definitely lead to cramping.

When returning to the pool after a bit of a break, Evans advises stretching at the wall between lengths or laps. Stretch out your right calf and foot arch, swim a length, then stretch out the other side, he says. Stretch out all through the workout, and you’ll lessen your risk of cramping. Keep up this extra stretching during practice until you’re more in shape.

“A lot of people come in, and they’ll get cramps right away,” McPeak says, “but as time goes on, they rarely have cramping.”

If All Else Fails

But what if you do all that and still get a cramp?

“Stop swimming, get to the wall, and stretch [the cramp out] gently,” Ogren says. “Give yourself a couple of seconds, breathe, and give it some time to go away. The worst thing to do is to gut it out,” by trying to swim through it or by giving it an over-exuberant stretch or yank.

“And if the cramp doesn’t go away,” which can happen toward the end of practice, “your day may be done,” Ogren adds. “Speaking from experience, swimming on a cramp can lead to muscle stiffness for days.”

“It’s just one practice,” he says, so get out of the pool, give yourself a gentle stretch, have some water, and keep showing up to practice. Remember: The more in shape you are, the less likely you’ll be to get a cramp in the first place.


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