Cramping is a painful reality among swimmers, especially when coming back after a seasonal break. There is a lot of chemistry going on in the body before, during and after a swimming workout. Taking these factors into account will help keep cramping to a minimum and sometimes prevent them altogether, allowing a swimmer to maximize his or her training.
There are many causes of cramping in an athlete:
- Sodium and Potassium Deficiency
- Muscle Tension
- Lack of Adequate Oxygen
- Muscle Weakness or Imbalance
Twitching cramps are more likely to be from what your body needs, but is not getting, to perform optimally. When swim conditioning, athletes can deplete nutrients quicker than they may realize. In order to combat this, a swimmer needs to anticipate the use of the nutrients and make sure they are replaced so the muscles have what they need at any given time. When you feel this type of cramp coming on, you can be sure something nutrient-wise is lacking from your body, but you are still asking it to keep perform.
Hydration is a no-brainer. Most people are already dehydrated. Add to that the loss of water when practicing and you have the formula for a water deficiency. Not only will adequate water help prevent some types of cramping, it will stave off other problems as well.
Along with water loss, athletes in training lose electrolytes in the form of sodium and potassium. These electrolytes are key in muscle contraction and have been linked to muscle cramping. If you remember from biology, you know that the Na+/K+ pump mechanism works to provide energy to the body. When these electrolytes are out of balance or lacking, something is going to have to go without. To avoid this from happening, it is important to anticipate the impending loss of electrolytes and keep them at an adequate level. Gatorade, and similar sport drinks have several nutrients the body spends during a workout and is an easy solution. Bananas, kiwi and yogurt contain potassium. Dill pickles or, better yet, 2 ounces of pickle juice, provides a few hundred milligrams of sodium.
Additional causes of cramping in swimmers has to do with technique or training intensity/duration. A body needs rest. Training too hard without some kind of a break can actually be detrimental to progress. This is one of the concepts behind tapering. Unlike the water and electrolytes above which can be more readily replaced, some things like muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones are depleted over time during intense training and need to be built back up over a rest/less intense training period. The duration of the rest period is determined by the goals of the athlete and his or her coaching team.
Proper technique is paramount for efficient swimming. It’s not about kicking harder or flailing your arms faster, it is about relaxing and fine tuning your technique. Kicking from the knee, in addition to being inefficient, is another way to fatigue your muscles and possibly even cause an injury. If you are tense, you are fighting against your body and something will have to give. Sometimes, this will manifest in poor performance. Other times, your body will have a more painful response. This kind of cramping is more of a seizing or balling up of a muscle. Your muscle can only take so much. Relaxing while breathing while swimming is much the same. If you are tense while breathing, your muscles won’t get the oxygen they need and will obviously react, commonly in the form of cramping.
Finally, just as in weight training, it is important to make sure that everything is balanced. Biceps and triceps must both be worked to prevent muscle strain. Quads and hamstrings are another important muscle duo. In swimming, much cramping will occur in the lower limbs. Therefore, it is smart to pay attention to all muscles of the legs.