As many of you well know, calf cramps while swimming can be quite common, especially for triathletes…and there’s a very good reason why. Some athletes think it has to do with hydration or an electrolyte imbalance. It’s neither.
So why do these occur?
The reasons usually come from two things:
1. Trying to point the toes during kicking, which is active “plantar flexion” that creates tension in the calves. DON’T do this! DO NOT try to point the toes while you kick.
2. The other thing, which is somewhat related, is that there is OFTEN simply too much TENSION in the lower legs, period.
(Remember what a cramp is: it is simply a “hyper”chronic contraction of a muscle. That is, activity within the muscle (tension) is heightened and rises to the point where the contraction hits overdrive — and then, bingo, cramp!)
Why all that tension? (This relates to why it happens to triathletes more than swimmers).
Triathletes run. And with all of that running there is tension in the calves, as they are so active during that endeavor.
Often, what adds to the tension is the colder temps you find in some competitive pools. With colder temps, tension rises (which is why I love jacuzzis! ).
So, what to do? Two things:
1. First, the MOST IMPORTANT thing: RELAX YOUR FEET AND LOWER LEGS.
The term I use to describe how to kick correctly (while reducing the risk of cramping in the process) is FLOPPY ANKLES. Really good “kickers” have very mobile, floppy ankles. In fact, great backstrokers can lie on their backs on the floor and easily touch their toes to the floor as they point their ankle. Most triathletes can’t come close to doing that. Limited ankle mobility means tension when kicking.
So what we must do as we are swimming down the lane? It’s simple. Think: FLOPPY ANKLES. Let the feet just flop. Relax and release them completely.
As you relax your feet and JUST LET THEM FLOP, you’ll reduce all of that tension in the calves that leads to cramping.
Of course, relaxing the feet and letting them flop DOES NOT give you permission to also flop your knees or relax them.
In fact, what I’ve found works best is if you keep that knee straight, and, at the same time, flop the ankles, you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for, which is a nice compact kicking motion. The bonus is this motion is, at once, streamlined and relaxed.
When I say “straight knee,” I am really saying to keep it straight–locked out. What will most likely happen is that your knees won’t actually “lock,” but they will bend less, which is a good thing. From my experience videotaping dozens of triathletes, those with the worst kicks will bend their knees a LOT, and their ankles a little. That looks ugly on video.
2. Second, make sure you keep those calves nice and long. Stretch. They will tighten up from running and, over time, shortness in that area raises risk of running injury. It also leads to increased risk of cramping.
To avoid cramping in the calves while swimming, keep the calves LONG, and relax those feet and think: FLOPPY ANKLES.
Of course, all of this could be solved by simply doing all of your swimming in the JACUZZI!