My Limiting Factor in Swimming

Ever since I started training for triathlon, my time in the pool has been cursed. Aside from my incessant hunger when I get out of the water (unless, of course, I end up drinking too much water to have room for food), I get these debilitating calf cramps that literally make me stop in my tracks (or lane, I suppose). I can usually feel it coming on, after a few hundred yards (or even a few thousand), with the flip turn and the pointed toes, and it just lingers in the background. All of a sudden, BAM! It strikes. I can’t move my foot, and the cramp is so intense that my whole body freezes up. This usually occurs halfway of the length of the pool, so I look like I just give up on my set. I really want to keep going, I swear!

So I don’t really know what it is. Here are potential culprits:

Electrolyte imbalance: I know about hypotonic/osmolalic factors that attribute to water-getting-into-the-cells. The right amount of sodium (positively charged) and chloride (negatively charged) is what matters. There’s other aspects, too- like hypomagnesemia which interferes with the sensory nerves, and low calcium/potassium triggers. Without getting too into the nitty-gritty-sciency-ness that is proper nutritional balance (especially since I am not a nutrition expert), it’s important to keep electrolytes in check. This means not too much, but also not too little.  Real quick: there are two extremes to improper hydration. The first is hyponatraemia. This means that there are not enough (“hypo” = low) nutrients (in this case, electrolytes) to water in a system. In other words, the layman’s term for hyponatraemia is overhydration. Big problems can be incured with this, including renal losses and failure. The other extreme of improper hydration is hypernatraemia. Any guesses as to what this means?… Yep! Too much (“hyper” = high) nutrients (electrolytes) to water in a system. This is typically what clinicians refer to as dehydration.

Kicking too much: I try to make a good, honest effort to not kick much when I swim, especially when I am putting in big-yardage days, since it’s futile to kick much when swimming in a long-course triathlon (I want to save my legs for the bike and run). My arms are supposed to be pulling me through the water. But I know I do it! I flutter my feet too much when I swim (see the above photo of me? Where’s my left foot? That’s right, probably above the water). I might also be pointing my toes too much. Since the cramps don’t attack until I’m farther along in my swim, I have a hunch that my calf muscles might fatigue after a while and just go into a sort of seizure.

Pushing off the wall too hard: I’m probably pushing off the wall with too much force, which makes me point my toes and causes my calves to go haywire. Even when I don’t push off hard, the subsequent toe-pointing might be problematic. But, I don’t know how much force to use when I push off the wall. Just a little? Not much? How do you push off if you don’t point your toes (can you even??)?

Not breathing enough: I notice that when I am doing longer sets, I get really short of breath towards the end of the interval. I don’t breathe as well on the left side as I do on the right, but I am going to work on practicing alternate-breathing every third stroke to improve that. Maybe I am not getting enough oxygen and my muscles spasm because of this?

Wearing fins: This is a no brainer. I know this is part of the reason I got the Charlie Horse this last weekend. Although it was my first time wearing fins in the pool, it definitely accelerated the time-to-cramping in my calf.

Here are some things I’m going to try:

  • EFS Sports drink in my water bottle pool-side
    • Since EFS has a balance of electrolytes and calories, it should keep me in-check while I’m swimming
  • Less kicking (or no kicking) – I’ll use a pull buoy for help! I might even tie my feet together…
  • More massage!
    • I’m going to start visiting my massage therapist, Mel, more regularly
    • Supplement my visits to Mel with daily treatments of TriggerPoint Therapy
  • More time in the pool
    • Maybe my deal is that I don’t get in there enough, and my muscles just ain’t used to all that work.
  • No more flippers
    • Once was enough
  • If I follow these things and I’m still not cramp-free for five straight swim sessions, I’m going to start taking my magnesium tablets.

Do any of you awesome readers out there have any other suggestions that might help me fix this problem?

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About megankillian

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. I love biomechanics!

Posted on February 16, 2010, in swimming, training. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I would actually strongly recommend tying your feet together (loosely). It allows for just enough freedom of movement that you can relax your legs but are not tempted to use your legs for propulsion purposes.

  2. This used to be a big problem for me, especially in triathlons. Now that I’ve been putting more swim time in its gone away. I think its from kicking too hard or improper balance. I really don’t think it is an electrolyte issue. I think because my pull wasn’t strong enough I was trying to overcompensate with my kick. I get twinges of it now when I do extended interval sets in the open ocean. Maybe try strength training with stretch cordz?

  3. I know you are probably building yardage at this point. May I suggest that 10 minutes into swim do an additional stretchign routine to stretch out calf in pool angle heel on bottom and toes up wall–hope that is clear–like stretching a calf against a wall. This will help. (I hope) Also make sure you are truly forcing out all your air between breaths. I have seen many swimmers get that short of breath feelign cause they start to fatigue and get a little tense blow out that air before taking a breath. (BTW my son Tim Thomas was backstroke champ 2 years in high school–my son Randy Thomas has been a lifegaurd up at MTU). I know more about swimming than running 🙂

  4. OK here are my thoughts:

    1) Do you use regular “fins” or the shorter kind like zoomers? If you’re using the longer flippers, I’d recommend NOT, and getting a short pair.

    2) Make sure you have a good long warm-up before digging into your sets. Mine might be excessive, but my w/u is 1000 yards.

    3) If you’re not doing pull sets already, maybe work those in? Most pools have pull buoys to use, but if not, they’re pretty inexpensive. Even though you can still sorta flutter your feet with the pb, you won’t be *kicking*.

    Says the swimming expert. Psssh. I need to take my own advice – I am definitely disappointed/frustrated with the [lack of] amount of time I’ve put in the pool this winter. Anyways, hope some of those suggestions help!

  5. I definitely agree with Erika about using a pull buoy. I know some of my teammates trained for ironman last year by doing long pull sets (1000+ yards). Once you get a wetsuit on it lends buoyancy just like the pull buoy does.

    Your comment about your leg position made me think of a little tip someone once gave me to help me with the same problem. When you kick, try to brush the sides of your feet (think the part where you get a bunion) together when you kick. This improves your position and more importantly, your efficiency!

  6. I don’t have much to add as I have the same problem. I like all of the suggestions – I am going to add them into my routine. Let us know what else you find!

  7. I get foot cramps a lot, usually if my body is tired from other workouts. I wish I knew the answer. Usually after 100 M or so they go away. Good luck.

  8. If you don’t have a strong enough pull, you’re not going to be able to do sets with your feet tied together.

    Remember when you’re kicking to kick from your hips, not your feet. Your feet should be relaxed. I agree with what RunningBlonde said above, your feet should touch each other when you kick. Mine almost always touch toes together with EACH kick.

    Work on your swim technique, including pull drills and kicking drills, and this will increase your speed–not swimming all out all the time.

  9. DO you warm up or stretch at all before you swim? I know a lot of people have strict stretching/warmup routines for run workouts, but don’t do a single thing for swimming. (I used to be one of those people).

    Maybe after some warmup laps, get out and stretch your legs while your muscles are loose?

    That is all I’ve got unfortunately. Hope you figure out something that works.

  10. When I swim I just drink water, from all I have tried and learned it is best not to take any CHO or anthing during swimming hard, but if its a long swim…kinda have too. But when I dont use EFS and when I do, I add a scoop of Base Salts, they help ALOT. (basenutrition.com)

    Something things I have learned about kicking:
    -fins=bad habits like lets you be lazy with body position and more
    -try adding when with a pull buoy , a ankle strap I use an old bike tube.
    -kick drills with kick board arent natural and make it harder to flutter, try kicking on back with hands out in front.

    just my 2 cents 🙂

  11. I did a 2.4km openwater swim on Saturday and also started cramping (http://www.lactic-haze.net/?p=360). We had 6 foot swells and a heavy current which made going difficult, and I clocked argueably my worst time in water ever.

    After some research it turns out that it could also just be a problem with your calves, and that you need to stretch more. Let us know the outcome if you cramp again past 2000yards in the pool

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