Swimming cramps are the worst. We have all gotten them and they can be very dangerous in deep water.
Basically a cramp is when one or more of your muscles contracts way too hard even though you didn’t tell it to and then won’t relax even when you scream at it to let go. It’s a contraction that won’t relax.
Cramps can attack all or part of a muscle, or several muscles in a group. The most commonly affected muscles for swimmers are the calf muscles (back of the lower leg), the hamstrings (back of the upper leg), and the quadriceps (front of the upper leg). Because we point our toes a lot and wear flippers, swimmers are also prone to cramps in the bottoms of the feet. Swimmers can get side stitches, too. Cramps can last a few seconds or several long minutes.
- Overexertion. The working muscles don’t get enough oxygen, which causes a buildup of lactic acid. When the buildup reaches critical mass, the muscle reacts by going into spasm. This is why cramps are common at the end of practice, when your muscles are fatigued.
- Inadequate stretching and warm up prior to exercise. In order to produce movement, muscles need to contract and expand. A good stretching program lengthens and loosens your muscles so that they can contract more vigorously. It also teaches the muscles how to ‘behave’ without cramping, how to contract and then relax.
When you get a muscle cramp, it’s often because you don’t have enough magnesium or potassium in your blood stream to cause the muscles to relax. When you sweat, you lose not just water but also electrolytes. If you lose too many electrolytes, your muscles can go haywire and start to cramp.
The solution? Stay hydrated. You need water before, during, and after, especially if it’s hot and humid (or dry and cold) and especially if you’re a kid, because kids get dehydrated much faster than adults.
How much should you drink? It depends on your body size and metabolism, but a good rule of thumb is that if your urine is almost colorless, you’re well hydrated. If it’s yellow or orange or dark, you need to up your intake.
Water works fine for practices up to an hour long. Longer than that, and you may want to switch to a sports drink or watered-down sports drink to replace lost electrolytes.