• Health & Fitness

How to prevent and treat cramps while swimming

Cramps can be a swimmer’s worst nightmare but there is a way to prevent and treat cramps so you can get the best out of your swim.

Muscle cramps are a regular occurrence while swimming, especially leg and foot cramps and if you’re reading this you’ve probably experienced a few cramps during your swim sessions.

In this article, we run through what causes cramps and the best way to prevent and treat cramps while swimming.

What is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is a sudden and unexpected tightening of one or more muscles. Unlike spasms, which share the same symptoms as muscle cramps, cramps usually go away after a few minutes of stretching or massaging of the area.

Why do swimmers get muscle cramps?

Muscle cramps can be caused by a variety of reasons and what might cause one swimmer to get a muscle cramp might not cause another swimmer to cramp. Here are the most common reasons swimmers get muscle cramps.

  • Dehydration or electrolyte imbalance: Our body needs a sufficient amount of water to ensure we continue to function properly. When our body is dehydrated from not drinking enough water, which can be very common in swimmers because we don’t see ourselves sweating in the water, our muscles tighten and seize up, causing a cramp. Additionally, if you haven’t been eating a balanced and nutritious diet or are severely dehydrated you could be lacking electrolytes, which can also cause muscle cramps. A good electrolyte powder and tracking your daily water intake can help prevent cramps.
  • Overuse of muscles and muscle fatigue: If you overexert yourself too much during your swim session causing your muscles to become tired, you are more likely to get muscle cramps.
  • Cold water: Cold weather including swimming in cold water causes our muscles to stiffen, contract and shrink, which can cause muscle cramping. So it is a given that when swimming in cold water you are more likely to experience cramps. Wearing a wetsuit, skull cap or booties can help to keep your muscles warm and lessen your likelihood of getting a cramp.
  • Unnecessary tension: Improper plantar flexion can be a common cause of feet and leg cramps when swimming especially when swimming with flippers. This is caused when your feet and ankles are too rigid while swimming causing unnecessary tension on your feet and leg muscles. The best way to prevent cramps is to keep your feet and ankles nice and relaxed.
  • Lack of conditioning: If you go from no swimming to swimming multiple times a week with high-intensity swimming involved in a short period of time, you are at a higher risk of getting a muscle cramp. The best way to prevent camps is to slowly rebuild your way up to high-intensity swimming.

How to prevent cramps

While cramps are terrible and painful when you get them, the best thing about cramps is that they are preventable if you take the right measures.

The best ways to prevent cramps are:

  • Ensure you drink enough water and stay hydrated throughout the day. The best way to do this is by sipping water consistently throughout the day.
  • Eat something salty prior to your workout or sip on electrolytes throughout the day.
  • Increase your swimming mileage slowly to prevent overuse and give your muscles enough time to become conditioned.
  • Warm up properly before getting into the water to prevent cramps and injuries. All it takes is an extra few minutes before jumping in the water, to make your swim a whole lot more enjoyable.
  • Don’t overexert yourself. Know when your body has had enough and it is time to hop out of the water.

How to treat cramps

Cramps can be treated in a number of ways but the most important thing to remember is to never swim through a cramp, as you will only make it worse and increase the chance of post-cramp side effects.

Treating a cramp while swimming

  • To help relieve your muscle cramp while swimming you can stretch and massage the cramped muscle and surrounding area
  • Performing a stretch while in deep open water might involve having to lie on your back and floating, and you might require the assistance of a swimming buddy to help you out.

Treating a cramp post-swim

  • Post-session apply a heat pack or cold pack
  • Drink water and electrolytes
  • If the area where your cramp was is sore, elevate and rest the area
  • Take a magnesium or Epsom salt bath.
  • Written by Ocean Swims on 31 October 2023
  • (Updated on 31 October 2023)

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