Day 16: How to avoid severe leg cramps during swimming?

By Skip

Went to the pool today.  Had to wait for a lane to open because there were 4-6 people per lane already!  Could not believe the amount of people that were there…. most for swimming lessons.  Finally the groups let out and I was free to choose just about any one that I wanted to.  I stuck to the 25 yard lanes as they work better for my drills.

This is what I had planned for today:

  • Warm Up
    • 250 @ low aerobic intensity
    • 6 x 25 drills, RI=0:10
  • Main Set
    •  6 x 100 @ moderate aerobic intensity, RI=0:05
    • 4 x 25 kick, RI=0:15
  • Cool Down
    • 200 @ low aerobic intensity

So about 1300 yards was on the schedule and I did AT LEAST 1350… I lost count several times as I was concentrating on other things so I did more… and more… and more… Probably ended up doing about 1450-1500 but I will stick to 1350.

Practiced my bi-lateral breathing a little bit.  Going to the left seems so awkward to me.  I feel like I can’t get a big enough breath.  Then I tried every 4th stroke breathing… That does not really work for me as by the time I get to the breath I am OUT OF BREATH and feel like I am about to hyperventilate.  Really felt some speed improvement today as I concentrated on reaching, pulling, twisting the hips and keeping my fingers spread a little instead of cupping them.  I also reduced my kick a little and that seemed to help.

The one thing I am concerned about is cramping.  During my kick routine I cramped up really bad in my calves… I mean REALLY bad!  I had to stop for about 5 minutes and work it out.  What worries me is that if that would have happened in an open water situation I would have been in a little bit of trouble.  I know in the back of my head that my swimming skills would have kept me afloat but I would have been standing still in the water for a while.

So my question to you is this: What causes muscle cramps while swimming?  Dehydration?  Not stretching properly?  Lack of nutrition? Something I need to figure out over the next few months.

On a side note, just got off the phone with a friend of mine who signed up for the South African Ironman in April… makes my whole “sprint” training seem so frivolous!

If you liked that post, then try these...

One year later and I have the numbers to prove it! on December 31st, 2010

Running for chocolate peanut butter ice cream on November 12th, 2010

Add these to your grocery list! on May 20th, 2010

Filed in: Sprint Training, Swimming, Triathlon • Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


I had the exact same thing happen last night. My coach said it helps to not push off the wall too hard, so I went very gently the rest of the swim, but I’m not convinced that’s the answer. It still hurts like hell. I’ll be following your blog to see if you figure anything out.


It is funny that you mentioned pushing off the wall. Leading up to that massive cramp, I had been noticing that as well. Then, when I was doing the kick drills is when it really showed it’s ugly face. So there is something linked to that for triggering it.

Doing some online research I found the following:

A cramp is caused by anything that interferes with the muscle’s natural ability to contract and relax. Take a foot spasm, for example. When feet are flexed for propulsion while swimming or when tight bedsheets force your toes downward, the muscle tendons become overstretched and the nerves extending through your foot and into your calf can become hyperexcitable. When this happens, the nerve signals become confused, according to Robert Nirschl, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. The result: a painful cramp. “Your muscles may get the message to contract, but not to relax,” he explains.

Profuse perspiration can also cause a muscle cramp. Heavy sweating drains your body of important minerals: potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium. These minerals, called electrolytes, carry electrical charges to the nerves that control a muscle’s impulse to contract and relax. Lack of fluids can upset the delicate balance of electrolytes, causing nerve signals to misfire.

If you’ve actually injured a muscle from overuse, a cramp may go into a continuous contraction, or spasm. While “cramp” and “spasm” are often used interchangeably, a spasm generally means the muscle fibers have “locked up” to protect the injured muscle.

All cramping for me is associated with either hydration or insufficient stretching. I’ve been cramping more recently as I’m doing new drills and am not familiar with the right technique. Calf stetches pre-swim helped in that situation. For longer swims >45 minutes, I hydrate mid-swim. I keep a water bottle at the end of the lane and drink in rest periods.
For bilateral breathing there are good drills that help you develop it. I found superman drill (essentially a kick drill with no board, you do a pull and breath alternating each side.) Also the catch up drill forced a better technique by only taking breaths on the difficult side. I’m pleasantly suprised how well I can breath bilaterally now. I haven’t tried increasing, i.e every 5 or 7 strokes, but every 3 strokes is cake for me now.Good luck.

I think I was a victom of not being hydrated AND insufficent stretching. I do hydrate during the swim but it has been so hot lately that it really does not go very far, I don’t think. I will concentrate more on calf stretches to see if that helps.

I will work on some of those bilateral breathing drills you mentioned. Thanks!


Leave a Comment

Next Triathlon / Duathlon

Email Subscribe

2013 Sponsors

2013 Charity

Video of the Week

My Race Calendar

2013 Upcoming Races
Labor Day Duathlon
9/1/13, Coconut Creek, FL
Short Course Duathlon Nationals
10/26/13, Tuscon / Oro Valley, Arizona
Turkey Duathlon
11/28/13, Coconut Creek, FL
Space Coast Half-Marthon
12/1/13, Cocoa, Florida
Last Chance Duathlon
12/14/13, Naples, FL
Jingle Bell Jog 5K
12/21/13, Sunrise, FL
2013 Completed Races
Ragnar Relay, Florida Keys (Ultra)
January 4-5, 2013, Miami to Key West, FL
Results: 32:59:17
Disney Family 5k
Orlando, FL, 1/11/13
Results: 18:41
Disney 1/2 Marathon
(Goofy Challenge)
Orlando, FL, 1/12/13
Results: 01:32.02
Disney 20th Anniversary Marathon
(Goofy Challenge)
Orlando, FL, 1/13/13
Results: 03:30:41
A1A Marathon
2/17/13, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Results: 3:10:11   --   BOSTON QUALIFIED!
2014 Scheduled Races
A1A Marathon
2/16/14, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Boston Marathon, Boston, MA
4/21/14, Boston, MA
Cellcom Green Bay Marathon
5/18/14, Green Bay, WI
Standard Distance Duathlon
World Championships
TBA, Pontevedra, Spain
Ironman Wisconsin, Madison, WI
September, 2014
Click Here For Archived Race Results

Recent Runs

  • 06/05/2016 - 8.68/MI - 1:14:22 - 08:34/MI
  • 05/27/2016 - 5.23/MI - 40:59 - 07:50/MI
  • 05/25/2016 - 4.07/MI - 33:23 - 08:12/MI

Personal Running Records

  • 05:39 Fastest 1mi
  • 18:11 Fastest 5k
  • 38:52 Fastest 10k
  • 1:21:49 Fastest Half Marathon
  • 3:02:29 Fastest Marathon
  • 27.31/MI Farthest Distance
  • 3:54:50 Longest Run


So if you have read any of the blog thus far you know a little bit about me… I can not be told what to do and I push myself about as far as I can be pushed!

But how did I get here and why? Well, that is what this page is about.

I was never really the athletic type. Sure, I played tennis in high school (and quite well, mind you) but running CERTAINLY was never my thing!

The start of 2009 was big for me as I came to the realization that I had put on too much weight over the past 10 years (read more...)