Questions About Open Water Swimming: 3) What If You Get a Cramp?

I am doing a series of posts in which I answer questions my (non-swimming) friends have asked me about open water swimming. One of these questions is, “What if you get a cramp?” But no one ever asks me this question calmly; they usually ask it like this: “WHAT IF YOU GET A CRAMP???!!!11!?”

Let me allay your concerns. A cramp does not turn you to rock and cause you to sink inexorably to your death.

The Thing is covered with rock, and he can swim and fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position
The Thing is huge and covered with rock, and not only can he swim, he can fight Namor at the same time. He must have excellent body position.

A cramp is just an annoyance, not a crisis.

I get cramps every once in a while, more often in pools than in open water (more on that in a bit), and here’s what I do when I get one that I can’t ignore:

  1. I stop whatever I’m doing.
  2. I do something else.
  3. If 1 and 2 do not solve the problem, I gently stretch the cramping muscle. And then
  4. I get on with the swimming.

I am not a medical professional. I can only tell you what it’s like being me living in my body. But I have never had a cramp that required me to get help — or even to get out of the water. I do steps 1-4 while floating.

When you train, you learn how your body works and what your issues are. For me, I get cramps in my calves or in my feet, and I get them during or soon after kick sets or after pushing off the wall. A change in activity is usually the precipitating event: maybe the kick set goes fine, but when I push off the wall in the next set, a calf cramps up. One crazy day in September this year, I swam 15,000 yards in a 25 yard pool — not my first choice of venue — and by the end my calves would cramp with every push off. But that was a day of several hundred turns. It was not a normal day.

More to the point, in open water, there are no kick sets or walls, and, as a result, I almost never get cramps in open water. In fact, I can only think of one time I got a cramp during an open water swim. Again, the trigger was a sudden change in activity. I was nearing the end of a two mile race and looking for the finish; I did a quick whip kick after two miles of steady flutter, and one of my calves cramped up tight. So I shook the leg out and kept swimming, cursing heartily. I lost a little time, and I may have offended some delicate sensibilities, but the cramp itself was not a big deal.

Preventing cramps is better than dealing with them when they come. I’m pretty sure that dehydration contributed to the cramp during the race: it happened at the end of a swim in a warm lake in August. A two mile swim is not long enough to require hydration mid-race, but I probably should have had more fluids beforehand. In a longer race (like the two ten-milers I’ve done) either you’ll have a kayaker along to hand you liquids or there will be hydration stations on the course. You should stay hydrated at practice too. You don’t notice yourself sweating in the water, but you do. Have a good drink before you start, and put a water bottle on the side of the pool for breaks.

While we’re on the subject, the claim that you must wait an hour after eating to swim or risk deadly stomach cramps is complete and utter nonsense. I eat as I walk over to the pool. Sometimes I eat on the pool deck. During a long swim, I eat while floating on my back in the middle of the water. We all do. And swimmers regularly eat through swim meets. You can eat your lunch and go right to swim. Be sure to have a good-sized glass of water with it.

Finally, if you have a medical crisis of any kind during a open water race, you will have support boats on the course to assist you. If you actually do turn to rock, perhaps they won’t be much help. But I’m willing to take the risk. Happy swimming!


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