Leg & Foot Cramps when Swimming

Ever been half way through a hard swim or kick set and suddenly your calf tightens up? Well, that type of cramping is such a common complaint with new triathletes. The good news is that it is quite easy to diagnose and also easy to fix, if you can be honest about what you feel.


The whole issue of cramp in the water can be summed up simply by the inappropriate action of plantar flexing your foot.  

a) Stand on one leg on dry land while trying to perform small kicking flicks with the foot. Aim to let the ankle simply flick around like a leaf in the wind as you shake the leg quickly up and down (just a small movement). If you can honestly see that your ankle IS relaxed and does flick around as you move the rest of the leg, then this is a good sign. For most of us however, you will realize that you are in fact tensing the shin to pull up and then pointing down in order to move the foot. In this case, you have some major relaxing to learn in the water. This confirms the reason why cramps will be occurring – you are not relaxed through the ankles when kicking.

b) Get in the pool and kick with flippers on your back (arms sides, looking at the roof). Put your feelings in your ankles and kick slowly (look at the roof, not at your feet – a balance issue that will separately make you tense). Be honest about what you feel as you kick along slowly and ask the question – “Is my ankle totally relaxed or am I consciously / unconsciously trying to control the flipper by tensing somewhere?” If so, then you will find yourself tense in either the calf, or shin. This will be the cause, over time, a cramp. As above you need to learn how to relax.

1. Kick on your Back with Short Fins, and Learn to RELAX – short fins will demand that you let your ankle actually bend with the weight of the water as you kick up and down. If you don’t relax and let this happen then the result will be simple – you’ll get a cramp. So your aim is to let those ankles flick round in the water like they are floppy things on the end of your feet. Start by kicking slowly, which will ensure you stay aware of what is happening, and also help keep you relaxed.

There is a another very positive side to this – when you can learn to totally relax your ankles, the feet begin waving around in the water more and this allows you to pull backwards with the weight of water collecting on the top of the fins’ blade. This will produce more propulsion than if you are tense. So there are two benefits from being more relaxed (1) no cramp, and (2) faster kicking technique.

2. Be more progressive with hard swimming, short sprint work or hard kick sets. By taking slightly longer over the weeks to build your sprinting sets up, the stresses on the body are coped with better and you will have less chance of getting a cramp.

3. Stretch the ankle by regularly sitting on top of them (heels together). As you improve the range of movement your ankle has, so will kicking be that much easier. It just takes dedication over time for your ankle flexibility to improve.