The Swim Genius has been surrounded with the topic of cramps these days. Specifically those swimmer cramps that start in the ridge of your foot, crawl up the back of your les and settle painfully into your calves. They suck, and we all know that feeling: the choice to stop on the wall and stretch it, or keep going? Then you in open water, and there’s no wall, shore is two miles off, and no hope of touching bottom. In this case stopping is the worst thing you can do because if it locks, you’re in real trouble.
So, The Swim Genius decided to compile all of the tips and tricks that he’s heard into one article so that you no longer have to swim in pain, and/or search endless boards for good advice. The first, and The Swim Genius believes most applicable is; “Train as you intend to compete”. What does that mean? The fins, and pull buoy that you love so much are a crutch, and are probably doing more harm than good. If you want to build your legs, push off the wall harder, kick in a six beat, kick board in ways other than those you were taught, swim sprints, squats, lunges, and if you want to build your shoulders, get a set of paddles. The fins, and pull buoy change the stress points and position of your ankle. They don’t strengthen your kick, as much as they harm your natural ability to kick. When you are swimming without them, the stress points that you are not accustomed to can trigger cramps. Train with pointed toes, and kick from the hip. If you have stiff ankles, not only will you be prone to cramping, but you’ll be a very slow kicker, and may even move backwards. This is because your feet knife at the water, and in place of propulsion, you get resistance. Stretch the ankles with exercises, the most famous, it spell your upper case ABC’s with your ankles twice a day.
It’s a nice Segway to discuss a foam roller. This is an absolute must if you are prone to cramping. It’s especially helpful for calves in the middle of the night when restless legs are haunting your sleep. It’s much like a foam torture chamber at first because it puts a lot of pressure on a balled muscle (Ouch!). As that muscle becomes more relaxed, it becomes more compliant, and less likely to cramp. Get a three foot by six inch version so that you can also use it for your back, front, side, other side etc…
Let’s stay with the physical / therapeutic items and talk for a moment about magnets. Neo Magnets are those really strong suckers that come with warning labels. This is for good cause as you can injure yourself with them if they splinter. With that said, that same strength is amazing when it comes to therapy. Why? Your red blood cells, and the iron in them. How does it work? Simply tape a magnet to the site of the pain, it will soon tingle, and as it gorges the site with healing blood cells, the muscle will begin to let go. This happens because a wet muscle simply cannot stay balled up. The Swim Genius used these for a long time over night, but has since found a better solution for restless legs. Tip, use overnight for best results, and make sure that they have two inches between magnets, they will contract if any closer (Ouch!). I’ve also tucked magnets into compression sleeves with good results. Compression sleeves work by removing stationary blood, and creating room for new blood-flow. As a side effect they limit the inflow of blood, sometimes this is a good thing (recovery, and decreasing lactic acid stores), sometimes it’s not a good thing (a locking cramp). Compression sleeves can help to prevent cramps by limiting lactic acid buildup, but if a cramp insists on formation, they may do little to help relieve the symptoms.
What works better than magnets for restless legs? Tonic water. Why? Quinine. Fact; drug companies attempted to market Quinine as a drug for restless leg syndrome and the pill form was too strong. With that said, drinking 8-12 ounces of tonic water before bed increases circulation and knocks out the cramps. The Swim Genius even mixed nutrition over tonic water for ultra-marathon swims to keep the cramps at bay. It doesn’t taste great, but The Swim Genius willing to suck it up if there's no cramping.
As it directly relates, let’s talk about professional services around body work. It may be expensive, but there is a place for massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic services. As an athlete, you are putting your body through a daily test, and imbalances are inevitable. Sometimes you just got to get straightened out, and balanced by a professional. As with anything there are cheaper, yet still effective alternatives. They don’t always provide the same efficacy, but never the less here they are available options. In place of acupuncture check out an acupressure mat, it’s like laying down on the bottom of a really big golf shoe, but it increases blood flow. Magnets and cupping also help along the lines of acupuncture / acupressure. The general idea that prevails through them all is to make your body think it’s injured and pool blood to the site of treatment. This idea also is an effective way to prevent or release cramps.
Now for detox: diet is the most important factor here, but if you insist on eating like a "Standard American Diet" (SAD), then cramps will be more likely. A food tip to keep the capillaries open, greens, and foods that are bitter, stay away from the sweets and you’ll be less likely to cramp. If you insist on a hamburger and fries every day for lunch, look into an ionic foot bath to try and get rid of some of those toxins that will inevitably benefit cramps. It’s also good for flushing the lactic acid buildup that comes along with the cramp itself. Along with diet comes the old standby remedies, bananas, coconut water, every sport supplement that utilizes salt, and salt tabs. In short, Magnesium, Potassium, and Sodium. Too much sodium can be bad too, but its good in athletic moments for cramp prevention.
Last, and in my opinion least, take drugs, please consider this is a short term remedy, long term, they lose efficacy, and you damage the very body you are trying to maintain. Swim strong! Have Fun!
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