How to Get Rid of Leg Cramps During Freestyle Swimming Kick Sets

We sometimes get questions from swimmers about leg cramps during kick sets. What causes them? More importantly, how do you get rid of them?

Swim Speed Workouts: Proper Freestyle Kicking Technique
Proper Freestyle Kicking Technique

Sheila Taormina gives this advice for avoiding cramps during kick sets:

Be a flexible kicker: Men especially have cramping issues in their legs (whether it be foot, calf, or hamstring), and often it is because they go a bit too rigid in the muscle as they try to get power.

Kick with tone, not too much tension: Feel the water on the top of your foot and hold just enough tension to give dynamic energy to the down-kick. Try to hold no more than 20 pounds of tension (preferably only hold 10-15 pounds) in the leg muscles. 10-15 pounds of tension is equivalent to having athletic tone in the muscles without “trying too hard.”

Kick from the core: The power from the kick should come from the lower abdominal muscles, especially the psoas. If swimmers concentrate on transferring power from their core, they will be using the appropriate set of muscles to get a powerful kick.

Kick with small, quick kicks: Swimmers should kick in small, tight motions, not big kicks. Many triathletes try to get the leg super deep on the down-kick, which makes for a slow, plodding kick and also causes them to bend on the up-kick. Keep the legs closer together, which should encourage a small, quick kick and straighter legs.

Kick with a straighter (not straight) leg: Another likely cramping culprit is bending the knee too much during the up-kick phase, which engages the hamstring. Instead, swimmers can clench their glute muscle to engage the glute, which should result in a straighter up-kick. Then bend the knee only at the top of the up-kick just before beginning the bent-knee down-kick. This may eliminate the cramping problem.

Build kicking fitness: Finally, I’d encourage people to commit to kicking. Kicking stabilizes the body so the arms have leverage for a strong underwater pull. A propulsive kick will help them swim faster. Oftentimes, cramping during kick sets is due simply to muscles that aren’t ready. Swimmers who don’t have a strong kick will need to slowly build their muscle strength and the neuromuscular firing patterns before kick sets will start to feel like a normal part of each swimming workout. If a swimmer is really struggling with the kick sets or cramping, they should ignore fast and sprint kicking sets until they’ve built their kicking base/strength. Instead, go easy on all the kicking sets for the next 2-3 weeks and then try some faster kicking later in the program to see if the muscles have strengthened.

Stay hydrated: You can get dehydrated while swimming. Cool pool water helps dissipate waste heat from your body, but a body warm from exercise will sweat, even in the pool, even if you don’t feel like you are hot or sweating. Swimmers on the Swim Speed Workouts program need a bottle of water and a bottle of sports drink on the pool deck with them. If you swim in the morning, make sure to get properly fueled and hydrated before your swim workout. And if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, try to drink the amount your body is accustomed to.

Take a multivitamin: If you’re medically cleared to take a multivitamin, topping off your body’s reserves of vitamins and minerals may help avoid cramps.

Work on flexibility: For some, flexibility is a controversial topic in endurance sports. Researchers have found conflicting evidence about how flexibility affects performance and injury rates, but much of what age-group athletes practice is informed by the practices of professional athletes. And a majority of pro athletes embrace various forms of stretching. Whatever your opinion on flexibility, members of the Test Team have found that stretching after exercise or periodically throughout the week has helped avoid cramping.

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