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Avoiding foot cramp when swimming

Usually felt after a freestyle kick or a turn, foot cramp in swimming is a short, sharp muscle spasm at the sole of the foot. It can be relieved with a bit of stretching but it makes it very difficult to continue.

And it’s not a problem confined to the pool. Foot cramping is one of the most common complaints during open water swimming and triathlons.

We asked British Swimming physiotherapist Carl Butler to explain why you might be cramping and the keys to avoiding foot cramp.

Anatomy of a kick

Cramp occurs when a muscle is fatigued and overused, when a swimmer is dehydrated and has a electrolyte deficit or if the muscle is tight from a previous session.

The plantar fascia is a fibrous, connective tissue which surrounds the muscles in the sole of foot.

It stretches from the toes to the heel and works closely with the main calf muscles in the back of the lower leg – the gastrocnemius, soleus and the tibalis posterior.

These are the main muscles involved in pointing the foot and toes during streamlining and kicking. Cramp in any of them will be felt in the back of the lower leg or the sole of the foot.

Prevention

The first thing to remember is to stay hydrated, not just with water but with electrolytes, and to eat the right things to help your body before and after training.

Secondly, stretching is vital for maintaining flexibility in your muscles. It should be included in your warm-up and warm-down for pool and land-based sessions.

Specific muscle stretches

Try these stretches for the individual muscles on the calf and foot – hold each stretch for two minutes in 10, 20 or 30 second intervals.

  1. Gastrocnemius stretch – stand with one leg in front of the other and lean against a wall. Bend your front leg and keep your back leg straight with your heel on the floor until you feel the muscle stretch in the back of the lower leg between your heel and knee.
  2. Soleus stretch – stand with one leg in front of the other and lean against a wall. Bend both knees and transfer your weight to your back leg, ensuring you keep the heel of your back leg on the floor. You should feel the muscle stretch in the back of the lower leg.
  3. Plantar Fascia stretch – stand with one leg in front of the other with the toes of your front foot on or up against a raised platform (such as a step or a wall). Bend both knees until you feel the stretch in the sole of your front foot.
  4. Alternative plantar fascia relief – roll your foot over a golf or hockey ball. If you find this too painful, try it in warm water to help the muscles relax more.
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