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Stop that cramp!

Four causes -- and solutions -- for muscle cramps during exercise

You're beating the heat with a swimming workout, when suddenly, in the middle of the pool, your foot cramps. Ouch!

Cramping problems plague many swimmers. According to Jessica Seaton, D.C., a chiropractic orthopedist and chair of the United States Masters Swimming (USMS) sports medicine committee, cramping most commonly involves the feet or calves, although the quadriceps or hamstrings are sometimes affected.

"Muscle cramps can occur whether or not one is in shape, but it's more common when people are getting back into shape," Seaton said. "That's why we tend to see more people standing on the side of the lane, in agony, grabbing their feet or calves, during the early season in spring or summer."

The most common causes for swimming-related cramps are the following:

1. Dehydration: Our bodies continue to perspire while in the water. Some people lose more fluids than others, and therefore also require more water.

Treatment:

2. Fatigue: As the muscles fatigue, there is an increased tendency for cramping, although the exact mechanism is still being debated. Suffice it to say that anecdotally, swimmers report fewer cramps as they get in better shape and when they incorporate a good stretching routine.

Treatment:

3. Electrolyte Deficiencies: Most people who eat properly meet daily requirements for nutrients, including electrolytes, but sometimes intake is not sufficient for the amount and type of exercise we perform. The most commonly implicated electrolytes are potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Treatment:

4. Swimming in Cold Water: Though less common, some people are sensitive to cold water and find that it causes them to cramp.

Treatment:

"Once a muscle is cramping, about the only thing you can do is to stretch it and massage it until it relaxes and lets go," Seaton said. "Some people find that icing the muscle helps as well."

It is important to remember that if leg cramps persist, one should definitely see a medical doctor. Serious underlying disorders, such as vascular disorders or other problems, may be causing the cramps.

first published on the USMS web site's News Bulletin page on June 17, 2004