We’ve all had this at some stage in our Triathlon career…the unmistakable stabbing pain in your calf muscles or quads. Often it comes on inexplicably and it can be severe enough to force you to stop completely and attempt to stretch the affected muscles out. Stretching may provide some relief but the damage may have already been done and for the rest of the race it feels like you are right on the verge of having it happen again.
There are a number of possible causes for the cramping, and a quick google search will give seemingly infinite numbers of articles citing electrolyte imbalance, muscle fatigue, poor kicking technique, neurological dysfunction and so on. Whilst all these aetiologies have their merit, and should be considered, there is one potential cause that I don’t often see discussed….
Your body position created by swimming in a wetsuit in fresh water
Yes, it’s quite a long and very specific cause, but it’s something I have seen occur numerous times over my years of being a Triathlon Coach, and I feel there’s a fairly simple thing you can do to perhaps avoid it happening to you in the future.
This year at Ironman New Zealand I had a good friend (George) suffer severe cramping in his quads and calves, so bad that unfortunately he was unable to complete the swim leg. George travelled to race Ironman NZ from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A few years prior another good friend of mine, who incidentally was also from Pennsylvania, had similar severe cramping in the swim, and pulled out only 1 KM into the bike leg.
The common factor in both these athletes was that they had travelled to the race after a long block of training in the pool through a brutal Northern Hemisphere winter. No matter how many miles they logged in the pool they wouldn’t have performed many (if any) sessions in their wetsuits as it was the middle of winter. A lot of people don’t want to wear their wetsuit in the pool as it can get very hot, and there’s a chance the chlorine may damage the material.
Ironman New Zealand is swum in a fresh water lake, and is cool enough that wetsuits are compulsory. I believe if the lake was warm enough that wetsuits weren’t allowed they probably wouldn’t have had issues with cramping. A wetsuit places the swimmers hips and legs into a position that is quite different to that of a non-suited swimmer, and herein lies the problem. Wearing a wetsuit in the sea isn’t too bad, as there’s a bit more buoyancy than in fresh, but it still can be a problem. But your kick in fresh water may feel subtly different, forcing you to alter it slightly and possibly engaging your quads and hip flexors a bit more, and enough to place them under more stress than you’ve trained for.
One piece of equipment I find that does a great job of simulating the position created by a wetsuit is the bluseventy Core Short. These are neoprene shorts that provide lift to the hips, so you are able to use them in specific sets where you are getting close to or even over race pace. This allows the wearer to feel how their kick differs when held in the new position, and enable the necessary adaptations to get used to what race day will be like.
The shorts allow you to get a feel for your potential race pace, as most people will swim faster in them than not. However, here’s a word of warning….don’t use them in all sessions, for the whole session. You still need to perfect your body position unassisted, and the shorts will take away the necessary feedback of your hips sinking so you won’t recognise and correct.
So if you are planning a getaway race in a location where wetsuits are likely to be worn, and it’s not practical for you to wear your wetsuit in training I highly recommend having a pair of blueseventy Core Shorts in your swim bag.
Another cause of cramp could be a poorly fitted wetsuit. For tips on fitting your wetsuit correctly check out this video