Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Weird Cramp

Last week I started a twice-a-week swim conditioning classes at a local pool. Thursday I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one session with the coach to work on my form since the other three students did not attend. The classes are capped at nine students, so we’re all pretty lucky to have a small class in the first place.

But a weird thing happened at class last night that has me really confused and still uncomfortable today. Near the end of practice, after doing 150 yards of front crawl sprints with short rests between each length, I got a stitch in my side and told the coach I had a cramp. I’m a slow swimmer and have never practiced sprints before, so I wasn’t surprised by the development. I mentioned it because I wouldn’t be able to continue swimming hard for the last few minutes of class.

‘A cramp? Where?’ he asked, confused that I pointed to my side, right where you get them while running too. A pool employee came over and asked if I was sure it wasn’t in my legs. No, I told him. Side cramp, pain. And they both vociferously assured me that wasn’t a cramp, couldn’t be a cramp; you could only get cramps in your legs; you don’t even use those abdominal muscles while swimming. It must be your liver or lack of oxygen due to poor fitness. Definitely not a cramp.

I didn’t want to argue with them, one of whom I know is a swimmer with many accolades to his name; I just wanted to not sprint full tilt against my classmates anymore for the last five minutes of class. So I nodded, got some water, sat out a lap, and took the kickboard to do a slow cool-down lap.

I was confused and uncomfortable because I know it is a cramp. I’m among the 70% of runners who have experienced side cramps; I just hadn’t had one while swimming laps before. It’s a diaphragm cramp caused by a combination of too shallow breaths/too little oxygen plus movement and sometimes weak abs. Swimming is a full-body workout, and my abs sure are feeling it today. I just learned that all strokes engage your abdominal muscles. I struggle with swimming because I run out of breath long before my muscles fatigue, and sprinting surely exacerbates the issue: movement + shallow breathing/insufficien oxygen.

So it makes sense that I might get a stitch in my side while swimming several hard laps. What doesn’t make sense is the complete refutation that it could even be possible. Cramp or no, the logical conclusion is that something about my form needs improvement. And the coach had been continuously telling me what I could focus on and improve in each lap.

I worked hard, I pushed myself, and I got a cramp. Why was it such a big deal?

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