Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Plaqued by Muscle Cramps?

Plagued by Muscle Cramps?



Muscle Cramps illustration. (small)By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Josh was a devoted swimmer and never missed a practice, morning or night. But he was having problems with muscle cramps. His calf muscle would tighten up during laps, and it was painful. Sometimes it was his feet or a hamstring, or a side stitch in his abdomen.

Like Josh, up to 95% of the general population are affected by exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMC). When muscles are in the shortened, contracted state, cramps are more likely to occur. Muscle cramping in humans occur more frequently after exercise or competition.

Traditionally, most people think muscle cramps are caused by sweating too much, causing dehydration and loss of important electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Defining “sweating too much” in the swimmer can be tricky, as many swimmers don’t feel sweat in the water. The common advice to prevent cramps has been to load up on potassium-rich foods such as banana or potato, or guzzle large amounts of sports drinks.

But research has been slim in proving dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities are the root cause of muscle cramps. This is partly due to the difficulties in re-enacting similar exercise conditions causing muscle cramping in the lab setting, and because they tend to be spontaneous and unpredictable. Researcher Kevin C. Miller has found that cramps in mildly dehydrated athletes who were minimally fatigued “were not likely caused by dehydration.”

Neuromuscular fatigue (muscle exhaustion), which stems from overuse and inadequate rest, is another theory for muscle cramps. Muscle exhaustion is on a continuum, so each athlete has his own point at which muscle exhaustion occurs. Researchers believe the muscle exhaustion theory is the reason some athletes cramp up and others don’t. When a muscle is extremely tired, mechanisms within the muscle start to misfire. Small nerves that should keep the muscle from over-contracting malfunction, causing the muscle to bunch up rather than relax.

What are the best solutions for preventing muscle cramps?

Adequate Fluids
Make sure you get enough fluids throughout the day; before practice, during and after it’s over. For more about hydration, read this: Fluid for Thought

Foods rich in potassium and sodium
If you don’t eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables and dairy products (or non-dairy substitutes), you may need to revamp your diet. Foods with high potassium content are banana, potato, tomato, white beans, sweet potato, chocolate milk and OJ.
Nearly all foods have sodium, but good sources are anything salty like pretzels or crackers (but watch the chips!). Just beware that immediate relief is unlikely to occur—it takes time to digest food!

Pickle juice
Kevin C. Miller has studied the effects of pickle juice on athletes. He suspects the vinegar in pickle juice, not sodium, activates the nerve receptors in muscle tissue and disrupts the reflex commotion in the muscles. More research is needed to prove this an effective course of action, but those who have had success with it, swear by it.

Training adjustments
Out-of-shape swimmers who dive into intense exercise may struggle with muscle cramps. Build up your mileage slowly, adding strength training focused on muscles that have cramped in the past.

Stretching is the most common advice and most effective for relieving muscle cramping, but this might not be effective for heat-related cramping. Develop a stretching routine as part of your workout to minimize cramps.

Miller KC et al. Exercise-associated muscle cramps. Causes, treatment and prevention. Sports Health. 2010; 2(4): 279-283.

Top Resources for Sports Nutrition

Top Resources for Sports Nutrition



Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD

The two most frequently asked questions I get from swimmers (and parents of swimmers) are, “Can you provide a detailed food plan for me (or my swimmer)?” and “Where can I learn more about nutrition for swimmers?”

The first question, providing a food plan, is best referred to a local sports dietitian nutritionist who is licensed in the state where the swimmer lives. A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who has sports nutrition expertise (credentialed as a certified sports dietitian or CSSD) can provide an individualized nutrition plan to meet growth and development demands of young swimmers while supporting training and competition.

The RDN can also ensure that energy needs are met with the best ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat with adequate vitamins and minerals tailored to the age, gender and activity of a swimmer.

While many personal trainers try to provide nutrition advice, it is often outside the scope of their practice and training. In my 25+ years of experience as a sports dietitian, it is my opinion that personal trainers just don’t have the depth of knowledge in nutrition to provide nutrition consulting to athletes.

To find a qualified sports nutritionist, connect to the website of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) and search in the “Find a SCAN RD” window. The website for SCAN is

The second question on finding resources is easy. However, don’t just “Google” sports nutrition, because you may get a lot of links to websites trying to sell you supplements you don’t need. Try these resources instead. For books, check out these recommendations:

Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th edition, published by Human Kinetics (2014 copyright).

Suzanne Girard Eberle’s Endurance Sports Nutrition, 3rd edition, published by Human Kinetics (2014 copyright).

Jill Castle’s Fearless Feeding, published by Jossey-Bass, (2013 copyright), and author of sports nutrition articles on this website.

For online resources, check out the United States Olympic Committee’s sports nutrition resources at  You will find many resources here including videos, recipes, and athlete eating guidelines. I especially like the athlete’s plates – a quick visual on what to eat on easy, moderate or hard days of training.

SCAN has free sports nutrition fact sheets on a wide range of topics at and mom and dad may also want to look at the handouts on the cardiovascular and wellness sites of SCAN.

The Australian Institute of Sport has been a leader in sports nutrition for Australian athletes. You don’t have to go down under to take advantage of their expertise; just go to to see the many free resources to help you with a healthy eating plan and to learn more about good nutrition.

Chris Rosenbloom is the sports nutrition consultant for Georgia State University Athletics and is the editor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition, 2012. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at

Five ways to Make the Most of a Bad Practice

5 Ways to Make the Most of a Bad Practice
3 Hannah Saiz | October 17th, 2013 |

Let's face it: having a bad meet is no fun, but the daily grind of practices is what can really bring us down. What's the best way to deal when the going gets rough?  

Some days, practice makes you feel like you could break world records with both eyes closed and your feet tied behind your back. Just give me a wall to push off, coach, and I can do anything!  Those days are pure awesome, that leave you feeling accomplished when you climb out of the water, ready to break a Guinness World Record in one handed pushups.

And then there are the days when if you can finish to the wall without being lapped four times in a 200 free, you consider yourself lucky. We’ve all been there, and every athlete has taken a look at practice when they weren’t feeling their best and said, Nope. That’s not happening today, coach.

But what can you do when you’re not feeling your best in the water? Putting in two hours of dogged back and forth grind focusing on how badly you feel isn’t going to be an effective use of resources – you’re wasting your time, and your energy. So, aside from crawling out of the pool and begging for a day off, what can you do?

1) Relax
For some people, this sounds like a given. For others, you’re already too busy pounding away on your body, trying to make it go faster for the word relax to make any sense. Relax? you’ll ask. But I’m barely making the send off!
Thing is, there’s some truth to the notion that the harder you try, the harder it is to go fast. Sometimes – often times – 95% is faster than all out. That’s not saying that relaxation is a cure for all evils of off days. Occasionally you will just have a day where you’re not up to breaking world records in practice. Being able to relax and enjoy the process anyway is key to getting yourself through workout, maintaining a positive mindset so you don’t disrupt teammates.

2) Find a friend
Maybe there was a practice once upon a time in some awesome alter universe where every athlete in the pool was busy being at their all time best. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. If you are having an off day, chances are someone else is, too. If you are usually the lane leader and suddenly find yourself displaced because today just isn’t going your way, there may be a friend back in the ranks who can pace you out to your 100% effort that day. Whoever it is, cheer for them, and they’ll cheer for you too. I can’t count the number of times where teammates have “gotten me through” a practice, by cheering and being willing to help push me and themselves to whatever our best is for the day.

3) Change it up
So you’re a breaststroker and all your tempos and times are off today. Or maybe you usually do long freestyle, but you can’t hold onto any water. Whatever your main stroke is, and whatever speed you’re supposed to be going can act as a rut. If you find yourself stuck doing mediocre times and can’t get your turnover to be “right,” try doing a repeat of something else. If you’re supposed to be sprinting 50s of fly and can’t manage today, try doing a 50 or two of backstroke. See if you can shake yourself out of the rut by resetting the system. Occasionally your main stroke just needs a day off.

4) Switch the focus
So you can’t relax. There’s no one going nearly as slowly as you are today. Your breaststroke didn’t get any better by trying some backstroke, and now there’s a killer aerobic set waiting in the wings. You’re ready to give up and call practice what it obviously is today – a waste of time.
Don’t. Sure, everyone else is going to be going after 18x150s on 1:40 like bats from hell, but you aren’t going to focus on making the time. If your body isn’t going to cooperate in speed, you can find some other way to make the workout into a time to improve. How many flip turns are there in 18x150s? 90.  Time to focus on turns. Focus on breakouts. Focus on not breathing into or out of the wall. You get caught? Work hard to make the other person swim around you. Try to make every third 150. Master three dolphin kicks off each wall. Pick something to turn this into a game, and let a little automated video-game voice in your head narrate what you’re doing.
If it’s not exactly what coach intended when she wrote the set? Hey – at least you got something out of it.

5)  Look forward
“How was your set today?”
How many times do you hear that and want to say that practice today was worse than being forced to run a marathon backwards in a snow-tornado-blizzard wearing a two piece and no socks? Better than focusing on how not-your-best today was, look to the next workout, whether that’s tomorrow morning or this coming afternoon and say, full of conviction, “The next one will be better.”

Anyone have other ways to deal when the going gets rough?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Importance of Stretching Before Exercises

Importance of Stretching Before Exercises

 | By Gina Belleme 

Many active individuals believe stretching is not an important part of any exercise program and it can be skipped all together. However this is not true --- stretching can improve your flexibility, reduce risk of injury and improve your overall quality of life. By adding stretches that focus on all major muscle groups before you exercise, you will get more out of your workout and decrease muscular soreness afterward.


Stretching increases your flexibility. Increased flexibility can improve your physical performance during exercise and everyday life while reducing your risk of injuries by increasing the range of motion in your joints. As you age, your flexibility decreases, thus making your body stiffer and less mobile. By incorporating stretching into your routine you can counteract this process and maintain your current flexibility.

Other Benefits

Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles, which is important for exercise because it increases mobility and prevents your muscles from tiring too soon. Stretching can be beneficial throughout the day. For example, if your neck muscles are tight at work you can gently stretch them to release tension and prevent headaches. If you are experiencing soreness from a previous workout, stretching before your next workout can alleviate some of the muscular stiffness.

Proper Stretching

When you incorporate stretching into your exercise routine it is important to follow certain guidelines while stretching to avoid any onset of injury. Many believe stretching is considered a warmup; consequently stretching cold muscles can make you prone to injury. You should warm up with light activity --- walking or jogging --- before performing your stretches. According to, avoid any bouncing-type movements; these can cause small tears in your muscles. When stretching, you should hold the stretch for 30 seconds before releasing. It is important to stretch both sides of your body. For example, if you stretch your right quadriceps, you should also stretch your left quadriceps.


Stretching after your workout is equally as important as stretching before. Since it increases blood flow to your muscles, stretching afterward can lessen muscular soreness and aid in muscle recovery. If you already have an injury stretching it may not be best because it can cause more strain and prolong the injury. states stretching may not prevent all injuries, for an example you can still suffer from an overuse injury. You should consult with your physician about the best stretches for you if you have any health concerns.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How to Stay Hydrated During Practice

How to Stay Hydrated During Practice


Hydration Illustration.By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Dear Splash,
My coach had a lecture for us about drinking things like soda and Gatorade during practice. He asked us to send a letter to the editor asking this question, "What should we drink during a swimming practice and how often?"

Drinking fluids during practice is very important, yet many swimmers save drinking for after practice. And, there can be barriers. My own daughter has complained stating, There isn’t enough time, Mom. Nobody else does it, why should I? The breaks are our time for talking and it’s awkward.

All the experts and all the science points to the importance of drinking fluids during practice, especially if muscles are to perform their best and the body can endure the demands of a long practice.

When figuring out what to drink, it’s all about the duration of practice.

For one-hour sessions or less, swimmers can drink and stay hydrated with plain water. But, when swimming sessions last more than an hour, swimmers need to replace the primary sweat nutrients, sodium and chloride, as well as consume some carbohydrate to improve endurance and keep muscles fueled. This can be accomplished with a beverage containing electrolytes and carbohydrate, such as a sports drink.

Most sports drinks provide a blend of sugars, maximizing the carbohydrate uptake to muscles, and come in concentrations of 4 to 9% solution (or 14 to 19 grams per 8 ounce serving size). There has been research in young athletes showing that sports drinks containing 8% carbohydrate may cause gastrointestinal upset, so lower concentrations may be better tolerated.

Fitness waters and enhanced water don’t provide enough carbohydrate for a long workout, and soda and other sugary beverages such as juice drinks, sweet tea, or lemonade are to be avoided as they may cause stomach distress.

How often should swimmers consume fluids during practice?

We can look to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) who set three guidelines for fluid consumption during exercise for youth. They say:
  1. Appropriate fluid replacement should be available and consumed at intervals before, during, and after exercise. 
  2. Nine to 12-year-old children should replenish with ~3 to 8 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes, and adolescents may consume 32 to 48 ounces of fluid every hour. 
  3. For longer-duration activities (more than an hour), electrolyte-supplemented fluids, such as sports drinks, should be used to optimize hydration. 
While science tells us that swimmers should hydrate every 20 minutes, how does one make that happen in the pool? My advice is to bring drinks (with your name labeled on it) to the edge of the pool, at the end of the lane where you are swimming and being coached. At each pause in sets, or at a break, take two to three swigs of fluid (an average gulp of fluid is about one ounce).

Get practical:
  • For a young swimmer age 9-12 years, bring at least 12 ounces of water to the poolside for the first hour of practice, and another 12 ounces of sports drink if practice goes for two hours. 
  • For teens, enter practice hydrated and with good nutrition on board. Bring along a liter of water to consume the first hour of practice. After that, switch to a sports drink (bring a liter) to make sure you maintain hydration, keep your energy level up and enhance your endurance. 
  • Some swimmers don’t like the taste of sports drinks. Use other techniques to enhance hydration, such as watered down 100% fruit juice, water and a salty food such as pretzels, or a sports gel and lots of water. 
Are you staying hydrated during practice?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Should Swimmers Eat Before Early Morning Practice?

Should Swimmers Eat Before Early Morning Practice?
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

When early morning swim practices begin, young swimmers can get behind on eating.

Take Henry, for example.

He was afraid to eat before morning practice, fearful of cramps or getting sick. So he didn’t eat anything, and ate a protein bar after practice on his way to school. By the time he returned home, he was exhausted, beyond hungry and playing catch-up, eating nearly everything in sight.

Many young swimmers make the mistake of skipping out on the early morning pre-workout meal. But what they don’t realize is that these first foods set the day’s eating cycle in motion. There are three main reasons to eat before early morning practice: 
  • Prevents symptoms of low blood sugar, such as light-headedness, blurry vision and fatigue. 
  • Settles the stomach, absorbing the gastric juices associated with an empty stomach, and reduces hunger. 
  • Offers up fuel for the muscles and brain. 
Another benefit is it helps with appetite management throughout the day. Front-loading (eating early in the day) helps all individuals, whether athletic or not, manage their hunger and avoid “back loading” (eating large amounts late in the day). When swimmers complain of hunger and overeat at night, check on what is happening early in their day with nutrition. If meals are skipped or too light in calories, this may be the problem—and it’s easy to fix!

What to eat depends on individual tolerance, as some swimmers do well with a liquid breakfast, while others can handle solid food. The goal, however, is to get something nutritious in the stomach.

When choosing what to eat, swimmers should target foods that are high in carbohydrate (read carbohydrate article here), moderate in protein, and low in fat. Avoid nutrient-poor foods like candy, donuts, soda and other sugary breakfast items. Keep the portion small to prevent getting too full which can cause cramping, and eat thirty to sixty minutes prior to jumping in the pool.

For those who aren’t sure about what to eat, experiment with both liquid and solid foods. If eating an early morning pre-exercise snack isn’t working, swimmers can always try to eat well the day before and plan a nutritious pre-bedtime snack, which will carry over to the morning, contributing some energy availability for the workout.

Remember, the most important food rule to follow is this: choose foods that work for you! Solid foods or liquids work well. It simply depends on food preferences and tolerance. Below are some ideas to consider:

Solid foods
  • Banana, with or without a small swipe of peanut butter
  • Small package of trail mix
  • 4-6 ounces of fruited yogurt, or plain with added fruit
  • Granola bar
  • Fig Newtons
  • Toasted waffle
  • ¾ cup of cereal, with or without 1/3 to ½ cup of low fat milk
  • Whole wheat toast with jam
  • Friend bars (recipe below) 
  • Plain low fat or skim milk, or soymilk
  • Homemade fruit smoothie (1 cup frozen fruit, ½ cup yogurt, 4-6 ounces 100% juice)
  • Ovaltine or Carnation Instant Breakfast mixed with skim milk
  • Homemade dairy-based smoothie (1 cup low fat milk (or non-dairy substitute), 1 small banana, 3 strawberries, dollop of yogurt, and ice) 
Friend Bars (similar to KIND bars)
With permission from: Power Hungry: The Ultimate Energy Bar Cookbook by Camilla Saulsbury

  • 1 ½ cups chopped assorted raw or toasted nuts and/or seeds (e.g., cashews, sunflower seeds, green pumpkin seeds, peanuts, pecans) 
  • 1/3 cup crisp brown rice cereal 
  • ½ cup chopped dried fruit (e.g., raisins, apricots, dates, berries) 
  • 1/3 cup organic light corn syrup or brown rice syrup (can also substitute DIY Glucose Syrup—recipe in the book) 
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt (optional) 
  1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with foil or parchment paper and spray with non-stick cooking spray.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  3. Stir together the nuts or seeds, cereal, and dried fruit in a large bowl.
  4. Add the syrup and salt (if using) to the nut mixture and stir until evenly coated.
  5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Place a large piece of parchment paper, wax paper, or plastic wrap (coated with nonstick cooking spray) atop the bar mixture and use it to spread, flatten, and very firmly compact the mixture evenly in the pan. Discard the paper or plastic.
  6. Bake in the preheated oven for 17 to 20 minutes or until slightly browned at the edges, but still somewhat soft in the center.
  7. Using the liner, lift the mixture from the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 10 bars. Cool completely. 
Nutrients per bar: Calories 150, Fat 8.6 g, Carbs 17.6 g, Protein 3.8 g

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Staying Loose and Calm Pre-Race

Staying Loose and Calm Pre-Race

By Dr. Alan Goldberg//

Why are races won and lost before the start?
As I've said many times throughout this series, the BIGGEST secret to swimming your best when it counts the most is having the ability to stay loose and calm behind the blocks, right before your race. Far too many swimmers waste precious energy the minutes leading up to their event by thinking about and focusing on all of the wrong things. Because of this, they unknowingly undermine their confidence, get themselves overly nervous and set themselves up for failure.

The Devastating Effects Of Out Of Control Pre-Race Jitters
Ever wonder how you can run out of gas at the 150 mark of your 200, the very first race of your big meet? You've worked hard all season, you've got a solid training base, yet your arms and legs feel like lead and you're totally exhausted! What gives? You go 7 – 8,000 yards easily in practice and after a mere 150 you're wasted?! This is a direct result of a swimmer being far too nervous pre-race! If you're “over-amped” behind the blocks and thinking about the time you need, who you have to beat or, “what if you don't?,” then your breathing will get faster and shallower, your muscles will tighten up and the end result of these physical changes will be this feeling of premature exhaustion.

Controlling Your Eyes & Ears To Stay Calm Under Pressure
If you want to consistently swim to your potential under big meet pressure and avoid the devastating physical effects of excessive nerves, then you have to learn how to keep yourself physically and mentally composed at race time! One important way that you do this is by controlling your eyes and ears behind the blocks. This means that what you LOOK AT and LISTEN TO behind the blocks has to be only things that help keep you calm, loose and confident. For example, if focusing on another swimmer and how big or fast they look gets you nervous, you control your eyes by looking at spot behind the blocks or by defocusing your eyes as you look out across the pool. If listening to a conversation between one or more swimmers is getting you anxious, you control your ears by turning up the volume on your iPod or finding someone else to talk to about non-swimming related issues. Controlling your eyes and ears means that you need to establish set things that you look at and listen to right before your races.

How do you control your pre-race focus?
Every great athlete has a repeatable, familiar pre-performance ritual that they use leading up to the start of the action which helps them systematically control their eyes and ears. Your pre-race routine and what you do behind the blocks can help you stay in control of your focus and keep you calm during those critical minutes just before the start of your event. Your pre-race routine will give you very specific things for you to look at, listen to and do that will help distract you from the normal, anxiety-producing distractions that every swimmer has to face right before the start.

What You Need To Know To Develop An Effective Pre-Race Routine
There are several key points that you need to keep in mind whenever developing and using a pre-race ritual.
  • Keep your ritual SIMPLE. The less complicated, the better!
  • Make your ritual CONTROLLABLE. You should only have things in your ritual that you know you will always be able to control. For example, if your pre-race ritual depends upon looking at certain other people (coach/parent), they might not always be there for you and therefore are out of your control. However, stretching and adjusting your cap and/or goggles a certain way will always be in your control.
  • KEEP your ritual the SAME. You never want to change the steps of your ritual right before the race. Keeping things the same and familiar will help calm you down and keep you loose.
  • Build in VISUAL, AUDITORY and/or KINESTHETIC FOCAL POINTS to your ritual. Be sure that your routine has specific things that you look at (the back of the blocks, your goggles, your feet), listen to, (certain music, sound of your breathing or specific pre-race self-talk) and feel/do, (stretching a certain way, feeling your inhalation and exhalation, adjusting your cap and goggles).
  • Do what you're doing MENTALLY while you do it PHYSICALLY. Rituals are most effective when you keep your mental focus on the steps of the ritual while you go through them. In other words, while you're stretching behind the blocks, your concentration needs to be on the feel of the stretch. Rituals will not help you calm down if, while you go through them, your mind is elsewhere!
  • Understand the SOLE PURPOSE of any good ritual is to give you specific things to look at and listen to, which will distract you from the distractions. You don't do your pre-race ritual just for good luck. This is NOT about superstition. You go through this pre-race routine to calm yourself down, and most important, to help you control your eyes and ears. This means that if, for whatever reason, you have to leave a step out of the ritual, and you can't do what you always do, you understand that you can still perform your best in this upcoming race. The key is that you use whatever steps you do go through to keep yourself focused, loose and calm!