I received the following email, and thought it was a great question for a post...
Question for you. Last week I did a Sprint, my second of the season. The water was 64 degrees but I had a wetsuit on. Both my calves cramped up very early into the swim. This has never happened before and I have been doing the shorter races for 20 years. Any thoughts? Thanks,
Thanks for the email. No one can be 100% certain what causes cramps and how to prevent them entirely, but here are a few things to consider from my experience..
1. Salt is not the cause. Don't believe the companies who want to market that to you.
2. Electrolytes as a whole are grossly overrated and overconsumed by athletes. Since this happened so early in the race, and it was such a short race, I doubt salt or electrolytes played any role. I know you didn't mention that, but I wanted to quickly confront that line of thinking.
3. Early in the year, coaches get approached by a lot of athletes worried about the cramping they are facing. By middle of the season, these emails dwindle. In the last 1/3rd of the season, I don't get emails about cramping. This signifies the real possibility that cramping is fitness related, on the whole.
4. Think about the muscles which cramp for you. Chances are, they are muscles which are normally tight, even when not under stress. I find these muscles are predisposed to cramping, since they already fight tension. If you were tensing your muscles during the swim, from perhaps the cooler water temps, it makes sense this would cause some cramping. I think this is even more likely if you were pointing your toes, kicking hard during the swim.
Of course, some will disagree, but the more I research this, the more I believe those 4 things.