Muscle cramps happen when a muscle is "stuck" in a contracted state, unable to retract itself. For a muscle to cramp, two things need to happen first:
1. The muscle must be under prolonged contraction.
2. The muscle must be starved of energy (ATP) and/or electrolytes
Water polo, more than any other, lends itself to both of these conditions. That means that water polo players, more than any other athletes, are prone to lots of serious muscle cramps. Here's why...
Water polo is one of only 2 professional sports that require treading water - the other being synchronised swimming. In synchronised swimming, you only tread water for a few seconds at a time, over a 3-minute song. In water polo, however, you need to tread water continually over 4 7-minute quarters, with only 10-20sec of swimming to intersperse it. That puts a huge strain on your legs, and definitely fulfils the first requirement of a cramp - prolonged contraction.
The best way to prevent treading water from causing muscle cramps is to perfect the "egg beater" move. It is a specialist water polo style of treading water that uses all muscles of the legs evenly, preventing prolonged contraction of any one muscle. Strengthening your leg muscles will also decrease the risk of cramping.
Treading water can create a serious strain on the muscles, but it also burns a lot of calories. Swimming, passing the ball, aggressive defending all take up a lot of calories, too. That means that, by the end of the game, you've burnt up almost all the food you've eaten and have very little energy left. That fulfils the second requirement of a cramp - energy (ATP) and/or electrolyte starvation.
To ensure that you've got enough energy, all you have to do is eat. Food takes roughly 90min to turn into a fuel that the body can use (ATP), so make sure you eat about 90min before a water polo game. Low-GI carbohydrates are the best type of food to have to conserve energy. Low-sugar sports drinks are good to have between quarters to ensure your electrolytes are kept replenished throughout the game.
Water polo sometimes feels like it's deliberately designed to cause muscle cramps, but just following these 2 strategies - perfecting egg beater, and eating low-GI carbs 90min before games, will dramatically decrease your risk of getting a muscle ramp in the pool.
If you want more information on cramps, email me directly via the contact page. If you want specific information about your own injury or if you're after treatment for an injury, contact one of my clinics directly to make an appointment. Details of those clinics can be found here.
Dr Mitch Clark