Q: I always seem to get sore ankles when I’m finning and suffer from cramping in the water. Why does this happen and how can I stop it?
A: There could be a single factor or a combination of reasons why you are suffering from fatigue in the ankles. Some of the more common possibilities are discussed below.
Foot pockets are the single biggest factor when finding fins for your diving. Always try them on with a neoprene sock. They should not feel tight on your foot and should sit comfortably giving a small amount of movement - if the ankle slips out then they are too big. However if the size down feels too tight, remember your feet will swell with all the finning, increasing your chances of cramping in the foot and calf area. You are best off purchasing the larger pair and buying fin straps which go around the heel to help secure the pocket.
One point to note is if the pockets are too big or the wrong shape then your toes will naturally claw, ending in cramping and discomfort up into the Achilles tendon. Ask the store if you can bring them back and try another brand if they aren’t suitable because what feels ok on land may not be the case in the water.
A general misconception is you need a strong blade to propel yourself through the water. Most blades are generally around the same length & width so regardless of their strength they all push the same amount of water. You need to think in terms of effort required to push the fin. Soft & medium blades require less effort than a harder blade. Consider going to a less stiff blade if you consistently suffer from pain or have suffered injuries in the legs, ankles and feet or are of small to medium build.
Determine what type of diving you will be doing most - if it is in high current areas then a stiffer blade makes finning into the current more effective. However if you regularly experience pain, then moving to the lighter blade could aid in pain-free finning. If you are new to the sport a softer blade may make your transition into water more enjoyable however budget plays a major role for most of us. Composition of the fins does make a difference and they can be made from plastic, fibreglass or carbon. The better the materials, the better ‘payback’ or reward you get from the fin and some will last you a lifetime.
Weakness from injuries in your foot and ankle area can lead to quicker fatigue & soreness. When the area is weak we tend to roll our ankles, knees and/or hips from side to side. This technique is less efficient and we end up working harder on top and under the water and quite likely causing further damage to those areas. To assist in strengthening this area take your fins to the local pool and fin on the surface. Begin slowly, gradually building up your speed and distance and then incorporate sprints into your session. Do not attempt to do any breath- holding under the water unless you are with a buddy and have talked to the life guards as there is always the risk of blackout. (NZ is the only country where we can take our fins into a local pool and do this training so please be a good kiwi and adhere to safe diving practices).
Cramping can be avoided if you regularly sip from a water bottle or drink an electrolyte such as silver powerade. Look for a drink that has a high sodium level as even though you are in the water you are exercising and will still sweat. When we become dehydrated it is difficult for our oxygen-enriched blood to travel around our body. It needs water to help it flow freely, so making sure you haven’t been drinking alcohol the night before and staying well hydrated will make your day on the water more pleasurable.
Stretching and Warm-ups: Doing simple foot and ankle warm ups will help. Rotate each foot clockwise and anti-clockwise for approximately 15 times each way. Place the top of your foot on the ground, pushing slightly onto the toes, you should feel a good stretch over the top of the foot and shin area. Counter that stretch by placing the underneath of your foot on the ground and lift the heel, the bottom of the toes on the ground. The stretch should be felt in the arch of the foot – this is great to help eliminate cramping in that area.
Common finning problems
Below: Correct finning technique but incorrect body posture - diver is over extending the neck upwards, creating more drag on the body. chin should be tucked into the chest, allowing the water to flow over his head, whick results in a more stream
Many spearfishermen get into the habit of looking ahead or down to see where they are going which is fine as long as it is not for the duration of the entire dive. Your head should be tilted down by tucking your chin in to your chest. You will find your descent is faster because you are now streamlined. Water will flow over your head and down your back rather than you having to fin harder and more frequently as you try to push through the water. You will also avoid finning extra metres on descent to get to your destination – another definite bonus.
Above: Correct body posture but incorrect finning techniques for the downward and upward fin strokes. the diver is using the thigh muscles. as a result the blade slices through the water. rather than thrusting throughit. The fin is not performing to its full potenial which means less power + thrust
initially require learning a new technique to make them work to your advantage. Unlike scuba fins and small swim-fins which require the whole leg to work them, freediving blades need to be pushed down upon using the tops of your feet. The downward motion is where you should direct the most energy releasing the tension on the upward motion.
By pushing down with the foot and going past the centre line of your body the fin blade will follow past this point giving you propulsion. Do not use your thighs in the downward motion. Your knee will bend slightly. If it is at a 90degree angle then you are using the thigh, which will result in the fin slicing through the water and not giving you any added thrust.
On the return upwards, release the force from the foot area, this time contracting the gluteus (your bum) muscle to bring the leg upwards and past your centre line. The fin will continue to go upwards and give you thrust, as with the downward motion. If your knee is at 90 degrees then you have switched to using your thigh muscle and receive little benefit from the long blade.
If you are unsure then do seek out professional technique training from No Bubbles or Lazy Seals Freediving Club. It is difficult to know if you are finning correctly unless you can see yourself. The correct style could completely change your diving ability and enjoyment.