Can Swimming Make You a Better Runner?

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Can Swimming Make You a Better Runner?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 300 million visits to swimming pools each year. This data puts the sport in the top five recreational activities in the country. Of course swimming isn’t just for recreation alone and doesn’t need to be done as a stand-alone sport. In fact, runners looking to boost strength and lung capacity will find swimming is an excellent form of cross training.

“Runners benefit from swimming because it is an effective cardiovascular exercise that is not weight bearing,” explains Dr. Leesa Galatz, orthopedic surgeon and system chair of the Department of Orthopedics in the Mount Sinai Health System. “Runners are constantly loading lower extremity joints and spine, and swimming offers the ability to maintain fitness level in a setting where joints are relatively unloaded, allowing joints to rest.”

What else can you expect to get out of the sport and how to do approach it as a runner? Two experts explain how runners can get the most out of their time in the pool.

THE BENEFITS OF SWIMMING

Swimming is a great cardiovascular workout with a very low risk of injury. Thanks to its low impact, it is a great form of cross-training for runners; you won’t have to worry about hurting your legs and suffering a setback in training.

Natasha Van Der Merwe, a professional triathlete and the director of team programs for Bicycle World, breaks down the four main benefits athletes will get from time in the pool:

  1. It improves your cardiovascular fitness with minimal stress on the body so that you can become a more fit runner without actually running more miles.
  2. It helps recover the body from runs as the movement and cold water facilitates blood flow and recovery.
  3. It can increase oxygen and lung capacity, especially if doing swim sets where you limit your breathing.
  4. It works and strengthens different muscle groups that are not used in running.

Swimming works your entire body, and internally, your heart and lungs will get a nice boost as you make your way up and down the length of the pool. What muscles can you specifically expect to get a workout?

“Depending on the stroke, swimming engages upper and lower extremities,” says Dr. Galatz. “Most swimmers perform freestyle or crawl, which engages deltoid, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major and rotator cuff. Core muscles are also engaged.”

Dr. Galatz adds that runners tend to ignore their upper extremities in most workouts, which are needed for proper posture and to gain power.

HOW TO ADD SWIMMING TO YOUR TRAINING

To get the most out of your workout, there are some considerations that should be made before jumping in the water. Since you can expect to work your whole body, runners need to be careful integrating it into training. You don’t want to overwork your legs and tire them out before a hard workout or run.

“I would recommend first implementing it as a recovery tool,” suggests Van Der Merwe. “Swim on your recovery days or after hard or long runs to help accelerate muscle recovery, or replace that second run on your double run day with a swim, instead.”

Just as many runners use a coach to learn proper run mechanics and posture, learning the correct way to swim may include some training. Though most learn how to swim as a child — the CDC notes swimming is the most popular recreational activity for children — you often don’t learn multiple strokes and spend time playing games and doing other water activities (unless you are swimming competitively, that is). Making sure you understand the proper fundamentals is an important part of the sport.

“The best advantages of swimming are dependent on good stroke mechanics, so if you are not an experienced swimmer, taking an adult swim class, Master’s class or taking a lesson, will allow you to really maximize the benefits of your efforts,” notes Dr. Galatz. “You may also be inspired to try a triathlon if you haven’t ever tried that before.“

Just as you would with running, stretching and warming up is also an integral part of a swim workout. Dr. Galatz specifically advises you to stretch your spine — which will, in turn, stretch your core muscles — as well as your shoulders and arms before a workout.

TRY THESE WORKOUTS

If you are looking to jump in the pool and add swimming into your routine, Van Der Merwe has adjusted two workouts for runners to build cardiovascular capacity and leg strength.

LUNG-BUILDER WORKOUT

How it works: Builds lung capacity by limiting the number of breaths you take.

Warmup: Swim 200 meters easy.

Main set: Complete 10 x 100 meters. For the first 25 meters, take a breath every 3 strokes. From 25–50 meters, take a breath every 5 strokes and from 50–75 meters, take a breath only every 7 strokes. Sprint for the last 25 meters of the set.

Cooldown: Swim 100–200 meters easy.

KICK WORKOUT

How it works: Strengthens hip flexors, IT band and hamstrings without adding the pounding you would get on the road. To increase your ankle flexibility, use a pair of flippers.

Warmup: Swim 200 meters.

Main set: Complete 5 sets of the following interval: 50 meters easy, 50 meters fast kick, 50 meters easy, 50 meters fast swim, followed by 15–20 seconds of rest. Repeat.

Cooldown: Swim 200 meters.

About the Author

Ashley Lauretta
Ashley Lauretta

Ashley is a journalist based in Austin, Texas. She is the assistant editor at LAVA and her work appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, GOOD Sports, espnW, VICE Sports, Health, Men’s Journal, Women’s Running and more. Find her on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.

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