Why Runners Need to Take up Swimming

Ashley Lauretta
by Ashley Lauretta
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Why Runners Need to Take up Swimming

When we think of cross-training, runners usually hit the weight room or sign up for classes at the gym. Of course those aren’t the only forms of cross-training and, depending on the class or activity involved, shouldn’t even be used as active recovery. Thanks to research, we are learning the best place to improve as a runner may actually be the pool; either for an aqua jogging session or a freestyle swim.

While it can be all too easy to get caught up in your mileage and feel like you should spend as many days on the road as possible, here’s why you may want to hop in a pool on the days you’re not running (and even run a bit less than before).


A study out of the School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health at the University of Western Australia has found swimming does more for a runner’s exercise performance than passive recovery. The research, published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, used nine well-trained triathletes as its test subjects. The triathletes completed an high-intensity interval run and 10 hours later either were assigned to passive recovery or a recovery swim session. Then, a full 24 hours after that initial interval run, they completed a run to see how long they would take to fatigue.

Those who had completed the swim recovery took significantly longer to fatigue, meaning the swim recovery enhanced running performance the next day. Researchers noted that in previous studies, where swim recovery took place immediately following exercise, water-based recovery showed no benefit; this is why they chose to implement the swim 10 hours later. The conclusion is that when implemented later, the hydrostatic pressure of water can actually lessen inflammation, aiding recovery.


Of course swimming comes with major benefits in general, so it isn’t any wonder it can also benefit runners looking for active recovery. A study of 80,000 people performed by Swim England found it lowered the risk of early death by almost 30% and is a recommended form of exercise even for those with long-term health conditions. Swimming has even been found to reduce the stress levels of school-aged children and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found water-based activity improves mood and, in some cases, even decreases anxiety.


When it comes to the benefits of swimming, Dr. Dennis A. Cardone, a sports medicine specialist at NYU Langone and associate professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU School of Medicine, notes that runners should pay special attention to the fact it is low-impact. Not only do you reduce the risk of injury, you also get an aerobic workout.

“Thanks to swimming, runners don’t have to lose fitness and VO2 max when cross-training,” notes Cardone. “When compared to other forms of exercise, it takes the most gravity and weight away and puts less stress on the body than the type of workout that runners get on a regular basis.”

Additionally, Cardone shares that swimming allows you to use your muscle groups differently, resulting in a better, more well-rounded workout compared to simply running day-in and day-out. Runners don’t need much preparation before hopping in the pool for a recovery workout; however, Cardone notes that a freestyle stroke is the best choice for someone who is swimming versus aqua jogging with a pool running belt.

“The stroke that is worse than others is the breaststroke,” he explains. “Runners often get patellofemoral pain and the frog kick that goes with the breaststroke can irritate existing front of knee pain.”


Of course even if you choose not to swim, you should be prioritizing some form of recovery. Cardone confirms that running too many miles over too many days is the way most runners get injured, and he regularly advises patients to avoid running on consecutive days. Should you add swimming into your routine, he would recommend swimming three days per week and running the other four days.

“Keep mileage lower and don’t do too many long runs,” Cardone concludes. “I don’t recommend running consecutive days or even putting in too many miles per week. Everyone has a different number and many times in order to avoid injury, 40 miles per week becomes the magic number to stay under, while adding as much cross-training as possible.”

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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