We take a look at why swimming can be beneficial as cross training for runners, and how it can be used during a weekly training programme, or as an alternative form of exercise if you are injured or in a recovery phase following a race…
Benefits of regular swimming for runners
Swimming can be an excellent cross training session for runners, to boost fitness while providing some variety both physically and mentally. It emphasises different muscle groups and different movements, so can help you to build strength and have a great workout without over-using some of those muscles that have a high workload during running. And crucially you gain high cardiovascular training for low physical impact.
So let’s consider some of the benefits a bit more…
1. Cardiovascular benefits
Swimming well relies on breathing technique and cardiovascular fitness. The movements required to propel yourself forwards in the water and hold your body in the correct position are aerobically demanding, so provide a great cardio workout. You can therefore get high fitness benefit from relatively short sessions (in comparison with running or cycling.)
From a VO2 max perspective, studies have shown the benefits for swimmers and runners to be very similar.
2. Upper body (& core) benefits
During swimming, you use different muscles in your body. In particular (and this is especially true if front crawl is your stroke) you use the upper body for propulsion, but also your core muscles for staying in the right position in the water.
Having a strong upper body and core can help runners maintain a good posture while running, importantly helping to keep your upper body straight rather than stooped at the end of a long race and helping with your arm drive.
3. Swim sessions which ‘rest’ the legs
If your legs are really tired, or you have an injury, it is possible to swim without using them at all. You can put a float (pull buoy) between your legs, which keeps them up in the water and just use your upper body to swim. This is great for leg recovery and it is a favourite session for many triathletes too who like to let their arms do all the work in the swim as they can recover on the bike and the legs can then be fresh for the bike and run.
4. Fitness during injury or post-race recovery
Swimming is of course much lower impact than running. You are supported by the water, whereas in running you put impact and weight through every step you take. As such, swimming is a great option as an alternative way to keep yourself fit and in training if you are suffering with a running-related injury.
It’s also a great form of exercise in the recovery period after a significant race such as a marathon – you’ll avoid losing your fitness but will give your muscles a change and a chance to repair without more impact.
5. Water as a healing aid
In fact, the water itself can be a recovery aid (although a really tough swim session will obviously counteract this). Being able to move in the water with weightlessness can help ease the muscles through encouraging blood flow, and cool water works as an anti-inflammatory for the muscles during the work out.
How much should I do?
Clearly there are some significant benefits you can gain from swimming. So is it worth switching to doing more of it?
Well of course, it depends how much you like it! If you are a real swimming fan, perhaps you’re already focusing on triathlons (or considering one).
But if your main focus is running, and you are primarily interested in improving your running performance, then it’s important to understand what swimming won’t give you in running terms:
- Running economy is the improved efficiency of movement you gain from running-specific training. To be a better runner, simply you need to run more. As with any sport, ultimately it’s down to how much you practise your discipline.
- This economy goes right down to a cellular level, including how you train your body to burn fat and carbohydrate based on the speed you are running (whether you are running aerobically or anaerobically).
- Running form improves the more running you do. Your movement pattern improves as your body learns how to maximise the movement requirements for the lowest possible effort expended.
- Running-specific muscular adaptation is important to become a better runner.
- Developing a cognitive understanding of your pacing and effort while running can also only come from running more.
So although swimming can deliver plenty of benefits as an occasional cross training session, you need to run if you want to be a better runner. For example, a good balance if you are primarily focused on running, would be to swim once a week as cross training.
The easiest way is simply to go for a steady swim aerobic session to start with. Choose your favourite stroke and don’t start off too fast. For the first few times, focus solely on getting your breathing into a comfortable pattern in your chosen stroke. Once that is working, you can start to think about swim technique, learning a new stroke or doing an intervals session.
Many pools offer adult improver sessions, which can be very helpful if you haven’t been for a while.
So when your legs are aching from all your training, but you are worried about missing sessions as that big race is coming up, you can always decide to go for a swim and get a training and recovery boost that way.