Why All Runners Should Try Swimming
It’s 5:30am and I desperately crave a cup of coffee to wake up my brain. I adjust and re-adjust my cap and goggles, prolonging the inevitable shock of cold water that hits my skin as I dive into my local lap swimming pool. You would think that after 25 years of regular (sometimes bi-daily) swimming, I would be used to this – but it still comes as a jolt to the system. Swimming is a solo sport that pushes you from wall to wall in a lung-burning, muscle-throbbing race against the clock.
I’ve tried countless sports over the years, but nothing compares to the physical challenges I’ve experienced as a swimmer – not even my last trail ultra-marathon in a blizzard! Perhaps it’s the fact that you can’t breathe constantly in swimming as you can in running, or maybe it’s the sheer volume of time and stamina required to swim 6-12 miles per day as a collegiate athlete, but I’ve always considered swimming the toughest sport out there.
Sounds like fun, right?! But before you run for the hills (literally), stop and consider the benefits of trying out some lap swimming as cross-training to boost your running performance. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran swimmer or a newcomer to the sport – studies have shown that the addition of swimming to your regular routine can enhance running performance across all skill levels.
Swimming improves running economy.
A 2015 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine in Sports Science examined whether limiting the breathing frequency in lap swimming could improve running economy in athletic individuals who were novice-level swimmers (age 18-45). They compared a group who were restricted to 2 breaths per length of a 25-yard swimming pool to a group who breathed 7 times per length. They found improvements in maximum expiratory pressure in both groups. The group who had their breathing restricted exhibited greater improvements in both running economy and in muscular oxygen utilization on land. Pretty cool, right?
Swimming is good for your heart.
Researchers have found that athletes who swim regularly for aerobic exercise experience a healthy form of cardiac left ventricle hypertrophy which decreases the risk of scarring or fibrosis, enhances the production of new blood vessels, and modulates important chemicals that improve heart function and efficiency. Thus, even if you consider yourself a sprinter when it comes to running, the benefits of aerobic swimming workouts can improve your physiologic efficiency on land. High-intensity interval training for swimming has also been shown to improve high blood pressure, even in a previously sedentary population.
Swimming works certain muscles that running does not naturally focus on.
Most people assume that swimming is all about the shoulders and arms. However, when done with the proper technique, swimming should be a big leg, hip and core workout, too! The body rotation and kicking pattern should engage the gluteal muscles and abdominal stabilizers. Most runners are weak in these areas and tend to dominate with their quads, hamstrings and calves. It’s easy to develop bad habits in the pool, though, so if you’re a beginner it’s helpful to find a good coach to make sure that you are maximizing your training with proper technique to focus on these important smaller muscle groups.
Swimming can help with weight loss goals.
Ever heard of the post-swimming munchies? Most people who swim regularly experience a big surge in their hunger levels when exiting the pool. Swimming burns upwards of 540-800 calories per hour depending on the stroke and intensity, compared to 398 with jogging and 557 with running at ten-minute mile pace. In fact, most experts agree that rowing is the only continuous sport that tops swimming in terms of energy expenditure.
Swimming improves flexibility and reduces injury risk.
While many swimmers show off great shoulder flexibility, they also have higher ankle dorsiflexion which enables them to propel with a more efficient kick in the water. On land, this can translate to improved running mechanics from the ankle-up. More ankle dorsiflexion has been associated with less risks for Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. It’s also a great way to keep the leg muscles loose and to work out some running-related muscle soreness.
Swimming is good for injury rehabilitation.
If you’re nursing an injury, you’ve most likely been advised to spend some time in the pool by your doctor. Whether it be aqua-jogging or swimming laps, the reduced-gravity environment of the pool is a great place to stay in shape while avoiding high impact and repetitive jarring on the body. For most runners, it’s frustrating to be limited to the pool, but it’s certainly better than nothing! And the low-load joint motions can offer a healing environment to enhance circulation, collagen stimulus, joint lubrication, and improvements in muscle tension.
Swimming can be good for your social life!
There’s a unique unspoken bond between swimmers, a sort of innate mutual respect that occurs when you spend hours staring at a line on the bottom of the pool together. The time spent socializing at the wall in-between sets is not to be overlooked, however. Most people join masters’ teams to help them stay motivated to train in the pool, which is a lot of fun. Having a workout buddy helps you stay accountable and also reduces some of the monotony you can experience in the pool. And, it’s no secret that swimmers like to party, so expect your social calendar to fill up a little more!
Lavin KM, Guenette JA, Smoliga JM, et al. Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scand J Med Sports Sci. 2015 (25): 16-24.
Fernandes T, Barauna VG, Negrao CE, et al. Aerobic exercise training promotes cardiac remodeling involving a set of microRNAs. Amer J Phys. 2015 (4): 543-552.