Can Swimming Make You a Better Runner?

 Photo: Tyler Barbarin for RUNGRL

Photo: Tyler Barbarin for RUNGRL

By Dominique Burton

I think swimming is the yin to a runner’s yang. As a swimmer myself, yes, I am biased, but you don’t have to take my word for it. I will explain how and why through research and experience.

As runners, we often seem to be allergic to cross training. We are often very goal-oriented and we revel in measurable data, such as how far and how fast we run. Cross training, however, puts us in a foreign situation where the data is often less quantifiable, but that does not mean it’s less important.

I’m going to preach a bit, so let me do it the way my pastor does: I’ll dive into three great points and once I’m finished, hopefully, you’ll be making your way to a pool near you.

1. Swimming works different muscles

Running Competitor explains that while running uses mostly muscles in your lower body, the full-body nature of swimming engages your legs, upper body and core, especially the Latissimi dorsi (“lats”), triceps and upper arms. It balances out the high intensity of running with a low-impact aerobic activity.

Working and strengthening these muscles in the pool can help improve your running posture and form. Think about those slumped shoulders you start to feel at mile five and the lower back pains you might experience starting at mile eight.

Another benefit is that swimming helps stretch and elongate the body as you reach out with every stroke.

2. Swimming builds endurance and breathing

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Swimming builds cardiovascular endurance without placing stress on your bones and joints in the same way as running. Alert Diver defines cardio endurance as “the body's ability to perform dynamic exercise and continued exertion at moderate to high levels of intensity while providing your body with fuel from the aerobic system.”

Cardiovascular endurance also develops because swimming makes your body maintain movement over a sustained period. To keep swimming, your lungs must breathe in oxygen, which is transported by the circulatory system to your working tissues. This is then used as fuel for your muscles, which are working overtime while you swim, explains Lynn Hetzler in the article “How Does Swimming Help the Human Body?” on LiveStrong.

Swimming can improve lung function because of the controlled way you learn to breathe. Military.com explains that during a run, breathing tends to be shallow and exhalation forceful, but when you swim it's the other way around. You breathe in quickly and deeply and let the air trickle out, helping to increase your lung capacity. Having the ability, the do that, gives you the control to properly pace your breath.

3. Swimming provides much-needed recovery

Don’t sleep. Swimming is not an “easy way out.” Your body works hard when you're in the pool. Water is 12 times denser than air, and studies have found that moving in the pool puts more external pressure on your limbs than out-of-water training. Because the pressure is evenly distributed, it doesn't build up in the knees, hips, ankles, lower back or other places that absorb the shock of running.

More resistance means more calories being burned during and after the workout. Can anyone say double plus! Swimming is a great way to recover after a hard strength day or to get in some fat-burning cardio.

Hannah Caldas, a coach with CrossFit Anywhere in Folsom, CA, and a former member of the Portuguese national swim team told Muscle and Fitness Magazine, “Getting into the pool can help start that active recovery process. You’re flushing out some of the lactic acid while helping your muscle fibers recover.”

Having a cross training method that mimics running in so many ways can really help increase your body’s performance for race day. Remember when building swimming sessions into your race training plan that swim workouts should complement your runs for the week.

Now all you have to do is run to a pool near you and dive in.


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Dominique Burton

Chief Partnerships Officer