You may prefer to keep your feet on dry land, but for the sake of thwarting injuries and maintaining fitness, you won’t get a better return on your investment than from swimming. Serving as an ideal form of active recovery for runners, swim sessions allow you to increase endurance and oxygen capacity, while giving your weary legs a break from all that pavement pounding.
“Swimming is really an anti-inflammatory therapy for the legs when performed in a cool temperature less than 80 degrees,” explains Sandy Bikus, a USA Triathlon-certified coach and NASM Certified Personal Trainer in Omaha, Neb.
What’s more, the full-body nature of swimming requires wholly different movement patterns, giving a runner the opportunity to work some of those oft forgotten muscle groups. Although the theory of specificity suggests that a runner must run to improve, many of our bodies aren’t built to achieve optimal fitness through running alone. The muscle imbalances that occur over many miles only worsen with each step. Swimming introduces new ranges of motion and strengthens muscle groups that have been neglected, helping a runner avoid classic overcompensation injuries.
Getting Into It
Swimming allows for a whole lot more variation in workouts than running. Depending on what you need to work on, there’s a technique or drill you can practice. For instance, if you’re looking for a good leg workout, experiment with different strokes, such as breast, back and freestyle. Depending on the kicking pattern, you can target and engage different muscle groups.
If your legs are in need of a rest, you can even leave the legs out of the equation entirely. “The legs can be placed around a swimming ‘pull’ to simply pull them behind your body without any active kicking,” Bikus explains. “This is truly restful for the legs because now the upper body is at work.”
This gives you the chance to focus solely on the deltoids, latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscle groups.
Once you’ve selected your stroke of choice, you should consider intensity. If you’re looking for aerobic exercise, you may simply swim steady laps for a certain amount of time. For a more anaerobic workout, however, you can do pool sprints. Not unlike intervals done on the track, this requires you to surge for a certain distance. For instance, you could do 10×50-meter sprints with 30 seconds recovery in between, increasing the number of intervals as you get stronger.
What You’ll Need
Locating a body of water for swim training should be your first concern. While open water is always an option, most runners prefer a temperature-controlled pool with lane lines. A comfortable silicone or nylon swim cap and swimming suit will make you look the part, and, not to mention, are required by most pools. Also, be sure to get your hands on a pair of goggles that aren’t so tight they leave you with a blaring headache and raccoon eyes. “Each brand fits differently, so try them on before you buy them if possible,” Bikus advises.
You can also add variety to your swim workouts with a small investment in accessories like a kickboard or fins. “They will break up the monotony and offer some different drills to try that are virtually useless without these swimming aides,” Bikus says. If you’re working out at a health club or gym, check to see if they have this type of equipment available to members.
Although swimming will help you avoid the injuries associated with the excessive pounding of the legs and feet, poor swim stroke mechanics can lead to new problems. In particular, swimmers encounter shoulder impingements at a fairly high rate. Bikus suggests hiring a coach to watch your form the first few times in the water to avoid this.
“It will cost a little bit up front, but it’s definitely worth the investment,” she says. “As you continue to train, have someone watch you a few more times to make sure your form is progressing. With consistency and dedication, you will find that your times improve if you stick with it.”
Aside from running itself, pool running or aqua jogging provides the most relevant workout for a runner. Even better, it’s done without any impact. This means an injured or over-trained athlete can get in some mileage while giving the legs a bit of a break.
With the assistance of a pool running belt to keep you afloat, you can do nearly identical workouts to those you’d do on the road or track. For instance, if you had an 8×400-meter workout planned and you usually run 400 meters in about 90 seconds, simply surge in the pool for the same amount of time. In the same manner, if you simply need a short easy day, jog in the pool at a relaxed pace for 30 minutes. The best part is that pool running allows for both aerobic and anaerobic work in the same way running does.
What’s more, pool running offers the rare opportunity to focus on form in slow motion. As a result of the water’s resistance, you can better gauge where your arms and legs are in space than you can on dry land. Think about driving your knees and arms, engaging your shins by keeping your toes pointed forward, and utilizing your lower back with the forward lean of your torso.
Not only can this help strengthen the various muscles that contribute to good form, it will also train your body to internalize what it feels like to run more efficiently.
This piece first appeared in Competitor magazine.