Five ways swimming can make you a better runner

With summer just around the corner, the thought of running in hot weather can put training plans on the back burner.

Instead of skipping a training session, keep cool and maintain endurance at the same time by diving into swimming as a cross-training option. 

Here's five ways swimming can make you a better runner. 

It works different muscles 

While running mostly uses the muscles in your lower body, the full-body nature of swimming engages your legs, upper body and core, especially muscles of the middle back, the Latissimi dorsi or 'lats', triceps, and the upper arms. 

Triathlete and keen runner Lauren Blume swims two to three times a week in a pool and in open water. She says swimming helps her training by balancing out the high intensity of running with a low impact aerobic activity. "Swimming uses all the major muscle groups and once you perfect the technique, you experience a sense of flow and calmness. It also strengthens different muscles like the arms, hamstrings and gluteus, keeping running related injuries at bay," says Blume.

Working and strengthening these muscles in the pool can also help to improve your running posture and form. Another benefit is that swimming helps to stretch out and elongate the body as you reach out in front with every stroke. 

It builds endurance

Swimming builds cardiovascular endurance without placing stress on your bones and joints in the same way as running. Cardiovascular endurance refers to 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. 

Swimming helps develop cardiovascular endurance because it 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. Essentially, your cardiorespiratory system and muscles work together to deliver oxygen to your body while keeping up that intense level of aerobic exercise.

It helps your respiratory system 

Swimming can help improve your breathing too, but it takes time to build up. 


Blume says that of all the fitness elements needed to compete in triathlons, swim fitness was the most challenging to acquire. "If I do at least two to three decent swims a week I can maintain that cardiovascular capacity," she says. 

Swimming can improve lung function because of the controlled way you learn to breath. Research has shown that during a run breathing tends to be shallow and exhalation forceful, but when you swim it's the other way around. You tend to breathe in quickly and deeply and let the air trickle out, helping to increase your lung capacity. A recent study found that swimming while limiting the number of breaths boosted running economy by six per cent in less than 12 sessions. 

It's not a walk in the park 

Don't think swimming is 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.  

In fact, pool running or aqua jogging can be a great substitute for road or track workouts – allowing over-trained runners to clock up mileage while giving their legs a rest. Pool running allows for both aerobic and anaerobic work in the same way running does.

Using 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 example, if you had an 8X400-meter workout planned and you usually run 400 meters in about 120 seconds, simply run in the pool for the same amount of time. 

It's a great active recovery technique 

Because water supports around 90 per cent of the body, swimming allows you to increase endurance and oxygen capacity, while giving your tired legs a break from pounding the pavement, making it a great active recovery technique. 

An Australian study found runners who swam after a challenging interval session performed 14 per cent better in their next run to exhaustion when compared with runners who recovered passively. 

Even better, if you're swimming in a heated pool, the warm water will loosen joints and muscles that will help prevent injuries during your workout.

Blume says her physiotherapist recommended swimming to help recover from a tibial stress fracture. "It was the only cardio exercise I could do at the time, and it helped me get that endorphin release without delaying recovery," she says. 

If you want to experience the benefits of swimming on your training, then like running, start slow and build from there. Get advice from a swimming coach or instructor to help you perfect your technique, and start with 30-minute sessions two to three times a week. 

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

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