Swimming gives you a full body workout, builds fitness and adds variety to your training schedule – plus it’s a useful way to remain injury-free
Swimming is a great cross training option for runners. The “total body” nature of swimming means you’ll activate and strengthen forgotten muscle groups, so it’s a useful way to stay injury-free. It’s also the ideal way to build cardiovascular fitness without pounding the pavement or to maintain fitness if you do happen to get injured – or just to add some variety to your week’s training.
Many runners avoid swimming due to problems with breathing, or fear of cold or deep water. But it usually comes down to not knowing the basics, poor technique, rushing into long sessions too quickly, swimming too fast, and not structuring your swims. Make sure you have a good swim suit, towel, cap and goggles – and keep them in a kit bag in the car to help with motivation.
Find a pool that’s accessible, has opening hours that suit your commitments, and keep the cost down by finding a swim-only membership.
Ask around for a reputable swim school/ instructor and book in for a lesson or two if your technique needs brushing up, so you start right and build your confidence. There are plenty of swimming clubs, triathlon clubs and squads available, if group exercise motivates you. In winter, you need all the motivation you can get, so make sure you know when the quiet times are scheduled at your local pool so you don’t have the added frustration of not having much room to swim after making the effort to get there.
Regardless of the weak spot – there’s a drill to help you rectify it. There are drills to help you develop balance, strengthen a weak kick, improve a faulty catch and pull (arm stroke); drills to improve poor breathing technique and to strengthen a weak core. Runners often use swimming as a warm-up session before a long endurance run, or a cool down workout after a gym session or run.
Triathlon England endorses Swim Smooth (swimsmooth.com) which allows for different “swim types” in that they have a customised approach to teaching. “Swimming allows you to avoid overuse injury by mixing up your sessions and allowing you to work hard without any impact to your bones and joints,” says Kevin Draper, a coach with the Weald Tri Club (wealdtriclub.co.uk) “In open water swimming particularly, swimming can provide another psychological challenge – once you have overcome this challenge it can strengthen your capacity to endure difficult times in a marathon or ultra.”
Tips on getting started
- START WITH SMALL GOALS such as 2 x 20/30 min workouts per week, building up to 3 x 45 min workouts by the end of 8 weeks.
- FOCUS ON DEVELOPING BALANCE and being streamlined in the water – there is no point in having a great catch if you are swimming like a crab.
- FOCUS ON DRILLS for the first 8 weeks, alternating between swimming a drill and swimming a full stroke. Don’t worry about swimming fast.
- TOOLS WILL HELP. Accessible poolside at most pools or leisure centres – ask a pool attendant for help. Try a float (pull buoy) for kicking drills, which can be used to develop strength at the front of your stroke
- SWIM FREQUENTLY. If you are a new swimmer, you won’t improve your stroke if you swim once a week. Two swims a week will see a steady development, but you’ll improve quickly if you swim three times a week.
- BE PATIENT. Don’t give up after a couple of weeks. Swimming can be frustrating – you can go along for weeks without feeling different and then something falls into place and you feel like a dolphin. Stick to it and the rewards will come.
- GET SUPPORT. Swimming is difficult to master without expert advice. A couple of lessons with a swim teacher will get you started.
- JOIN A MASTERS GROUP. In swimming, anyone over the age of 20 is called a Master and most clubs have a Masters group to encourage adult swimmers. swimming. org/britishswimming/masters
Mastering weak spots
Feeling in control of breathing can be a struggle for some swimmers. Practise breathing underwater by standing in the shallow end. Get used to your face being in the water and breathe out fully underwater. You often hear new swimmers say that they are exhausted at the end of one leg – sometimes this is simply because they are not exhaling fully each time they breathe so that it does not take long for them to run out of oxygen – breathe out completely!
See Stroke Builder for detailed information on how to breathe properly, and drills to help.
There are several factors that can cause sinking legs. It can be caused by not being extended and streamlined at the front end of the stroke, or when your head is carried too high, particularly in the case of male athletes. Another reason is runners ankles – seasoned runners who swim, often have flexed ankles in the pool because they need to have that tension when they run.
However, kicking with flexed ankles can actually make you swim backwards – you need to become more like a ballerina with your toes pointing towards the back of the pool.
Words: Evie Serventi