We know runners like pounding the pavement — or trails – but we all need days to give it a rest. But if the idea of doing nothing leaves you feeling antsy, you can hit the weight room, or hop on a bike and get a good workout. Or you can do the best non-weight-bearing, gravity-free, zero-impact exercise out there: swimming.
“Swimming is a great cross-training exercise for runners,” says Natalia Flores, former Novant Health Charlotte Marathon Ambassador, and current Ironman Triathlon coach. “Swimming can serve as an effective way to recover between hard runs or long training runs… (and) can help you improve your strength, aerobic fitness, and flexibility.”
Have you tried swimming as your day-off workout? Let me guess: yes, and you were exhausted and needed a nap. Then you raided the fridge and ate an unusual amount of ice cream (not admitting anything here, but….yes). Swimming is an all-over body workout that will stretch out your running muscles and limber up those tight joints.
“It can also improve lung capacity, strengthen hip flexors, IT band, and hamstrings; and increase ankle flexibility — all with very little impact stress on your knees and ankles,” says Flores. It’s also a great way to flush out residual lactic acid while building your endurance on a non-running day.
But if you’re not usually a swimmer, where do you start? First, find a pool. In the summer, many neighborhood pools offer lap swim hours. A few local swim teams also offer adult practices. Then get a suit and adult goggles, and if you have long hair, buy a cap (latex or silicone will do). You’ll need about 30 minutes a couple of times a week if you’re just starting, and trust us — it takes a few weeks, but it gets easier!
Ready? Here are some quick ways to get started.
Just Swim Freestyle
“Front crawl” is probably the first stroke we all learned and the one that is the most efficient for distance swimming. Do one length at a time, and rest at walls until you catch your breath. When you get the hang of it, try two in a row, then four, then eight. Do a series of 50-, 100-, or 200-yard swims to build strength and endurance.
Do you still feel winded even though you know your endurance is getting better? It’s probably your breathing — or lack of. The first thing instructors teach new swimmers is to blow bubbles, for good reason. Every time you put your face in the water, blow your air out. Then roll on your side (or back if you need to) and take a breath while continuing to kick. You wouldn’t hold your breath while running, would you? No, you’d pass out. So don’t do it in swimming — we wouldn’t want you to pass out in the water. As your breath control gets better, you can breathe every 3 or every 5 strokes to improve your lungs.
For one, breathing is easier on your back — which is less stressful for new or out-of-shape swimmers. It’s also a survival skill — which means in a triathlon or other open water swim, it allows you to catch your breath if you inhale water, panic, or get uncomfortably winded. Learn to float and swim on your back as a way to ease the stress of swimming and “unwind” forward-swimming muscles. If back floating is hard, think of the 3 basic elements — lay your head back with eyes looking up, push your hips up, and flutter kick your toes.
Another benefit of backstroke is that the muscles you use on your back balance those used in forward strokes, which will keep your shoulders square and your neck in alignment to avoid “freestylers’ slouch.” If you get shoulder and neck cramps after swimming, throw in a generous amount of backstroke. Backstroke also relies on your legs much more than freestyle, so rev up those glutes and hamstrings with a strong flutter to keep your hips rotating and afloat.
Fins are a great low-impact way to strengthen leg muscles and can help you balance your body in the water when you slow down to stretch out your stroke. The extra work it takes to kick with fins is also great for another problem common to runners — stiff ankles.
“Using fins in sets can increase ankle mobility,” says Flores. If you’re someone who kicks like crazy (without fins) and still stays in one place, you need fins. Fins hold your feet in the proper kicking position and lead you to the flexibility you need.
To maximize your legs, kick on your side with your lower arm outstretched and your upper arm by your side. The back-and-forth motion of side-kicking with fins stretches and strengthens the muscles used for both forward and back foot sweeps. (Roll your whole body up to breathe.) Make sure you switch sides on each lap to get greater balance. Then roll onto your stomach and be a dolphin! The undulating motion of butterfly kick with fins (and arms by your sides) loosens up your back. For an additional ab exercise, try doing dolphin kicks on your back. For the best balance and flexibility, don’t use a kickboard with fins.
Drop Your Legs and Pull
“Using a pull buoy allows your legs to recover while making your upper body do most of the work,” says Flores. Pull buoys are great after a set of kicks, or to work your breath control while your hips and legs get a little help staying afloat. Slow down the arms and reach further forward with every arm stroke, rolling your body as you reach. Keep your elbows bent and pointed upward on the underwater pull, with fingertips pointed to the bottom, for best technique and to save your shoulders from excess strain.
For additional arm strength, add hand paddles. They’re great for building muscles, but make sure you use proper technique with them, or you could tear up your shoulders. It may be worth getting a little coaching once you get a feel for the water.
Swimming laps is the easy part — now push yourself! Just like you add sprints and high-intensity interval training to your runs, add intensity to your swims. A series of short swims at top speed increase the strength-building propulsion of swimming and gets your heart and lungs pumping. (Just remember to use good technique here, too!)
You may need a lot of rest for starters, but as you do more high-speed “repeats,” dial back the rest between them. Start with 4 one- or two-lap swims with :30 rest. As that gets easier, try 20 seconds, then 15, then 10. Check your heart rate after 4, and as always — stop if you feel distress and rest some more before continuing. If one lap at a time is too easy, do two or three.
Are you ready to hit the pool? Great! The time you spend building your non-running muscles and flexibility in the pool can balance your body and save you from injuries further down the road. Enjoy some of the many pools open this summer!