While swimming and running are both considered forms of aerobic exercise and, therefore, can improve your cardiovascular fitness and overall wellness, running1Lee, D.-C., Brellenthin, A. G., Thompson, P. D., Sui, X., Lee, I-Min., & Lavie, C. J. (2017). Running as a Key Lifestyle Medicine for Longevity. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 60(1), 45–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2017.03.005 is a high-impact activity while swimming is a non-weight-bearing, non-impact activity.2Lee, B.-A., & Oh, D.-J. (2015). Effect of regular swimming exercise on the physical composition, strength, and blood lipid of middle-aged women. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 11(5), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.12965/jer.150242
So, does swimming help running performance?
This makes swimming a great exercise for cross-training and active recovery workouts for runners looking to reduce the risk of injury while boosting their aerobic capacity, strength, and overall fitness level.
Whether you’re training for a half marathon or marathon, interested in becoming a triathlete, or just a recreational runner wanting to improve your running performance, keep reading to learn how swimming can help you become a better runner.
Does Swimming Help Running?
As a UESCA-certified triathlon coach and running coach, I often am approached by runners who want to transition to triathlon training, especially if they have had an injury that has caused them to incorporate swimming for cross-training into their training plan.
In either scenario, runners often are surprised at how difficult swimming workouts can feel, particularly because runners who have good aerobic capacity for running can struggle with feeling out of breath or like they have no lung capacity for swimming.
This is one of the reasons that swim workouts can be great for distance runners.
Swimming is a fantastic cardiovascular exercise and challenges your cardiovascular fitness in a different way.
Runners have to learn how to breathe for swimming, and swimming challenges lung capacity in a different way than running does.
The water resistance requires the lungs to work harder and comparative studies have found that swimmers have better lung capacity and pulmonary function than runners.3Sable, M., Vaidya, S. M., & Sable, S. S. (2012). Comparative study of lung functions in swimmers and runners. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 56(1), 100–104. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23029972/
In this way, swimming for runners can help you improve your aerobic capacity, which can translate to a higher VO2 max, better running economy, and can help you become a better runner overall.
Indeed, studies have found that swimming improves running economy and lung capacity in runners.4Lavin, K. M., Guenette, J. A., Smoliga, J. M., & Zavorsky, G. S. (2013). Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(1), 16–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12140
How Do Runners Do Swimming for Cross-Training?
Swim workouts can be similar to running training sessions in that you can do endurance swims for aerobic exercise, and you can also do interval training swimming workouts with high-intensity laps and easy recovery laps to challenge your aerobic fitness and anaerobic fitness.
All swim training sessions should begin with a warm-up with easy swimming to increase your heart rate, activate your muscle groups to increase circulation for better range of motion, and prepare your body and mind for the swimming workout.
Then, you can include a few swimming drills such as kickboard laps or upper body swim training using a pull buoy.
Swimming drills can help you improve your form, and using training tools such as a kickboard or pull buoy will help target muscle groups in either the upper body or lower body, respectively.
Swimming is one of the best forms of cross-training for runners because it is not only a low impact workout, but essentially a non-impact workout.
The buoyancy of the water reduces your effective body weight, which makes swimming workouts for cross-training great for runners who are overweight, have joint pain, or who are at a high risk or trying to recover from a stress fracture.
One of the benefits of swimming is that it is a full-body workout.
Swimming works all of the major muscles of the body, particularly targeting the upper body muscles more than running.
Runners often have poor upper-body strength, and the importance of upper-body strength for runners is often overlooked. Strong arms, shoulders, and upper back muscles will allow runners to have a powerful arm swing.
The arms drive the legs forward, so increasing your upper-body strength can help you pump your arms more forcefully and quickly, for a faster cadence and better running performance.
All of the swimming strokes work your core muscles, hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, lats, shoulder muscles (deltoids and rotator cuff muscles), chest muscles (pecs), adductors, quads, and calves.
Swim strokes such as the breaststroke also work some of the other muscles in the hips and legs, such as the adductor muscle group, the iliopsoas (hip flexors), gluteus medius, and other smaller muscles in the hips like the piriformis.
You can also incorporate different swimming strokes into your training sessions to strengthen different muscles.
This can help prevent muscle imbalances and provide better well-rounded, full-body strength compared to only running.
How Often Should I Do Swimming Cross-Training for Running?
To really see the benefits of swimming particularly in terms of helping you become a better runner and better swimmer, you should swim consistently.
Even if you aren’t an aspiring triathlete, incorporating at least 1 to 2 swim training sessions into your weekly workout routine is a great way to build muscle memory and establish better swimming technique so that you truly glean the cardiovascular fitness and strengthening benefits of swimming.
What Are the Best Tips For Swimming for Runners?
Here are a few tips for adding swim training sessions to your training plan:
#1: Get the Right Swim Gear
For running, you don’t need much gear other than a good pair of running shoes, but swimming does require some specialized swimming gear.
You will want a good swimsuit or bathing suit and goggles.
If you are going to be swimming in cold water or training for a triathlon, you will want to get a wetsuit.
A kickboard can be helpful for swimming drills.
Fins and a pull buoy can also be helpful to work your core muscles, hip flexors, and upper body muscles.
A swim cap will also keep your hair protected from the chlorine and out of your face.
#2: Start In a Swimming Pool
Swimming pools are often more beginner-friendly than tackling open-water swimming as a new swimmer.
An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters per length, whereas most high school or collegiate swimming pools are about half the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, meaning that each length of the pool is 25 yards or 25 meters.
If you are going to be doing open-water swimming in a lake, pond, or other body of water, it is best to start your open-water swimming in areas where there is a lifeguard or other swimmers with you, especially if you are a beginner.
Open-water swimming is much more dangerous and there are additional challenges in terms of spotting where you are going and staying safe.
#3: Work With a Swim Coach
Swimming is a lot more technique-driven than running, and getting a good swimming workout while reducing your risk of injury often hinges upon learning the proper stroke technique and breathing pattern for swimming.
A good swim coach can help you master the basic swimming strokes with a few sessions so you will have more effective swimming workouts.
#4: Use Different Swim Strokes
Different swim strokes work different muscle groups, so incorporating freestyle or cross stroke, breaststroke, backstroke, and potentially even butterfly into your swim sessions can provide the most well-rounded swim workout.
#5: Progress Gradually
As with trying any new form of aerobic exercise or sport, be patient with yourself and take your time as you start to incorporate regular swimming into your training plan.
You will likely experience some muscle soreness and many new swimmers often feel somewhat defeated by how difficult breathing in the water can feel despite having good lung capacity and aerobic fitness.
Start with just 15 to 20 minute swim workouts. Remember to do your warm-up and cool down.
Don’t worry about how fast you are swimming at first. It is more important to master the proper swim stroke technique and then work on swimming faster and getting a better cardiovascular workout in your swim sessions.
Due to the low-impact nature of swimming as a cross-training workout, the excellent aerobic exercise swimming provides, and the fact that it works different muscle groups than running or the same ones in different ways, adding swimming into your training plan can therefore help you become a stronger, better runner and may help decrease your risk of injury.
For some workouts to get started, check out our next guide:
- 1Lee, D.-C., Brellenthin, A. G., Thompson, P. D., Sui, X., Lee, I-Min., & Lavie, C. J. (2017). Running as a Key Lifestyle Medicine for Longevity. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 60(1), 45–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2017.03.005
- 2Lee, B.-A., & Oh, D.-J. (2015). Effect of regular swimming exercise on the physical composition, strength, and blood lipid of middle-aged women. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 11(5), 266–271. https://doi.org/10.12965/jer.150242
- 3Sable, M., Vaidya, S. M., & Sable, S. S. (2012). Comparative study of lung functions in swimmers and runners. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 56(1), 100–104. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23029972/
- 4Lavin, K. M., Guenette, J. A., Smoliga, J. M., & Zavorsky, G. S. (2013). Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(1), 16–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12140