Swimming for Runners: How to Make Your Pool Workout Boost Your Running Game

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The benefits of swimming for runners are astounding – we always recommend cross-training for runners since the body needs variation to reach its full potential, and swimming is one of the best methods you’ll find.

It’s also important to keep a blend of strength building workouts and cardio workouts since both are necessary for effective race training (or any other type of running training). 

Swimming is a popular cross-training for running because it works so many muscles in the body. It requires focus, which makes your training plan more interesting. 

Many people who prefer cross-training like weight lifting or agility drill are wondering, does swimming actually help running?

In this article, we’re going to look at:

  • Whether or not swimming actually helps your running game
  • The benefits of swimming for runners
  • We compare swimming and running, the pros and cons of each
  • We share 3 pool workouts for runners, specifically designed to boost your running game
  • How often a runner should get a swim session in.


Let’s jump in!

swimming for runners

Does Swimming Help Running?

Before answering that question, you have to think about the desired outcome.

The three main reasons runners cross-train are endurance, speed, and recovery.

Swimming accomplishes all three. 

When you do swimming sprints, you increase your cardiovascular fitness, which in turn builds up your agility and speed for running. 

When you swim at a slower pace for a longer period, you build up your endurance, which translates directly to your running. 

Swimming is also low-impact, no matter how you do it – it allows your muscles to rejuvenate after a long run, keeping them active without the impact of running. 

Related: 6 Downsides of ONLY Running: Why Runners Need To Cross Train

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Here Are 5 Benefits of Swimming for Runners

Jenny Abouobaia, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with 10 years of experience in personal training, highly recommends swimming for runners. 

“Swimming is a great workout with next to no impact, making it a perfect exercise for runners. It works every muscle, something few sports do, and it tends to work them in a greater range of motion, especially if you practice all the strokes. 

It develops the lungs, improves endurance in the open air, and reduces any breathlessness when running…It’s a great upper body workout and provides a great way to strengthen the ankles while improving flexibility.”

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer turned swim coach, who has worked with countless triathletes and elite swimmers for 30 years. He emphasizes swimming as a cross-training because of its effect on lung capacity and strength. 

“Swimming forces you to manage your breathing. 

Lung capacity is a key indicator of athletic performance (as anyone gasping through a hard workout can attest) and swimming is at the top of the pile when it comes to improving lung volume and strength.  

Research has borne out the superior lung power that comes with swimming. One paper found that elite swimmers scored significantly higher in pulmonary function compared to football players. 

Another paper examined the difference between swimmers and middle-distance runners and found the swimmers had markedly stronger lungs. 

Regular swim training can be used to increase pulmonary function and help you breathe better and stronger out on the road.” 

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According to Abouobaia and Poirier-Leroy, here are the top 5 benefits of swimming for runners:

  • Works every muscle in the body
  • Strengthens the ankles
  • Improves flexibility
  • Builds muscle

Swimming Vs. Running: Which is Better?

We’ve established that swimming is a great form of cross training for runners. But what if you’re on the fence about choosing to focus on one or the other? 

Here are some pros and cons of each type of exercise to make your choice a little easier. 

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Pros of Swimming

  • Swimming normally burns more calories than running. 
  • Swimming does not leave the impact on the body that running does. There are much fewer chances of injury because of it. 
  • Swimming can help you recovery from running by the pressure of the water on your muscles. 

Pros of Running

  • Running is more versatile. You can run anywhere and everywhere, with no need to get access to a pool or body of water. 
  • Swimming involves the “buoyancy effect.” The nature of the water gives your body a little boost, which keeps you floating and prevents you from sinking. The heavier the body, the more buoyant the body. So if you’re exercising to lose weight, your body wil not burn as much energy from swimming as it will running. So even though swimming burns more calories, running is a more efficient way to lose weight. 

Both exercises complement each other well, so we recommend that you incorporate both into your schedule. But if you have to choose one, then evaluate based on your motivation in the first place. 

Are you looking to lose weight?

Then choose running. 

Are you recovering from an injury?

Then choose swimming. 

Are you training for a marathon?

Then add swimming as cross-training in your marathon training plan

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How to Get the Most out of Your Swim Workout

When you’re swimming to build strength and endurance, you need to optimize your time in the pool to get the est results. One way to do this is mastering your breathing technique. 

Swimming forces you to regulate your breathing based on its very nature. When you learn to control the pace and consistency of your breathing, you bring that skill to your running. 

Maintaining a controlled breath rate helps you avoid side aches in running and keeps you running longer distances without needing to stop for a rest. 

Poirier-Leroy offers some advice on how to achieve that:

“Be intentional and deliberate with your breath. Inhale between strokes and exhale evenly out into the water before turning your head to draw breath. This kind of mindful breathing is an excellent habit to pick up and will pay dividends on the road as well as the pool.” 

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3 Swim Workouts for Runners

Now that you’ve read about benefits, pros, cons, and techniques, it’s time to put all the talk into practice. Here are 3 pool workouts for runners to make your cross-training more efficient. 

The first two are contributed by Abouobaia. The last workout comes from Shab, a fitness instructor at The Recycle Studio. He identifies as “fitness geek and instructor.”

1. Lung Builder workout

This exercise will strengthen your lung capacity by limiting the number of breaths you take during the set.

Please note: Do not hold your breath during this exercise. Instead, practice controlling your breath so that you exhale slowly when your face is in the water. Take a controlled breath as indicated below.

Warm-up: Swim 200 to 400 meters at an easy pace.

Main set: Complete 12 x 100 meters. 

  • For the first 25 meters, take a breath every three strokes. 
  • From 25 to 50 meters, take a breath every five strokes.
  • From 50 to 75 meters, take a breath only every seven strokes. 
  • Sprint for the last 25 meters of the set.

Cool down: Swim 100 to 200 meters easy.

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2. Deep Water Running Workout

Running in the deep end of the pool using a flotation belt is a great way to simulate running without the impact. You can start easy for the first few workouts and then build to performing your running workouts against the resistance of the water.

  • Perform a tempo workout by going easy for 10 minutes. 
  • Pick up the speed and effort for 15 to 20 minutes. 
  • Finish with 10 minutes at an easy effort. 

Run intervals by running at a hard effort across the deep end of the pool and then resting to catch your breath.

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3. The Kicker

The kick in swimming works to strengthen the hip flexors, IT band, and hamstrings without adding the pounding you would get on the road. If you want to increase your ankle flexibility during this workout, use a pair of short-nosed flippers.

Warm-up: Swim 200 to 400 meters easy.

Main set: Complete five sets of the following interval.

  • 50 meters easy
  • 100 meters fast kick
  • 50 meters easy
  • 100 meters fast swim
  • 15 to 20 seconds of rest
  • Repeat

Cool down: Swim 200 to 400 meters at a recovery pace.

You’ll notice that these workouts are only 1600 meters in length. For a swimmer, 1600 meters isn’t much, but for a runner, it should be more than enough. You’ll stretch your legs and get in a great cardiovascular and muscular workout.

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How Often Should I Do Swimming Cross-Training for Running?

We offer a robust library of free training plans for all different types of races. Each one is customizable so you can pencil in your cross-training as needed. The best rule of thumb for cross-training is 3 days of running, 2 days of cross-training. 

Try to dedicate one of those cross-training days to strength building like bodyweight exercises or hill sprints. Then dedicate the other day to swimming for low-impact endurance training. 

If you love swimming and want to do it more often, you can also add a recovery swim to one or both of your rest days

While you’re in the pool, remember that aqua jogging can be a great way to rehab old injuries!

As you progress through your training plan, you’ll find the schedule that works best for you. Download one of our free plans and get started planning! 

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Mia Kercher is a hiker, cyclist, and runner. After finishing her first marathon in 2013, she continued the sport but found a new passion in trail running. She now explores the glorious mountains in Portland, Oregon.

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