Now that summer is here in full force, many Central Texans turn to swimming as an alternative to running and/or as supplemental training. But, many runners who do, also wonder, whether it actually helps their running in any tangible way.
It’s a good question without an easy answer as there are just as many different ways to swim and levels of swimming as running. (Actually, deep-water running is the most running-specific type of cross-training workout with the greatest benefits. Go to http://texasrunningpost.com/=deep+water+running on this site for much more detail and instructions how to do this.)
First of all, swimming—actual, continual swimming—works your upper body in a way that it never gets while running. Swimming relies almost entirely on the upper body muscles for propulsion, while running is all about the legs and lungs.
So, on the surface, swimming wouldn’t seem to provide much of a boost to runners. But, assuming you have the skill level to swim uninterrupted for at least 15-20 minutes, swimming can provide a cardiovascular stimulus.
The best way to accomplish this stimulus is by doing intervals in the water. Merely going back and forth in a 25-meter pool might be relaxing and give your upper body a workout, but it won’t do much for your cardiovascular system which is already well-conditioned from running.
Swimming intervals are essentially the same as running intervals. You simply do repeats of anywhere between 25-200 meters with a short rest (about 10-15 seconds) between each repeat. (The longer the repeat, the longer the rest.)
Again, this takes some swimming skill level to this type of intervals, but this is how all swimmers train. Doing so, will tax your cardiovascular system much better than swimming laps back and forth. Don’t worry about speed as much as pay attention to the effort. You should be breathing hard after each interval and need the short (but not complete) recovery. If you aren’t breathing hard, you aren’t swimming hard enough.
Once you begin to do intervals in the pool, it will also break up the monotony of mindless laps. Try and do sets of intervals. That is, try doing 4 x 100 meters with a 10-15 second rest between each 100 meters. Or, 4 x 50 with an even shorter rest. Or do ladders by going up in distance such as 1 x 50, 1 x 75, 1 x 100 and then come down the ladder.
Doing this type of cardiovascular workout will certainly strengthen your upper body as well as your core, but there are also a couple of good ways to work the leg muscles too. One, is to utilize flippers with or without a kick board. When you use flippers without a kick board, do one lap on your back (no arms) and try to use a quick, flutter kick. That will work your quads. Either take a short recovery and/or swim the next lap using the same flutter kick with flippers and your regular freestyle stroke. Do this for 10 laps and you’ll certainly give your legs a great, impact-free workout.
Another way to work the legs is go to the shallow end after doing the swim portion of your workout and do a brisk walk forward for one lap and then follow that by walking backward in hip-deep water. Go as fast as you can. Do this for 500 meters and your legs will definitely feel it.
If you happen to be injured, the pool is the ideal spot to maintain some level of fitness. If you can’t swim well, now is the time to learn. If you are a competent swimmer, my suggestion is to mix up swimming with deep water running and, if your legs can handle it, brisk forward and backward walking in the shallow end.
Depending on the leg injury you might have, the kick you employ while swimming could irritate your injury. If that’s the case, grab a pair of pull buoys—foam floatation devices that go between quads and float your legs—that isolate your shoulder muscles. These provide a terrific upper body workout when combined with handle paddles, but without any negative impact on the injured leg muscles.
To add variety, do several swim sets (assuming you can kick) and mix in a few sets with pull buoys and hand paddles. Or warm up with the pull buoys and hand paddles and then do the swim portion of your workout, followed by either deep water running or shallow water walking.