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Swimming and Running: The Perfect Combination?

Posted by Filed Under: Cross Training

I started swimming competitively when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Since then swimming has at different times drifted in and out of my workout regimen. I have always felt that swimming was a good way to stay fit, but it wasn’t until I started running and training for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in 2006 that I really recognized the true value of integrating swimming into an overall fitness plan—specifically a fitness plan including running loads of miles.

Swimming and running compliment each other in so many ways it really should have been clear to me earlier on that paring the two was going to be very beneficial. Lets look at some of the ways that swimming and running work together to provide maximum results.

Impact: Let’s face it, running is a high impact activity. Every step has an impact on the whole body and this can, over time, take its toll. Adding swimming to your fitness plan allows for an intense cardio workout without the impact. Having these low impact workouts will provide more opportunity for rest which will allow you to not only run better on your run days, but run longer and more injury free over all.

Upper Body vs. Lower Body: I don’t think anyone would ever claim that running is a strenuous upper body workout. Mainly, running works your trunk and lower body, leaving the upper body out of the mix. Swimming brings the upper body back in to focus and allows you to create a more balanced physique. In addition to a great upper body workout, swimming provides a solid lower body workout (think of kicking for laps and laps around your pool), again improving your running by providing more power and endurance.

Lean vs. Bulk: Distance runners and swimmers have a remarkably similar body structure. Neither are looking for bulk. Bulk and excess muscle will slow down a runner and sink a swimmer. What both sports are looking for is strong, lean, flexible muscle and low body fat. These are the things that make fast runners (distance runners at least, I think sprinters are a little different) and highly competitive swimmers. Compare athletes like Paul Tergat (running) and Michael Phelps (swimming) – very similar body structure. The activities of both swimming and running promote this body type – they both burn huge amounts of fat, and build strength while reducing bulk.

Resistance: We all know that resistance training is good, right? Adding a little lifting to our workouts adds muscle, makes us stronger, and thus a better runner. Now think of being able to do resistance training for an hour or more straight without changing weights or messing with machines and working every muscle in your body. That is what swimming provides, consistent resistance training without the headache of a weight room. Keep in mind, weight training is good too, but swimming will help.

Bottom-line, swimming and running just work well together. They complement each other very nicely and each helps the other. For me, this is the best combination possible.

What do you think? Do I have you itching to get in the pool? If you want some help putting together a beginning swimming workout, let me know. I’d be glad to help. As I said, I have many years of swimming experience and would be more than happy to help you get started. Leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you!



21 Comments
  1. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on December 6th at 7:41 am

    I learned how to swim my sophomore year of college, and it remained a regular part of my fitness training after that. I spent my cross country season injured my junior year, so I got a lot of swimming in then.

    A couple of years ago I was swimming regularly during the winter, but this past year has been busy enough that I fell off of the pace. My plan is to start again in mid-december, but I want to get a few more weeks of weight training in before I start messing with the program that I am on.

    I would like to do a triathlon at some point, so that I have more motivation to get on the bike and to get in the pool. Most of my efforts are focused on weight training and running.

    I wrote an article last year about lap swimming rules that you should check out if you have not spent a lot of time swimming laps in a public pool. It will make your learning curve much faster if you know what to expect.

  2. Aaron Engelsrud on December 6th at 9:54 am

    Blaine,

    I have read and love your Lap Swimming Rules article – I think I have it bookmarked! It is great to see another runner find the value in swimming. Good tips and great advice!

    Thanks!

    Aaron

  3. KH on December 6th at 11:17 am

    As a competitive swimmer myself, I do have a bone to pick with the above article: mainly the stance that swimmers have low body-fat percentages. In fact, swimmers as a sport tend to have higher body percentages then other sports, especially long distance runners. I realize that swimmers do have lower body fat than most non-athletes, so maybe this is what the article is trying to suggest? But really, comparing a swimmer’s body with a runner’s body is over simplifying.

  4. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on December 6th at 11:52 am

    KH: As far as I am aware, folk that swim more have higher body fat percentages because the body will store fat to make it more buoyant and to make you a better swimmer. I’ve never spent more than a couple of hours in a pool per week at the most, so I’ve never noticed this on myself or not. Just something that I read somewhere.

    My main problem with my own swimming is that I have about 5.3% body fat, and while I don’t sink as fast as I did in college (when it was lower yet) I still have trouble keeping afloat if I am not actively moving.

  5. Tammy on December 6th at 12:23 pm

    Just add a bike and you’ll be talking my language!

  6. Aaron Engelsrud on December 6th at 12:34 pm

    KH: You may be 100% correct, I wasn’t basing this on any scientific data – nor was I suggesting that I was. The point is not really about body fat percentages – more about body type. I don’t for a minute doubt your data – swimmers may have a higher body fat percentage than runners. That really wasn’t my point. My point was that neither sport really emphasizes a big, huge muscle body type. In reality, you don’t see high-level competitive swimmers with huge bulging, body builder like muscles nor do you see them with large beer belly’s.

    I was a fairly good swimmer in high school (5:12 500 free) and I was probably 20 or 30 pounds heavier than now, with a higher body fat percentage. Had I had a lower weight and body fat, could I Have been better? Maybe, who knows. But, I hold to my statement, “What both sports are looking for is strong, lean, flexible muscle and low body fat.” No where did I say that swimmers have a lower or equal body fat percentage to runners.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    Aaron

  7. Aaron Engelsrud on December 6th at 12:35 pm

    Tammy,

    Does spin class count? ;)

    Aaron

  8. KH on December 6th at 4:00 pm

    I’m sorry if I seemed antagonistic, Aaron. I’ve just been around a lot of swimmers for many years and have noticed many different body types out there, meatier ones than running will ever offer you, and I’d have to argue the beer bellies (certainly not huge, but often there). This is just because swimming will never be able to burn off fat the way running will due to the water’s support. But I understand that the point of your article is that swimming is a good counterpoint to running and that I believe is true (although many coaches would argue that it does not go the other way).

  9. Len on December 7th at 2:40 am

    Swimming? What about cycling? I’ve been riding on the empty roads out in the countryside surrounding the beautiful city of Christchurch, down here in New Zealand, for a few years, and it’s helping me. I am told this. For example, my Indian friend, Captain Surya, visiting from Singapore with his family and father-in-law for afternoon tea today, patted me on the stomach and said I was looking great. Actually today I rode through my 5,000th kilometer since April. And I FEEL great! I think this is one reason why corporate teambuilding programs are increasingly adding exercise to their routines and ‘games’. You ride (or swim!) and you feel better. You feel better and you work better with the people in your company.

  10. Read more at CompleteRunning.com! at engelsrud.com on December 8th at 5:51 am

    […] Recently due to some health concerns (which are now more or less resolved), I have been spending more and more time in the swimming pool. Please read my recent post at CompleteRunning.com on Running and Swimming. […]

  11. Frank on December 9th at 7:54 am

    Hi Aaron,

    I’d appreciate some guidance if you have the time, please. I run four to five times a week, usually between 4 and 6 miles, and occasionally put in an hour and a half longinsh run. (I’m building towards a marathon next April.)

    I’d love to incorporate some swimming into my workouts, but always feel that when I go to the pool I’m just aimlessly swimming laps….as I don’t k now what kind of workouts I might do. I’d be looking mainly for my swimming to give me a break from my running….but don’t want to just swim laps. Could you give me an idea of the kind of workouts I could do to spice things up a bit?

    Many thanks. Thanks too for the great article. I had to learn lane etiquette the hard way!

    Cheers,

    Frank

  12. Aaron Engelsrud on December 11th at 6:42 am

    Frank (and anyone else interested),

    I’ve posted a Beginning Swimming Workout #1 over at my blog, engelsrud.com. Take a look and let me know if this helps, I’m hoping t o put one up every couple of days.

    Thanks for your interest and keep reading CompleteRunning.com for your daily fix of running tips, information, inspiration, and much more!

    Thanks!

    Aaron

  13. Begninng Swimming Workout #1 at engelsrud.com on December 12th at 5:54 am

    […] I had a pretty good response to my recent article over at CompleteRunning.com, Running and Swimming, The Perfect Combination? So, I thought instead of sending each of you an email with this information, I’d just post it here for all to use. So, here it is… […]

  14. Tiffany on March 17th at 11:58 am

    I stopped running to get back in the pool for my favorite exercise, swimming. I have competitively swam for years, but have realized I am only decent in the pool when I have a coach pushing me, therefore not really getting the best workout and becoming bored easily. I was just thinking maybe if I alternated days this would help my desired weightloss/cardio/toning goals AND get resistance training in there too. I WOULD LOVE your help in getting started!
    Thanks for the article!
    Tiffany

  15. ricky on November 5th at 5:19 pm

    swimming sprinters are ioften quite bigger like the guy from france alern bernard or some thing like that, and swimmers dnt have bodys like distance runners at all

  16. Fiona Carlon on December 3rd at 10:44 pm

    I have heard that swimmers can develop a layer of fat in response to being in cold water all the time. This sounds a little ridiculous to me. Does anyone now if this is true? I primarily run but need to mix it up with swimming and cycling to prevent injury.

    I want to be fitter and stronger, but also don’t want to build bulky muscles!

  17. Eryk on January 31st at 3:04 am

    hey! thanks a lot for this helpful article!

    I am actually 17 years old and love to swim and run, but one question strikes me… I don’t have time to do one day , 1 hour of running and the other 1 hour of swimming… So I was wondering if I spend 2 hours in a sports club doing both (1h hour of running then 1 hour of swimming the same day) once a week does it have some negatives points?

    thanks!

  18. Pface on February 16th at 3:31 am

    What swimming technquie, will work my chest? And how long will I notice the result? Help will be appreciated.

  19. Ajantha on April 25th at 1:17 pm

    Hi

    My son is now 8 years he is very good for swimming doing swimming meets etc..
    Also he is very good for running and long jump; he got school championship under 9 as well
    Is it ok to continue both or advice me please

  20. George on June 6th at 2:46 pm

    I am in high school and i’m training for cross country. how often should i include swimming in my fitness schedule?

  21. Tyvonne Conrad on July 10th at 9:16 pm

    Hello, my name is Tyvonne . I just recently started my work out for cross country and i found your website. i think its a good idea that runnin and swimming collides well. Id love to see your workout for swimming. If its no problem could yu get it to me as soon as possible thank you.

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