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The Swim Factor
Let’s face it: few runners have technical skill and efficiency in the pool. Certainly swimming-averse runners could simply add biking and other activities to their regimen and gain positive results. But, coaches say, swimming offers unique benefits to runners, even if they’re not very smooth or efficient in the water.
“The swimming benefits of mobility, stability and flexibility are what we’re looking for, with additional cardiovascular benefits, as well,” says Marc Evans, a triathlon and running coach from Gardnerville, Nev., who coaches several elite masters runners using cross-training methods, including having them do three to four 12- to 25-minute swim workouts after runs every week.
Swimming requires athletes to stay in a streamlined position — a position that emphasizes deep core work. In other words, when runners learn to swim properly, “they’re learning to move from inside their body to their limbs,” Evans says. “What most people do, and this is true in running, too, is use their limbs first and not their core.”
Swimming also enhances range of motion, particularly in the ankles, helps improve posture, and enhances scapular stabilization, which also benefits running by helping increase cadence, range of motion and stride power — all keys to running more efficiently.
“Swimmers have amazingly flexible ankles because of the constant motion while kicking,” Murr said. “The more you swim, the more flexible your ankles become. If you can get a runner’s ankles to become more flexible, you get greater range of motion and are able to push off a little further.”
Because of these benefits, many coaches suggest runners should get in the pool at least once a week for 20 to 30 minutes, even if an individual isn’t an efficient swimmer and lacks upper body strength. A runner might have to work up to swimming 18 or 36 lengths (roughly a quarter-mile and half mile, respectively, in a 25-yard pool) during a 30- to 45-minute swim session.
“Even if it means mixing things up by swimming two laps of freestyle, then switching to breaststroke for a few laps or even taking a break to walk a lap, that’s fine,” Murr says. “You’ll get some free motion in your legs, you’ll get some upper-body and cardio work and you’ll flush out your muscles as a recovery activity.”
However, once runners start to feel smooth and efficient in the water, they can start to really increase their aerobic and cardiovascular fitness by simulating running workouts in the pool. For example, Murr says, running 8 x 400 meters at 10K race pace on the track (75 to 90 seconds per repeat with 60 to 90 seconds of rest) can be transformed into 8 x 100 repeats with roughly the same duration and rest in the pool.
Similarly, running 5 x 1-mile repeats on the track can be translated into 5 x 400 efforts in the pool. And a 3- to 4-mile tempo run in 20 to 25 minutes can become the challenge of swimming a moderately hard, non-stop mile (roughly 70-72 lengths).