What are the benefits of swimming for runners?

·6-min read
Photo credit: by Chakarin Wattanamongkol
Photo credit: by Chakarin Wattanamongkol

As more and more runners begin to realise the benefits of cross-training, it’s time to take a closer look at swimming, and how it can benefit runners.

Two recent examples of runners ditching high-mileage training plans in favour of cross-training, in particular swimming, are Stephanie Davis, who recorded a 2:27:14 marathon to win the British Olympic Marathon Trials in 2021, and Beth Potter who ran 14:41 at the Podium 5K in Lancashire. Davis swims once a week on her ‘non-impact’ day, and Potter swims 90 minutes five days a week.

Clearly, this emphasis on swimming paid off for both athletes. But why is swimming such a good sport for runners? And what benefits will you see if you take up the sport?

We asked Rob Hobson, sports nutritionist at Healthspan Elite who has worked alongside British Swimming, and ice swimmer and Red Original ambassador Kate Steels to talk us through the fitness and health benefits of swimming.

What are the benefits of swimming?

The first benefit of swimming that all runners should know about is that it’s low-impact. This means your poor, battered joints will receive a well-earned rest from pounding the asphalt and instead get to float in liquid for an hour or two.

It also provides a total-body workout that helps to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone/strength and mental wellbeing. Swimming is accessible to anyone of any age, can be done outdoors or indoors and is a good option for runners who have suffered a joint injury and are looking for an alternative way to stay fit while they recover.

Importantly, incorporating swimming into your training regime may also help to improve your running performance. Here’s how it can benefit your fitness:

How can swimming improve specific aspects of your fitness?

Swimming can improve VO2max

VO2max is a key performance indicator that reflects an individual’s aerobic capacity and is defined as the maximum rate at which your heart, lungs and muscles effectively use oxygen while exercising,’ says Hobson.

‘Swimming is also all about breathing which is restricting when exercising, and this is what can help you to improve your VO2max. The process of conserving air between breaths helps you to boost your lung capacity, as the lungs become more attuned to the process involved in swimming. Certain swimming drills can also be used to help improve your VO2max. The result of this means improving your oxygen intake while running.’

Improves running economy

Running economy is the amount of oxygen that your body uses to maintain a certain pace. ‘This is an indicator of performance,’ says Hobson. ‘Poor running economy means you use more oxygen when you run, meaning you’ll be unable to maintain your pace for as long as someone with a greater running economy.’

A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport found that after 12 sessions of swimming with controlled breathing, the 18 subjects involved showed a 6% increase in running economy.

Balances upper-body muscle development

As runners, we famously neglect our upper-body strength. Some runners even take pride in how little strength training they do. But if you don’t build all-round upper-body strength, your running can suffer.

‘Maintaining muscle mass in parts of the body other than the core and legs cannot be achieved from running, and fitting in weight sessions in the gym may not be that appealing to runners,’ says Hobson. ‘Incorporating swim sessions into your routine can help to train your upper body as well as your core strength.’

Builds endurance and reduces the monotony of training

The more you run, the more your heart develops the ability to meet the demands you put upon it. However, incorporating swimming into your training regime may help to take your cardiovascular endurance to another level.

‘Swimming works your heart harder than other exercises because you are engaging several different muscle groups which puts new and different stresses on the body to which it must adapt,’ explains Hobson. ‘Adding swim sessions into your routine can also break up the monotony of training.’

The health benefits of swimming

Swimming helps support recovery from injury

If you’re recovering from a joint or muscle injury then swimming is a good way to keep up your fitness without putting strain on the bones, joints or muscles. Swimming is a low-impact sport that helps to cushion and support without putting any pressure on joints while helping to strengthen connective tissue and build muscle around the joints while you recover.

Gets you outdoors

Swimming doesn’t have to simply involve repeated lengths of your local 25m pool – outdoor swimming, in lakes, rivers and seas gets you out into the great British outdoors. One of the many benefits of cold water swimming is the opportunity to see and explore nature throughout the year.

‘There is nothing better than being in water, whatever the temperature,’ says Steels. ‘Sometimes it’s silky calm, sometimes rough, gurgling, bubbling or challenging; the weather is never the same and the wildlife you see in and on the water is wonderful. Each swim is unique.’

Don't forget, if you're swimming outdoors, never swim alone and a wetsuit will always be useful.

Improves mental health

Cold water swimming has been shown in many studies to help reduce the effects of depression. A BMJ study titled ‘Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder’ found that a weekly outdoor swim prescribed to a patient suffering from major depressive disorder could help the patient reduce, and eventually cease, medication.

‘In many areas, there are organised “Mental health swims” which encourage people to participate without any fear of stigma,’ says Steels. ‘Getting out into open water is “my space” where I can feel more at ease and I try to find my “reset” button.’

Has social benefits

‘There’s a range of informal swimming groups in most corners of the UK so it's easy to make friends with like-minded people and avoid the dangers and risks of swimming outdoors alone,’ says Steels. ‘Some groups are aimed more at social “dipping” while others are focused on swimming and fitness. Safety is critical and I would recommend finding a good coach initially before plunging into open water for the first time.’

Assists sleep

Any form of cardio exercise has been shown to benefit sleep. A study by Northwestern University found that aerobic exercise can help to reduce insomnia and improve the quality of your sleep.

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