A blog by runners. For runners.

Can swimming make you a better runner?


Following a training plan, doing speedwork, and racing regularly are actions runners can take to get better. But there’s another activity that can increase your endurance and strength and aid in preventing injuries.

What’s this mystery form of exercise? Swimming.

I know — I’m betting that those of you who aren’t triathletes are rolling your eyes. Who wants to get wet and work out in a pool instead of running through the great outdoors? I sure didn’t. Actually, I used to assume swimming wasn’t a “real” workout and would be a waste of my time.

Then, a few years ago, my husband challenged me to do a triathlon and I had to get in the pool. And, boy, was I wrong about swimming.

Not only was swimming an incredibly difficult workout – how could I run 13.1 miles without stopping but couldn’t swim a few hundred meters without needing a break? – but I also enjoyed it because it helped my running so much. Since taking up swimming, I’ve gotten faster and have suffered fewer injuries.

And, according to experts, this was no fluke. Swimming can benefit runners in many ways. Swimming helps runners:

  • Improve endurance and VO2 max.  Swimming is a great way to increase fitness without further taxing tired or even injured legs. In fact, it’s not uncommon for runners turn to pool workouts when they have running injuries. Swimming uses different muscles and the water adds resistance, so don’t be surprised by how tired you feel after a swim.
  • Learn to pace better. Do you always go out too fast and blow up in later miles? If so, swimming can teach you how to hold a consistent pace. Swimming requires rhythmic breathing which leads to good pacing skills.
  • Build upper body strength. Runners are known for having weak upper bodies. Swimming is a great total body workout because it strengthens the shoulders and muscles in the upper back. This can improve a runner’s balance and stride control.
  • Reduce the risk of injury. Kicking in the water helps ankles and hip flexors become more flexible which lowers the risk of IT band, knee, foot, and ankle injuries from running. Swimming also helps build lower body strength which can heal muscle imbalances and prevent common overcompensation injuries.
  • Recover better. Swimming is gentle on the body because it’s non-impact. If you want to be active but are sore from running, swimming is an ideal option because it offers a cardiovascular workout without the pounding. Plus, if the body of water you swim in is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, swimming can reduce muscle inflammation from intense runs.

Coaches suggest using various techniques – freestyle, breast stroke, butterfly, and backstroke – to target different muscle groups to get the most out of swimming. And don’t forget about pool running.

Do you swim? Do you find that it helps your running?

Written by Jen Matz / Photo by Stuart Grout

Related: Can’t swim? Here’s how to learn … and train for a triathlon