The road to optimal fitness is not a single-lane — or single-activity — experience. Athletic experts agree that even if all your athletic ambitions are tied to a single sport, cross-training is your best bet for achieving peak form and peak results. And because it’s a no-impact, full-body exercise that boosts your cardio capacity without beating up your body, swimming is an ideal complement to almost any activity.
“Swimming allows the body to stretch out and elongate, whereas in other sports, we’re shortening the muscles and collapsing the skeletal system,” says Steve Tarpinian, swim coach and author of The Essential Swimmer. Pair swimming with running, cycling, weight training, soccer, or other field sports, and the result will be improved fitness and a stronger, more balanced, less-injury-prone physique.
“Cardiowise, swimming works miracles,” says Dror Vaknin, 40, assistant cross-country coach for the University of Tampa and elite masters runner. Swimming is also one of the most effective exercises for active recovery, helping heal injuries or relieve the stresses inflicted by a tough workout on dry land. Water pressure forces the blood deeper into the muscles, helping them recover, explains Tarpinian.
But don’t think swimming’s joint-friendly ways make it a wimpy workout for muscles. Water resistance provides enough oomph to strengthen your arms, shoulders, back, legs, and core — especially your core.
“In swimming, the power comes from the arms and hips, and what connects those two is your core. If you swim properly, you’re strengthening the core,” says triathlon coach Barb Lindquist, a former U.S. National Swim team member and a 2004 Olympic triathlete.
But swimming properly is the key. Here are some tips:
Practice good technique. To maximize the cross-training benefits of swimming, you can’t just jump in the water and flop about. Taking the time and care to develop good technique will allow you to enjoy far better cardio results by empowering you to swim at a higher intensity for a longer time. Using good form will also promote muscle balance by assuring that muscles are worked more evenly.
Reduce drag. Beginners typically struggle with sinking legs, poor rotation, and short strokes. To reduce drag, keep your body properly aligned (head, hips, and feet in line and high in the water), roll your whole body from side to side along a lengthwise axis with every stroke, and elongate your stroke.
Breathe better. Good rotation also helps you breathe: If you’re rolling enough to the side, you won’t need to lift your head (or crank your neck) as much to inhale. Also, make sure to exhale completely with your face in the water before rolling back up for another breath. (For more on technique, see “So, You Want to Be a Swimmer.”)
Work with a coach. Perfect your form by working with a swim coach or by joining a coach-led training group. You’ll improve your freestyle technique by performing drills, which isolate specific parts of your stroke. Side-kicking drills, stroke-counting drills (to practice going farther with fewer strokes), and those that focus on arm position and follow-through all pinpoint common problem areas for beginners.
This article is adapted from “The Pool as Training Tool,” which appeared in the November 2008 issue of Experience Life.