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Cross-Training with Swimming

Olivier Poirier-Leroy outlines the five benefits of cross-training with swimming.

Swimming is one of the most popular forms of exercise on the planet. Due to its low impact nature, high versatility, and ability to target the whole body, swimming is a unique way to cross-train, whatever your sport or activity of choice.

Russell Wilson, Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, partly credits swimming for his durability and recovery. Apart from getting regular massages, the Seahawk Pro Bowler hits the swimming pool three times per week, swimming up to 30 laps at a time.

"I love being in the water, in the pool,” he told ESPN back in 2016. "I think that helps a lot getting your body back. That is a big thing for me".

You do not need to be Michael Phelps or even Russell Wilson to reap the benefits of hitting the pool. Here are five reasons athletes should cross-train with swimming.

Low impact exercise.

There is a reason that being in the water feels so great. Your body’s weight is reduced by around 90% thanks to the buoyancy of the water. Taking the load off your joints and bones in the pool can be a relief, especially for athletes who take a beating performing land-based sports that involve hard impacts, like jumping on a hardcourt or getting hit on the football field. With reduced stress on ligaments, joints, and tendons, athletes and gymgoers can get the blood flowing without putting additional high-impact reps on the body.

A full-body workout

Swimming is excellent for cross-training as you can use it in a wide variety of ways. Freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly are full-body movements that require every primary system in the body to work together. But if you want to specifically target your shoulders and back, strap on a pull buoy and do some “pulling” in the water, using only your arms to propel yourself through the water. Likewise, if you are looking for a more leg-centric workout, use a kickboard and target the quads, calves, and glutes. Whatever your goals are in the gym or on the court, there is a way to train for them in the water.

Swimming is a way to get more training in

Swimming presents a lot of unique challenges for athletes in the gymgoers in the water. We have already discussed the low-impact and full-body benefits of this form of exercise, but because you are in the water, you can also exercise for longer. For athletes who are just getting back into the gym or who are starting a new training regimen, the adjustment period can take time. General soreness and training limitations mean progress can be slow.

Thanks to the low-impact nature of swimming, you can add a heap of training to your schedule without hurting yourself. Research with sedentary individuals (Cider et al., 2006) showed that they were able to work out for much longer in the water compared to on dry land. Water-based exercise, whether it is swimming for laps or water jogging, can be done for more extended periods. For athletes who are trying to build a more significant aerobic base at the beginning of the season or after some time off, this can be a total game-changer.

Swimming is mental recovery, too

One of my favourite health benefits of swimming has less to do with what you see in the mirror and more to do with what is happening between your ears. Spending some time in the water, with just you, your breath, and the black line below you have distinctly meditative properties that will leave you feeling rejuvenated and refreshed when you pull yourself out of the water.

One paper (Berger & Owen, 1992) found that collegiate students felt significantly refreshed after swimming. They reported decreases in stress, tension, and anger after their swims, showing that swimming is not only a great way to stay physically healthy but is also a powerful tool for managing stress and tension. There are not too many moments in the day when we can unplug from social media, smartphones, and other external distractions.

Swimming helps develop healthier lungs

One of the things that you notice about swimmers is their remarkable ability to breathe correctly. This is a function of the sport—as you churn up and down the length of the pool, you are using breathing patterns to suck down the oxygen necessary to fuel your muscles.

When you watch Olympic-level swimmers, you notice that they do not breathe that much during sprint events, and even middle-distance and distance swimmers need to be strategic with their breathing in and out of flip-turns and starts. This attention to breathing, and the highly aerobic nature of the sport, combine to create powerful lungs.

A paper took a look at the comparative lung functions of swimmers and compared them to runners. Even three years after the swimmers had finished training their sport, they still had much more robust and more developed lung capacity compared to the runners, who were competitive-level middle-distance runners.

Another paper published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine in Science showed that after just twelve sessions in the water, 18 participants had a 6% increase in running economy. The benefits of being able to breathe more efficiently in your sport of choice should be readily apparent—being able to get more oxygen down, and being able to use it more effectively, gives you a performance edge both in training and on game day.

The takeaway

Swimming is an excellent tool for athletes and gymgoers of every stripe. The versatility and application are without peer when it comes to training and recovery modalities.

Whether you are looking to boost aerobic capacity, increase the efficiency of your lungs, or want a break from the regular rigours and high-impact of training, swimming has an option for you.

Grab your swimsuit, a pair of swim goggles, and head down to your local aquatic centre and get in better shape, recover faster and improve your mood.

Page Reference

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  • POIRIER-LEROY, E. (2020) Cross-Training with Swimming [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer turned high-performance coach and mental performance consultant. He has over 30 years of experience in competitive swimming and believes that swimming is a core skill that every athlete and gymgoer should learn.