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Cross-Training

360 YOU: Mary Cain Wants You to Get Into Swimming

The pro runner and 360 YOU mentor opts for the swimming pool on cross-training days.

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For many runners, cross-training is seen as a burden at best—or optional at worst. But the truth is, cross-training is important to making sure you stay healthy and fit, and the myriad options mean anybody can find something they love to supplement their weekly miles. For Mary Cain, that’s swimming.

“I’ve always found the pool to be a really, really positive space for me to gain fitness at a very comparatively stress-free  environment,” she says. “For every bone injury I’ve had, I’m often in the pool before I can start running and it’s just a great  mental place for me.”

Oftentimes runners tie so much of their identity into their running, but you’re a runner even when you’re not running, and you can be purposeful about how you treat your day and how you’re training to become a better athlete and a better person in ways that are outside of running. And as a full body, low-impact cardio sport, swimming is a solid option to balance out the pounding on the legs from running. It keeps the body active and loose while still working the cardio engine.

RELATED: 360 YOU: Versatile Cross-Training Workouts for the Elliptical, Bike, or Pool

So, don’t reserve the pool just for running rehab; there are many benefits from swimming to make you a more well-rounded and stronger runner.

Benefits of Swimming for Runners

  • Ankle flexibility. Kicking in swimming allows the ankle to flex up and down against the resistance of the water. This is advantageous for keeping range of motion in tight ankles as well as the added benefit of building ankle strength. When you arrive at the pool, be sure to grab a kick board and try some kick sets each session. Over time your ankles will thank you.
  • Core strength: Swimming engages the core as you switch from side to side with each stroke. And because swimming is about stability and position in the pool, it engages the whole core: front and back, as well as laterally. We all aim to be balanced as runners and swimming can help that.
  • Shoulder flexibility and strength. Swimming allows the shoulders to get a full rotation and adds strength. (Note we say strength and not bulk.)
  • Cardiovascular: Much like yoga, swimming forces you to breathe deep and slowly. While the inhale is sharp, the exhale is slow and controlled. This is a little off-key for a runner’s usual tempo, but training to master a slow exhale of breath is powerful for learning to empty the lungs for the next inhale. If you get short of breath while swimming, focus on the slow exhale through the water and see the difference.

Getting Into Swimming

Cain swam competitively growing up and it’s always been her happy place, but she recognizes that it can be intimidating to begin. Some tips on getting started.

First: Get Your Mind Right

“One thing that I’ve always heard over the years, and a times I’ve personally retained, is this fear that swimming is going to make you kind of bigger in the upper body, and that’s why you shouldn’t do it,” she says. “And I think right off the bat, if you’re somebody who’s starting to think this, the first thing that you should take a step back and think, ‘Why am I worried about that?'”

Cain recommends taking a critical look at your mindset around body changes, including talking to a professional, if needed. Your body is going to naturally change over time, and any upper body strength you gain from swimming is a good thing.

“As I’ve gotten older I have realized it’s just preposterous,” Cain says. “If you’re somebody who’s worried about gaining upper body weight and swimming, you’re probably somebody who’s not capable of swimming enough to do that.” The amount of swimming and intense weight training it would require to gain serious upper body muscle is simply out of reach for most of us who run as our primary form of exercise.

Find an Instructor

“If anything, swimming is the thing to get an instructor to really keep an eye on you and teach you a new skill,” she says. “And very often with swimming there’s this intimidation factor because if you’ve never learned how to do it, you’re putting your head under the water for the first time. There’s gonna be a lot of fear associated with it.”

To get over that fear—even if you know how to swim, approaching lanes for the first time can be scary—an instructor is the way to go. One of the things swim coaches love to do is to share their love of swimming with others, especially adults. The few tips they can share can yield results pretty quickly in the pool, plus give you something constructive to focus on during lap time.

The easiest way to find a swim coach is to call your local gyms and ask if they have pools and what their instructors’ schedules look like. And don’t think you’re the only one.

“Here in New York City, I’ve never been to a pool where there isn’t a private lesson going on at the same time, because there’s always instructors you can find if there is a pool,” Cain says. “And a lot of it’s just like calling around at your local pools and finding somebody who’s a good fit.”

Reframe Your View of Cross-Training

The challenge of starting something new can be terrifying—but it can also be invigorating. Try looking at it less as a chance to struggle athletically and more as an opportunity to expand your life.

“It’s really exciting and really powerful: Rather than learning it in such a way where you’re learning it to become a better athlete, you’re learning it in like a fun new skill way,” Cain says. “How often as we get older, do we really have the opportunity to say, ‘I’m a complete beginner in this. I have no experience.’?” Sometimes you just have to reframe something to bring the fun in.

And another reason why swimming is amazing: Whether you’re a beginner or you’re incredibly experienced in the pool, it’s hard to overdo it. If you’re a beginner and you do not know how to swim, you’re just not going to get very far. And if you’re a very experienced swimmer, there’s just a certain point where it’s not taking the same impact on your body as running.

Swim Workouts for Runners

Ready to dive in? Much like turning up at a track without a workout, turning up at a pool with a blank page is a recipe for boredom and some painful mind games staring at the black line. In fact, if you’re used to track workouts, swimming workouts are much the same concept. Here are a couple of basic swim workouts for runners to get you out of the locker room and into the aquatic lane.

Note: We refer to meters, but yards are interchangeable; these workouts are based not on time to complete the distance, but the seconds of rest in between sets.

Equipment needed: Swimsuit, hat, goggles, kick board, pull buoy, and a good attitude.

Swim Workout #1: Technique Set

Warm-Up

100m slow and steady, focusing on long reach and keeping breathing controlled
50m with a kickboard
50m with a pull buoy
200m slow and steady

Main Set

4 x 100m; count your strokes and try to maintain the same count per length
Rest 15 seconds between each 100m

8 x 50m, pushing harder on odd numbers
Rest 10 seconds in between each 50m

4 x 100m, one-arm drills: 25m using left arm only, 25m using right arm only.
Rest 10 seconds if needed, then final 50m using both arms

2 x 200 long and strong
Focus on reaching long and pulling through the entire stroke. Rest a minute in between each 200.

Cooldown

4 x 25 in this order for each 25m – Swim, Kick board, Swim, Pull buoy
200m easy swim
To the hot tub

Total: 1900m

Swim Workout #2: Pyramid

Warm-Up

100m slow and steady, focusing on reaching long with your arms and keeping breathing controlled
50m with a kickboard
50m with a pull buoy
200m slow and steady

Main Set

25m swim – rest 5 seconds
50m Swim – rest 10 seconds
100m Swim – rest 15 seconds
200m swim – rest 30 seconds
100m swim – rest 15 seconds
50m swim – rest 10 seconds
25m swim – rest 1 minute

8 x 50m easy > fast
Swim the first 25m is easy then sprint the second 25m
Rest 20 seconds in between each 50m

Cooldown

4 x 25 in this order for each 25m – Swim, Kick board, Swim, Pull buoy
200m easy swim
To the hot tub

Total: 1600m