Should you take up running (or some other activity) to supplement your swimming?

I saw a discussion on a swim coach Facebook page asking what other coaches thought about making their age-group swimmers do some running as part of their conditioning for swimming. There were quite a few reasoned opinions shared in that discussion so I didn’t the need to offer a few more. But my mind start working on how I would respond to that topic and realized that it requires asking more questions before giving my answer.

You may have a goal for your swimming, but what is your chief value behind it? What is most satisfying to you about it?

What kind of time and energy do you have for an alternative activity?

What alternative activity fits your body best?

Will it conflict or complement your first-love activity?

What alternative activity has the least obstacles to doing it regularly and often?


Excelling At One Sport

If I’ve got a team of athletes that are aiming for the podium in their sport then I would be reluctant to have them divert time, energy and reduce stress buffers by running. With consideration to precious resources, being super-focused (in a responsible way) on one activity can yield best results in a narrow band of performance. There are advantages to being extremely specialized, even within a sport (such as sprint, medium or long distance).

However, the younger the kids or the newer one is to the sport, the more I would insist upon the athletes building up their general, full-body strength and conditioning, touching on all the fundamental human movements and strengths, in and out of the water. Running would likely be one of those. After a few years of general conditioning then it would be safer for them to take up more specialized training to pursue a more narrow range of high performance, knowing that we started with a good foundation to handle higher loading, and being conscious that there are pros and cons to becoming ultra-specialized. 


Being Well-Rounded

If I’ve got a team of athletes who are intending to be well-rounded beings, developing the full range of human capabilities and strength, their joints were young enough to start this safely, and we had the time to spare in weekly training, then I would highly consider adding running because it is a fundamental human capability, and we can develop other useful skills there too.

One thing I would note at this point is that running is not likely going to be enjoyable unless one does it with enough frequency (more than twice a week) and builds up enough base (perhaps more than 200 miles within 2 months) to get the body far enough into adaptation for it. It is no wonder to me that athletes who dabble in running don’t find it very pleasant or rewarding. An initial investment must take place in order to get to that level.

In high school I joined our state champion swim team and was learning to compete next to kids who were breaking state records each year. We also had elite state runners, a few of which joined the swim team in winter. It was obvious that running fitness did not carry over to give one much physical advantage as a swimmer – other than the mental discipline to handle hard training, and a humble attitude that accepted being good in one sport while not so good at another. Yet, I did experience and observe that swimming’s superior aerobic fitness carried over to aide one’s running (though an elite runner would then want to shed that extra upper body mass).

I would be more likely to prescribe swimming to a runner than to prescribe running to a swimmer. But the same kind of base is required. It could take perhaps 50 miles of swimming within 2 months to get to a level where vigorous swimming felt pleasant and rewarding.


Being Versatile, Adaptable, Resilient

The last six months have provided a perfect case in point for one of the reasons why I maintain both swimming and running concurrently (beyond the reason that I simply enjoy each one for their own sake).

I highly value the physical sensation and advantages of strong aerobic fitness, and swimming and running build those. Like most of you, from March onward, for over 3 months I was unable to go swimming. So I diverted all my energy into running and enjoyed a boost in my performance there. In mid-July I was able to return to the pool and started to gently rebuild my swimming base while I continued to emphasize running. Then two weeks ago terrible forest fires engulfed our nearby Cascade mountains and produced the most horrible smoke filled air, such that even breathing indoors was often irritating. I stopped all running, and shifted my focus to swimming, though in short, gentle amounts because air quality was still a concern indoors at the pool. I also took this opportunity to draw my boys (11 and 13 years old) into doing strength and conditioning exercises with me at home 2 days a week, as part of their new online (home) school lifestyle.

When one beloved activity was blocked, I could shift my focus to another and maintain some form of the fitness I value and need. That second activity was already present in my lifestyle so that all I had to do was shift emphasis and gradually build intensity up to where it would satisfy what I was seeking from it.

It can be good for resilience preparation to consider… if I couldn’t do this thing I love, what else could I do that would satisfy at least some of what I value in it? How could I mix and match other activities to compensate? Of course, I need to first examine what I most deeply value about my first-love activity, so that I can then consider what other activities might compensate in some way. 

I also appreciate alternating between my two activities. When there are no scheduling obstructions and I am not needing to put extra emphasis on one of them, I will alternative activity days – swim this day, run the next day. I am in water one day and on land the next. I am predominantly working the upper body rhythmically one day and working the lower body the next. I am working weightless against the smooth yet unstable thickness of water one day and absorbing the pounding of the ground the next. This gives my body a dramatic change day to day, and it gives my mind refreshment – I find myself eager to do the activity after a day away from it.

I also acknowledge that I could be a stronger and faster swimmer if I only focused on swimming, or likewise for running. I choose to divide my time and resources between them. But because I know my deeper value for general strength and fitness for longevity sake, I accept the compromise so that I can enjoy both activities regularly, and be ready to shift as needed.

Photo by Tincho Franco on Unsplash

If I had to pick something else, I had the equipment and access to smooth water, I’d choose rowing, to work my entire body as one synchronized unit, and stay outdoors.


What Should You Do?

I don’t know what alternative activity you should do, but, unless you are aiming for highest performance in a particular sport (for a season of your life), I hope you will consider taking up another activity as a supplement and back up to the one you love the most.



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