Two-time Olympian and former British No.1 over 1500m, Andy Baddeley outlines the benefits that spending more time in the pool can bring when it comes to improving your running
In my experience, cross-training is something that runners hate (or are reluctant to do). Personally, I’ve always associated cross-training with being injured and with that came an unconscious bias against swimming, aquajogging, biking and the elliptical trainer. It was something that I did out of necessity, rather than choice.
During my career, particularly earlier on, I was often scared to miss training and it took time to learn how to gauge what to run through and what requires rest. I always incorporated rest days, but never thought to replace any running with other activities.
In fact, the perception that nothing is as beneficial to a runner as going for a run is a hard one to shake.
To a point, that perception is true. When you’re in great shape, with no problems, taking a run out of your programme is hard to justify – not least when it often feels like a lot more time needs to be spent swimming or cycling to provide the equivalent benefit of a 30-minute run.
But the key to success in athletics isn’t putting in a handful of world-class sessions – it’s putting together a continuous block of uninterrupted training over a long period of time. When I performed at my best, this is exactly what I had been able to do.
At other times, I struggled for that consistency due to a series of injuries. In hindsight, I believe that building low-impact activities into my training schedule could have helped with my consistency of training in the long-term.
As an example, I have actually had very positive experiences with swimming as a fitness tool.
“I’ve always felt like a stronger overall athlete on returning to running after swimming”
I picked up a serious Achilles injury eight weeks prior to the World Championships in Berlin in 2009. I couldn’t run at all, and needed to stay in the best possible shape around physio appointments in order to make the start line in Berlin.
For the first five of those eight weeks, I was swimming twice a day (60-90 minutes in the morning and 30-60 minutes in the evening).
That meant I had three weeks to get from the point where I was only working out in the pool, to jogging, to standing on the start line in Berlin.
I made it, and was amazed at how fit I still was from ‘only’ swimming, easily progressing through my heat against some of the best in the world.
I’ve had my fair share of injuries during my career (and spoken openly about the mental health implications of dealing with those injuries), and one of the huge benefits I’ve found from swimming has been my mood – it has helped to reduce anxiety and tension, and I’ve always found the full-body tiredness very satisfying.
The repetitive nature of pool swimming also gives me a chance to focus singularly on things like breathing and technique and definitely helps to add to your mental toughness.
With reduced (almost zero) impact, and allowing you to use upper body and core muscles in ways totally different to running, I’ve always felt like a stronger overall athlete on returning to running after swimming.
I would say that I had two major concerns about incorporating swimming into my training when I was fully fit, but hopefully I can allay those fears for anyone considering using it to help them stay healthy (both mentally and physically):
1. I’ll have to swim for a long time to get the same benefit as I would from a much shorter run
Give each swim a similar format to an interval training session, with a warm-up, main set and cool down. This gives more return on your time, as you can work harder (versus an easy recovery run where your heart rate stays relatively low) and makes the swim session mentally easier by breaking it up.
Speedo has produced a three-month training plan where each swim follows this format, as part of their MAKE 1K WET campaign.
The MAKE 1K WET programmes, developed by former ITU triathlete and duathlete Annie Emmerson, demonstrate how easy it is for runners to incorporate one kilometre of swimming into their everyday run training, and what benefits this can have to your overall fitness.
2. It’s not running, so it’s not going to help me run any faster
If you stay injury-free, and train sensibly, you’ll get faster. There’s no impact on joints and bones from swimming and water provides much greater resistance to movement, working your whole body – ultimately making you stronger on the road or track.
You also learn to control your breathing effectively, with obvious benefits for running.
Think of swimming as a combination of aerobic and strength and conditioning activities.
For example, a recent OnePoll study found that 80.28% of people who swim and run said swimming helps them run harder for longer, while 85.81% said swimming helps enhance their performance when running.
During my career, it felt like a gamble to choose a swim instead of a run. For any athlete wanting to perform at their best by being proactive in the avoidance of niggling problems, I think it would be less of a gamble and more of a smart choice.
» Andy Baddeley’s new company – Performance Team – runs Olympic level training camps for aspiring amateur athletes and triathletes
» You can access Speedo’s MAKE1K WET programmes at www.speedo.com