7 things to remember when taking up swimming as a runner

Getty Images

You may have smashed out lengths at swimming galas as a youngster and enjoy a leisurely dip on holiday, but when it comes to the thought of tackling anything more that whole swimming lark seems a lot more intimidating. However, don’t let your reservations hold you back – we got advice from Dan Bullock, coach and co-founder of Swim for Tri, who’s trained thousands of swimmers in his 25+ year career.

1/ Slow it down

When you’re cycling and running, moving your legs faster means you move faster. With swimming, that’s not the case. “Feeling a high heart rate and frantic movement with the arms flailing and splashing can feel fast and give the illusion of speed, but actually it’s highly unlikely that’s going to be fast. Maybe it is for 25 minutes, but it’s not going to be sustainable,” Bullock explains.

What you need to do is find the middle ground. “It’ll calm down when you get the right muscles doing the right job, and the arms creating the correct lever shapes,” Bullock says. Don’t be put off if it begins to feel easier – that’s just because you’re moving more efficiently. “Unfortunately people often lose confidence at that point because it gets easier and they assume it can’t be faster. Regular time testing should give you confidence that, illogical as it might seem, swimming getting easier should actually deliver some speed.”

2/ Let your arms do the work

It may seem alien to hand the work over to your arms, but your legs will thank you once you’re back on dry land or deep into your bike leg. Not only are your arms better suited to propelling you forward through the water, moving your legs in big motions will create more drag and slow you down. “I’ve seen 2:45 marathon runners struggle to swim more than a couple of lengths because it is so easy to get the front crawl technique so incredibly wrong,” says Bullock. “If the wrong muscle groups are activated, they use lot of oxygen and energy to do a good job of sinking you very quickly.” Get into practice by trying a few lengths of front crawl with a pull buoy between your thighs. You’ll quickly feel your arms activate and make all the difference.

3/ Keep your legs in line

So, if your arms are doing the legwork as it were, your legs need to stay streamlined and help keep your lower body afloat. “Streamlining is so important. In a bike fit, you talk a lot about streamlining and aerodynamics, but in the water, at nearly 1000 times denser than air, it really is critical that you pay some heed to streamlining,” explains Bullock. “You’ll use a much smaller range of muscles, less air, less energy and it will propel you forward a whole lot better.”

4/ Cross train

‘But swimming is cross training!’ we hear you cry. That it may be, but that’s not to say you won’t benefit from practicing more activities outside the pool – especially if you struggle to get your form right while swimming. “Often, it’s Pilates or yoga that help to ease the joints into that streamlined position.” Bullock recommends the swimmer movement from Pilates. Do this by lying flat on your stomach with your arms out in front of you and legs behind you. Engaging your stomach and glutes, raise your upper back, head, left arm and right leg off the ground. Alternate your arms and legs for 20-24 beats.

5/ Use equipment

Fear not, we aren’t suggesting armbands and a rubber ring (though you’d look great sporting both). Bullock and his team at Swim for Tri make use of kit such as floats and fins to help you pin down a solid swim technique without exhausting yourself in the process. “You sit higher in the water so it’s easier to get to the air, but unfortunately that doesn’t work so well when you swim slower which is where most people start from. Swim accessories help give you that body position boost so you can make more use of sessions.”

6/ Breathe easy

What’s simple on land can turn even the most confident runner into a spluttering mess once they hit the pool. “Breathing is the tricky one because in water, even at slow speeds, you are not in control of when you get to breathe,” says Bullock. The solution? Work on your general swimming technique. “Early on, until you become technically quite advanced, you’re not in control, the stroke is dictating when you get to turn your head and take the air. Technique allows you to take the breathing when you want it. Eventually, you’ll dictate and the stroke will obey your command.”

7/ Don’t give up

You didn’t learn to run well over the course of a week, and the same will be true of swimming. “To swim well takes some time – it’s repetition, which can be a little bit dull, but really there’s nothing quite like repeating. The more you do, you absorb it into the subconscious and you build on that.”