Salty Swimming? A Runner’s Guide To Cross Training In The Pool

Having fun with some friends in the pool, circa 2006.

There’s something so therapeutic about water, something so cleansing and healing. This is one reason why I don’t mind cross training in the pool during an injury or extended lay-off. But for some reason it also always seems like a chore to get up and head to the nearest pool for a swim. Thus, the dreaded, “Grrrr”, when one becomes injured.

You see with running, you can just get up and go. Swimming typically involves a drive to a facility. Then it involves a walk to a locker room, followed by 5 minutes to change into a suit then hope that a lane is available and then another 5-10 minutes to dry off and change back into clothes. In reality, once I’m in the pool, all is fine and the additional twenty or so minutes it adds to my workout routine is nill. But I do believe this is the main reason why it’s sometimes easier to just think about not cross training at all!

Welcome to the dreaded locker room. Image courtesy of

I didn’t start off a swimmer but my mom always said I should have been one with my long, lanky arms. I loved the water growing up. I’d spend my summers splashing, kicking, jumping, and pretending to be an Olympic synchronized swimmer while my mom sat back and secretly recorded the entire thing at my grandma’s backyard pool. It wasn’t until my sophomore year college that I attempted to start swimming, just like Michael Phelps. Just not as fast.

We can't swim as fast as him but we can all smile while doing it! Image courtesy of

If you do not have a swimming background but want to explore your options for a cross training activity, here are some tips:

Start slow, swim for time. When I first starting doing laps, I called it a day after 750 meters, or about fifteen minutes. It felt like I had just swam 3 miles though! You see, swimming is so different from running that even the fastest non-swimming runners will find themselves challenged at first. This is why I don’t mind swimming as a cross training activity because it typically has just as much as a “worn-out” effect as a medium effort, 5-6 mile run. These days I will swim between 1500-2000 meters at a time, utilizing a combination of the front crawl (also known as the freestyle) and breaststroke , occasionally adding some 25-250 meter fartlek-type repeats.

Get a suit. And goggles. And a cap. These gear items will make a difference! I don’t swim too often so my gear usually lasts for a year. Dolfin makes reliable and cheap suits that are sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Make sure your goggles fit tight but are snug enough to not give you a headache. I purchased my swimming cap from Wal-Mart. Having some standard swimmer’s gear will not only make you feel like a swimmer but it will make your laps feel much smoother!

Dolfin, or Dolfin Uglies as they call them, run about $35-$45. Photo courtesy of

Form isn’t everything. I once read in a book from the 1970s (I can’t recall the title) that when the sport of swimming was first discovered the point of it was to try to get across a body of water the fastest. Thus, all different styles were utilized. Eventually, the standard front crawl caught on and the technique, perfected. I used to do the front crawl but with my head above the water. Come on, you know you’ve seen those swimmers before. You might even be one! And there is no shame in that. When I started doing laps, I just forced myself to hold my head under and then breathe every few strokes. Eventually, I was able to do the front crawl like Michael Phelps (just not as fast). However, I only breath out of one side (right). And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that either!

At least with swimming, you have many different form options. Although the doggie paddle is missing! Image courtesy of

Some pools are measured in yards and others in meters. If you are going to count “mileage”, find out what the size of the pool you are swimming in is before assuming it’s in meters. Most pools are actually measured in yards. If you are lucky enough to have an Olympic-sized swimming pool to go to, and they use the full lap lanes, it will be 50 meters to a single lap and 100 meters round trip.

If you are brave, go outside. I am not brave. Fish scare the crap out of me. But come summertime (or anytime if you live in a warm climate) you can also experiment with open-water swimming. Many cities have options for open-water swims. If you are a newbie though, make sure a life guard is around. I would actually recommend getting some practice in a lap pool first before going all-out triathlete.

A bunch of brave women! Image courtesy of

Lastly, if swimming is just not for you, there are other water exercising options. Pool running can be done with or without a belt. I started with the belt years before attempting what feels a lot like treading water. The belt helps you to get a feel for the running-in-water motion and most facilities have a stock of them to use. Once you “run” without one though, it gets a lot more tough. It gets even tougher when the fitness center plays Bon Jovi on repeat. But if pool running is something you are interested in trying, 15 minutes is a good place to start, building up to an hour when you get a better feel for the movement, which should theoretically feel like you are jogging in thin air. Pool running is best done in the deep end.

Aqua Jogging with a belt. Image courtesy of

What about you? Is swimming your go-to cross training activity or do you prefer something else? Do you swim even when not injured? What is a typical routine for you?

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I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. When I was swimming I really struggled to do more than sprint from one side to the other and gasp for breath and then do it again. My instructor would laugh at my legs kicking at warp speed and my need to take breaths at every stroke. Runner’s are kinda hilarious in the pool to swimmers, I guess 🙂

    Also, I could only breathe out of my right side at first. I forced myself to try both sides because I am so severely right dominant and that’s what is the source of my butt injury. My massage therapist said that it DOES matter and that we should strive to balance the strength and flexibility of our bodies by breathing out of both sides. I’d switch every 25 yds and that wasn’t too bad. It took a couple of times to not swallow a gallon of water on the left side but it didn’t take as long as I feared it would to get the hang of it.

    1. An instructor told me that it didn’t matter and that there are pros out there who do that but your massage therapist’s theory makes a lot of sense. I can breathe out of my left side but after a few breaths, I’m too stubburn to continue it! I’ll have to try the every 25 yrds approach.

  2. I think if we were just swimming for swimming’s sake it really wouldn’t matter–my instructor said the same thing! But since we’re using it as cross-training to strengthen our bodies and cope with or prevent injuries we definitely want to try to even out the demands on our bodies. It’s funny how swimming really shows us which side is dominant! I don’t think I ever would have suspected I had a dominant side for running without the recurring right side injuries–it’s not so obvious while running. Also, I did notice my neck and shoulders weren’t as sore when I started switching to the left side regularly.

    Last thing, my massage therapist also convinced me to carry the kids using my right side as much as possible since I ONLY carried them on the left side for YEARS! That’s also helped me so much. Who knew holding kids really was physical therapy 🙂

    1. Great points! I notice I tend to hug the left hip when holding a child. I will have to switch it up next time. Though I don’t have nearly as much child holding experience as you! Now that you mention it, I favor my left leg when sitting (i.e. crossing it over or it will sit half Indian style) and I favor my right shoulder when carrying a bag. I definitely need some balance work!

  3. As a non-swimmer, this post really resonates with me. I really want to try it and to learn to swim better, but frankly it scares me. Add in the fact that I’d have to buy stuff, put on a swimsuit (a challenge in itself) and travel to do it, and well, it isn’t going to happen. Hopefully I won’t get hurt so I am not forced to change my mind. 🙂

  4. I’m training for my first triathlon (eek!) and have started swimming with a friend of mine who was on the high school swim team. She stressed the importance of learning how to breathe on each side because of the craziness that is the open swim. So after about a month, I’m finally able to do that comfortably without swallowing half the pool (well, most of the time).

    However it’s great to know that a lot of runners have the same problems or frustrations I have in the pool! I have to keep reminding myself that it’s easier to see my progress on the road than in the water and I have to patient with myself.

    1. Good luck with your triathlon! I admire you toughness to hit up the open water! And breathe out of both sides 🙂

  5. I am terrible about cross-training since I don’t currently have a decent bike and I also hate all the extra time/travel/prep required for swimming (as opposed to just running out the door)… but I would really like to be better about it! Plus, I can swim well enough to propel myself forward but it is not elegant, and I’m kinda intimidated by my general lack of knowledge about pool etiquette… I think I need to find a swimming friend to “hold my hand” the first few times or something.

    1. Having a swimming friend is a great idea. That’s what I did for the first few sessions and it eased a lot the anxieties. Good luck Rachel!