Why can't a swimmer run?
July 31, 2007 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Why can't swimmers run...and vice versa?

I've been a swimmer nearly all my life. I remember when I was younger I had a coach who decided that cross-training would be a good idea. He took us out the the track and was horrified when even the best swimmers could barely run a mile.

I know triathletes can both swim and run, but I think they must have to work very hard on both. Shifting to running was incredibly difficult for me. It took me several months to get to a 10 minute mile even though I was a good swimmer.

My boyfriend, a lifelong runner, has the opposite problem. He can run for miles, but can barely swim 10 laps.

Why the disparity? Different muscles? Learning curve for technique? Breath regulation?

More importantly, what is the best way to transition from one to another?
posted by melissam to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would imagine it's to do with muscle strength and endurance. I don't know precisely which muscles you use in each instance, but the motions differ significantly, thus one would imagine that different muscles are used.
posted by djgh at 2:28 PM on July 31, 2007


Just because you're a great bowler doesn't mean you'll be a great tennis player.
posted by knowles at 2:30 PM on July 31, 2007


I swam for years when I was younger in a rec league, and then competitively in highschool. I also played football in the off season and whenever I would transition from one sport to another it was always hard to get used to the new excercise regimen. At the end of swim season I could swim 500s like nothing, and at the end of football season I could run a mile in under 7 minutes or run long distances and be fine, but there was always a transition period. I would imagine different muscle groups and breathing plays a big role in it.

And FWIW swimming was way harder than any other sport Ive done. 2 football practices a day in full gear in 105 degree weather, is hard... but try doing all of that and not breathing!
posted by skrike at 2:39 PM on July 31, 2007


A distance swimmer or a sprinting swimmer? You are comparing the swim to the mile run which is a middle distance, emphasizing endurance mostly. Someone who can swim for all out for 4 or 5 minutes (400 m?) can run a decent mile, but they probably have too much mass in their shoulders and chest and not enough leg strength for best efficiency if all their training was swimming. Developing the specific muscles matters. I felt this when I switched from cycling back to running (after a many, many year running hiatus). I could hang with all but the most serious cyclists, but am not burning up the roads running, even as well as I did in my youth. Five minute mile? In my wildest dreams and even if I did I would probably tear up joints and tendons. That once would have been easy. General fitness does matter, but so does fitness of the right muscles. My cycling fitness allowed me to breath when I took up running, but was not enough to get me to anywhere near the same level of performance as I had on the bike. At least with cycling and running it is all in the legs (although not all the same leg muscles), whereas with swimming the upper body is more important.
posted by caddis at 3:02 PM on July 31, 2007


It's just training. It's not immediately obvious to most people how to swim efficiently, and it's not immediately obvious to most people how to run efficiently. Also, it sounds like you're talking about particularly good at one and just assuming that translates to being comparable at the other - that might make your performance feel more disappointing.

try doing all of that and not breathing!

You won't get far swimming without breathing, either!
posted by caitlinb at 3:04 PM on July 31, 2007


Runners can't swim because they weren't trained to. Without a lot of prior training in proper technique, swimming competitively is extraordinarily difficult.

Likewise, the reason most swimmers can't run is a lack of practice and training. I was once in the same position as you, a very strong swimmer with little to no running ability (which I conveniently blamed on flat feet). However, following a revelatory track session with an Olympic triathlete in 2004 (and a great deal of subsequent running), I can now both run and swim very well. It's all just a matter of training and technique.
posted by saladin at 3:04 PM on July 31, 2007


(I agree that muscle groups is part of it, but I don't think it's as big a part as approach.)
posted by caitlinb at 3:05 PM on July 31, 2007


This is probably not the case for most people, but I'm a strong swimmer and I'm asthmatic. For some reason people with asthma, especially exertional asthma, don't get it when they're swimming. (there are studies linking childhood indoor pool use with asthma, but that's neither here nor there, I already had it when I started swimming). I get my heart rate up and I'm huffing and puffing like it's a real workout, but I don't get asthma flare-ups. This is not at all the same with running where I have to take a fair amount of medicine just to do a moderate run and I still feel like I'm going to die from lack of air, no matter what.
posted by jessamyn at 3:18 PM on July 31, 2007


Former sportswriter here. Part of me wonders if there's something about swimming that stretches and trains certain muscles that unbalance the muscles and connective tissue structures used for running. In other words, swimming untrains you as a runner.

This would correlate with what high-level NBA athletes told me about off-season training, that being "in shape" and being "in basketball shape" was two different things. There were muscles used to play at a high level that are not normally used in typical off-season training regimens. The Chicago Bulls trainer was big on this -- you couldn't get a basketball player into cardio-vascular shape by just telling him to go running on a track.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:45 PM on July 31, 2007


Ever look at swimmers v. runners? In the mornings, on my way to practice here in the city, I see runners on the train: legs like tree trunks and the spinliest arms you ever saw. Once I am at practice? Giant chests & chicken legs. So that is part of it.

There is also the runner > swimmer issue of technique. Good technique in swimming is hard to come by and not very intuitive if you didn't start young. Plus endurance in both differs, and I am not sure why. Finally, there is the question of ankles, which I always find fun. Notice a runner's kick? They have little ankle flexibility (because that would be bad in running) and kick like it--badly.

Overall, it is easier for a good swimmer to add running, as far as I have seen with the triathletes, swimmers, and ex-runners I train with.
posted by dame at 3:58 PM on July 31, 2007


Sorry about the serial posting, but on the subject of triathletes: The swim is a very small part of the race relatively speaking. You can be crappy at it and still place well in a triathlon. To place superwell, of course, you have to have come from a swimming backround or to have dedicated yourself to learning something very difficult in your adulthood, but in the case of most average triathletes, they swim terribly compared to just-swimmers.
posted by dame at 4:04 PM on July 31, 2007


I am a triathlete. Elite triathletes are quite good at all three sports. Typically, they began strong in one, usually coming from a background in either running (which is most common) or cycling. What is most unusual is for someone who has trained as a swimmer to become a triathlete. The swim leg is indeed the shortest, and it is the weakest leg for so many people that it isn't hard to place well even if you are not a competitive distance swimmer.

However, all triathletes have to train in all three sports. Many triathletes swim with Masters workouts as a standard weekly workout, and swim as well as others who concentrate on swim meets. They also train with running groups and cycling clubs. I have known many triathletes who had no knowledge of or special skill in their two "off areas" before beginning tri training, and who now compare to competitive racers in each sport. They do this intentionally, often taking classes like Total Immersion swimming or doing focused training in groups with hired coaches. The improvement from no ability to very good ability startles most non-athletes, and startles even the triathletes themselves (most triathletes begin wondering if they'll ever be able to swim the leg without being rescued, or climb a hill on a cycle without having to walk the bike. The incidence of either thing happening is incredibly low.) Both cycling and swimming require more coaching and refinement than running.

All triathletes have a weakest sport. Mine is cycling, but for many people, it is swimming. I think the odds of swimming being the weakest sport are higher simply because most people have far, far less experience swimming over a lifetime than running. Swimming requires access to a pool, and good swimming requires teaching and coaching, whereas good running can be learned on one's own and from books. Swimming is just a much more technical sport; while there are natural runners who can compete at the elite level without coaching, I'd argue there are no or almost no natural swimmers who can compete at that level without coaching. The fluid dynamics involved in swimming and the enormous difference that small things like head position or hand entry can make are simply not intuitive discoveries.

I'm sure there is a lot more to say about what body type makes for the best 'natural' swimmer or 'natural' runner. But the importance of focused training, and its amazing effects on people who undertake it, cause me to think that natural ability matters much, much less than training. A great swimmer can be a great runner, and vice versa. Can they be the best in each single sport? Perhaps not. But can they be extremely good, good enough to compete in Ironmans against people with incredible all-around fitness and body development? Sure.
posted by Miko at 4:17 PM on July 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm not an athlete by an stretch of the imagination, but I've switched back and forth between running and swimming as my primary form of aerobic exercise. Each time I do so, I'm amazed at how much more I suck at the beginning.

The muscles you use in swimming (triceps and upper back primarily, though with a bunch of other muscles throughout the body, depending on the stroke) are different from those used in running (mostly the back of the leg). I've noticed that when I switch back to swimming, my triceps (back of the arm) fail quickly, which kills my form, which in turn makes each stroke harder.
posted by ferdydurke at 4:18 PM on July 31, 2007


Many triathletes swim with Masters workouts as a standard weekly workout, and swim as well as others who concentrate on swim meets.

That is just not true unless they started off as swimmers or are uber-elite. I have a lot of respect for triathletes and count many among my friends and training partners, but few if any runner-first tris populate the top half of the lanes at a given practice. That is my experience and the experience of many swimmers I know who swim for other teams.
posted by dame at 4:27 PM on July 31, 2007


while there are natural runners who can compete at the elite level without coaching, I'd argue there are no or almost no natural swimmers who can compete at that level without coaching

I totally agree. I think technique is most important in swimming of all the tri sports. A good swimmer glides through the water far, far more efficiently than a hacker. Watch their wakes. The experienced swimmer leaves almost no wake it seems. Next up would be biking, but the technique is not as difficult to learn as swimming - good position, perfect circles etc. and in tri you don't have to worry about drafting, accelerations etc.
posted by caddis at 4:29 PM on July 31, 2007


That is just not true unless they started off as swimmers or are uber-elite. I have a lot of respect for triathletes and count many among my friends and training partners, but few if any runner-first tris populate the top half of the lanes at a given practice. That is my experience and the experience of many swimmers I know who swim for other teams.

I swim with a Master's team and there are quite a few run-first triathletes that dominate their swim meets. Other than one or two, you wouldn't call them elite, either. I think it comes down to having a great swimming coach and being dedicated enough to show up at the pool three times a week for an hour and a half.
posted by letitrain at 5:31 PM on July 31, 2007


I come from a swimming background, and many of my runner friends have asked me for advice as they start trying triathlons. Aside from the technique issues in swimming that others have mentioned, breathing has been the hardest thing for them to get the hang of. Runners are used to being able to breathe all the time, whereas swimmers, even if they're not holding their breath, have to deal with a sort of stuttered gasp-in-quick, blow-out-slow breathing pattern to match the part of their stroke when breathing is possible. This leads beginners to hold their breath longer than they should, which obviously doesn't help their endurance.

As a swimmer trying to learn to run, I found that the breathing differences also caught me up - it was so different to be able to breathe whenever I wanted to that I had to really pay attention at first to avoid hyperventilating. Even more than that, though, the thing that wore me out the most was the constant pounding of running. The high-impact nature is completely opposite of what I was used to with swimming, and it just felt like I was getting beat up.
posted by vytae at 5:57 PM on July 31, 2007


It's not an endurance issue (switching from swimming to running) as some people up thread have already pointed out. The main issue is that swimming is non-weight bearing, so swimmers' leg muscles might be strong in some ways that carry over to running, but the eccentric motions haven't been trained and leg muscle fibers haven't been built up over time to withstand the extreme physical pounding that running entails.

I used to be a competitive marathon runner, and when I was injured for long stretches of time I did all of my training in the pool. I'd train by running in place with a flotation device, replacing my time spent training on land to the minute with equal effort striding in the deep end-(the most boring and tedious stretches of time I've ever experienced).

Regardless of being in the pool every day, working to exhaustion, my subsequent returns to running each time were excrutiatingly slow and painful. It took a few weeks to build up to being able to complete a 1 mile jog, when just 6 weeks before the layoff I was running at least 10 miles a day, and 20-22 miles every Sunday. Until my muscles adapted to the pounding again, (usually around week 3) it was always a terrible slog.

I'd imagine for anyone transitioning from the pool to running on the roads without a background of high mileage training it would be a far, far slower process. It takes a while for one's musculature to catch up with one's general fitness when switching sports.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:08 PM on July 31, 2007


That is just not true

No, it is, though you may not see them at your pool or any individual pool. You will, however, see them racing with the elites at triathlons.

What would you say is an excellent half-mile, mile, or two-mile swim time at a meet you compete in?
posted by Miko at 8:59 PM on July 31, 2007


Because aerobic adaptation is extremely specialized. Marathoners aren't necessarily going to be fast sprinters, and vice versa. And that's the SAME SPORT. You're now combining skill, weight bearing (or the lack thereof) plus different musculature - with different demands on glycogen stores (or training of such stores. About the only thing in common here is the aerobic nature of both sports.
posted by filmgeek at 10:23 PM on July 31, 2007


I'm a former middle-distance runner turned cyclist, but I think the answer to this question is fairly universal to swimming/running, swimming/cycling, any endurance sport to any other.

When I started cycling and gave up running, my body underwent a rapid restructuring. I lost a huge amount of upper body mass and gained a huge amount of lower body mass, specifically in my quads. Now, on the rare occasions when I run, I feel very awkward, and my form is totally different and much less efficient than it was when I was a true runner. My legs feel weighed down by useless (for running) mass in the quads, and my arms have atrophied to the point of being totally ineffective. I suspect the same is true for swimmers, who carry lots of upper body mass that doesn't help them run, and none of the appropriate musculature in their legs for running. So that's part of it.

But there's another part too: I recently participated in a physiological study where, as part of it, they measured my VO2max (maximum volume of oxygen my body can process during exercise) while cycling and while running. On the bike, it's something like 80 ml/min/kg; while running, it's closer to 50. Since the muscles I need for running are no longer trained to run, they are not efficient at processing oxygen, so I'm much more limited as a runner than I was when I was competing as a runner.

Your body has a limited amount of resources to dedicate to building muscle and fitness, and when you train, it puts all of those resources into those specific muscle groups, and pulls them from areas where they are not needed. That's why cross-training in the off-season is important, it helps force your body to build muscles it doesn't normally use, which helps prevent muscle imbalances that can cause injuries.

Because both sports are aerobic sports, you can imagine that swimmers will be better runners than a random person who is neither swimmer nor runner; but, without training to run, you would not expect top-level performance from a non-runner.
posted by dseaton at 6:18 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Just a data point to add - my roommate freshman year was an accomplished distance runner. He decided to enter a triathlon sponsored by the school and so he added swimming and biking to his running regimen.

The afternoon after the race I came back to him collapsed on his bed and I asked him how it went. He said, "oh, I won." Apparently, his swimming was middling compared to the rest of the pack (which is to say good), but his running and biking were devastating.
posted by plinth at 6:23 AM on August 1, 2007


Great swimmers are somewhat disadvantaged in triathlon. They might place high in the swim leg, which is always first, but the differences between the best and worst swim times are miniscule in comparison to the differences between best and worst bike and run times. Where you might gain a 3-minute lead over the middle of the pack in the swim, it's incredibly easy to lose three minutes over a 24.8 mile bike ride if you can't climb hills or don't know about drafting. The bike leg is the most crucial to overall time result, with the run being second and the swim being last.

But I think dseaton described the difficulties quite well. It boils down to: if you aren't training in a sport, you won't be very good at it. If you do train, your body will adapt. If you cross-train, you might be able to get very good at two or more sports at once. And if you get coached on technique in technical sports, your performance will improve.
posted by Miko at 8:33 AM on August 1, 2007


No, it is, though you may not see them at your pool or any individual pool. You will, however, see them racing with the elites at triathlons.

I am not sure what that means. Elite triathletes might be able to hang with one-sport swimmers (a preponderance of whom swam in childhood), but the vast majoirty of good triathletes are not particularly good swimmers because they don't need to be and it is incredibly hard to learn. That was my main point.

What would you say is an excellent half-mile, mile, or two-mile swim time at a meet you compete in?

There is no such thing as a half-mile or two-mile swim at a meet and the mile (the longest event) is rarely run and not really a mile. Most races are 50-100-200-400--to put that in perspective, the "mile" is 1650--and are stroke or medley. That is, even a middle distance race to a swimmer is a sprint to a triathlete and the majority require you to have mastered more than just freestyle. Likewise, in season competitive swimmers aren't coming in three days a week or swimming 2500-3000; they are swimming 4500-6000 five or six times. Neither sport is better, but they are different, and I would rather be accurate. Anyway, email me if you want to talk more.

posted by dame at 9:18 AM on August 1, 2007


I agree that the vast majority of triathletes are not able to hang with the single-sport swimmers. However, the top tier of triathletes, say the top 10 or 20%, certainly can and do. You can see these people at any triathlon, but because they are thinly distributed across the population, they might not show up at your local pool. The sample at a local pool is pretty small.

There is no such thing as a half-mile or two-mile swim at a meet and the mile (the longest event) is rarely run and not really a mile. Most races are 50-100-200-400....


That's exactly my point. People who train for triathlon are incredibly good, fast, and efficient at distance swimming. Many competitive swimmers who swim the shorter lengths wouldn't do so well at a half-iron or iron-distance swim. Most triathletes do swim freestyle mostly and neglect the other strokes, so they may not indeed be so hot at other events. But they're definitely out there.

I agree, both good sports and both different. The point I'm arguing against is that someone can't be good at both sports (running and swimming) when they definitely can, when they've trained for them.
posted by Miko at 9:49 AM on August 1, 2007


People who train for triathlon are incredibly good, fast, and efficient at distance swimming. Many competitive swimmers who swim the shorter lengths wouldn't do so well at a half-iron or iron-distance swim. Most triathletes do swim freestyle mostly and neglect the other strokes, so they may not indeed be so hot at other events.

No, they aren't. They are still mediocre because in general they have mediocre technique. The hardcore sprinters I know would still take out all but the top 10 percent. How do I know? Because that is what happens when they do a tri for fun. And if you can only do one small part of a sport, you are not good at it. It is very rare to be genuinely good at two sports, much less three and more common to be mediocre. Why you can't just accept this, I don't know. Most swimmers are medicre tris, and I think they can live with that. Maybe you should work on living with it too.
posted by dame at 1:45 PM on August 1, 2007


Maybe you should work on living with it too

Maybe you should work on not considering this so personal.

all but the top 10 percent.


The point you continue to miss is that in this discussion I have been consistently talking about the top 10 percent. In her question, the OP posited that "runners can't swim" and "swimmers can't run." To refute that idea, which is overly simplistic, I am seeking to point out that some people can be very good -- truly, very good -- at both, when properly trained. They constitute the top tier of triathletes - the same group you're admitting swims as well or better than good swimmers in the swim leg of triathlon.

As a corollary: When swimmers do a tri "for fun," they come in in the bottom third because they aren't good enough at the two longer, more significant legs. But when they train seriously in the sport and become competitive in running and especially cycling, they improve their final place.

It is very rare to be genuinely good at two sports

And yet, thousands of people are.

more common to be mediocre

And some would say it's much more demanding to be mediocre in three sports than very good at one, but that's beside the point. Which is simply that good swimmers can be good runners and vice versa.
posted by Miko at 2:26 PM on August 1, 2007


[miko/dame, it's time to take the rest of this to email if you don't mind, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 2:43 PM on August 1, 2007


No need. Sorry about the testy tone.
posted by Miko at 3:13 PM on August 1, 2007


I know this is a late answer, but something I didn't see mentioned is that the anaerobic threshold seems to be both very trainable and sports-specific. In practice this means that good aerobic fitness in swimming does not translate to good aerobic fitness at running, or vice versa. I've got good running fitness, but I know that while I can swim for relatively long periods of time when I want to I have to do so at a very much lower level of relative exertion. I would imagine when a group of athletes heads out to the pool or the track for some cross training there are all kinds of reasons why their exertion is higher than can be supported aerobically in the new discipline prior to training.
posted by OmieWise at 8:55 AM on August 7, 2007


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