Friday, March 3, 2017

Pooling your resources

I'm here to make a case for swimming as part of training for ultrarunning.

Sick cannonballs into the pool are optional, but recommended.

Because I used to be a triathlete (but I got better..) I used to swim a fair bit - 3 or 4 times a week on average, sometimes pushing up to six days a week if I was in a swim focus. When I made the decision last year to focus exclusively on ultrarunning, I stopped worrying about long bike workouts but still continued to swim a couple of times per week, with the key session being Thursday evening - the last workout before my immutable day off on Friday. Due to circumstances like a 2-week pool closure for annual maintenance, further closures due to the holiday season, dental procedures in January and general exhaustion (laziness?), I hadn't been to the pool much since last year but I've been getting back in the water the last week or two and it's doing me a lot of good.

There are several benefits that ultrarunners - or anyone else - can derive from swimming.

1. Burn Baby Burn

I'm currently carrying some extra insulation that I'd like to be rid of before the race season gets into swing in ERMAGHERD LESS THAN TWO MONTHS *panicked breathing*

Ok, sorry about that. To continue, I'm chubby right now thanks to some less-than-ideal nutritional choices over the last few months. I'd like to be less chubby, but food tastes good and I'm likely to injure myself if I try to pile on any more running mileage than my somewhat carefully planned weekly increases, especially while I'm carrying extra pounds. I can burn some additional calories in the pool without the danger of stress fractures or joint damage, and since swimming uses your whole body, it's a pretty solid way to torch through some of my winter fat stores.

2. It's Not Always Leg Day

Further to swimming's engagement of almost every muscle in your body (particularly if you swim a variety of strokes), it's a great way to build functional fitness for everyday life. Many runners are notoriously bad at doing any sort of cross training, so while they may have legs for days they could be arm-wrestled into submission by your average 7 year old. Swimming requires your upper body, core and lower body to all work in concert, which can even help with your general coordination as well...though I must say that I've put in over 1.6 million metres (over a thousand miles) since January 2009 and I'm still clumsy as hell. There's just no overcoming some handicaps.

3. Go Hard

Swimming is an incredible workout for your heart and lungs. Between the lack of oxygen (particularly if you do flip turns and breathe less frequently than every stroke cycle, as I learned to do in my tri-dork days and continue out of habit) and the sheer volume of muscle groups involved in getting you from one end of the pool to the other, you're making your cardiovascular system work hard. You can accomplish the same thing while running, but an increase in running pace to get yourself really gasping carries an increased risk of injury. In the pool, you can go as hard as your masochistic brain desires and you're unlikely to damage yourself - your shoulders may take a pounding if your technique is poor, but at least that won't put you out of commission for run training like a pulled hamstring.

If you're really down with doing some water-based HIIT (high intensity interval training), learn to swim butterfly and you'll become intimately acquainted with the feeling of your lungs try to punch their way out of your chest, setting fire to every muscle in your body as they make their exit.

"Swim some 'fly" they said.
"It'll be fun" they said.

The thing is, you're really, REALLY not supposed to stop in the middle of the pool, or hold on to the lane ropes. So, swimming can also train you to push through burning muscles and oxygen debt while running as you gasp and flail your way to the wall - your body will become more efficient at flushing waste products from working muscle groups and you'll increase your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), both of which translate to improved running fitness.

4. It's All In Your Head

That bit about pushing through hard intervals counts as mental training, too, which is another benefit swimming can offer ultrarunners. Once you've fought your way through some heart-exploding sets in the pool, you're better prepared to push yourself up and over that nasty hill without dropping to a walk, or to keep on running until that next aid station. Working on technique can assist with proprioception (the personal spatial sense of where parts of your body are and how they move) and coordination, too, which are valuable on the trails where the footing can change at any moment.

Another aspect of mental training that swimming offers that applies specifically to ultrarunning is becoming comfortable with boredom. Depending on the event, you may be running through the same scenery (or lack thereof) for hours or days on end, with little to keep your mind occupied but your own thoughts. This can be detrimental to both your mental health and performance if you allow boredom to get on top of you, but swimming laps with nothing to entertain you but the immutable black line on the bottom of the pool can help inure you to even the dullest of tracks or trails.

Yeah, I really make it sound fun, don't I?

5. Shake It Off

By far the best reason I can offer to incorporate some swimming into training for ultrarunning is the assortment of ways it can help you recover from the incessant pounding of running high volume. The hydrostatic pressure of the water on your legs is like the lightest of massages, loosening up tight, sore muscles with a loving squeeze - almost a softer version of wearing compression tights, or dynamic compression boots. The kicking action of backstroke or front crawl/freestyle gently mimics the action of running, making it ideal for active recovery after a race or hard workout - the light muscular contractions and increased heart rate will flush out waste products and provide a supply of fresh, clean blood to repair damaged tissues, decreasing soreness and making you stronger. If I've done a particularly long, hilly, or otherwise damaging race I will often simply walk and swim for a few days before I return to running a single step.

Once you're done swimming and have your muscles all nicely warmed up, you're primed for some stretching to lengthen tight fascia and promote healthy movement. I've written before about the fact I only ever do any static stretching after a swim, and I know that part of the benefit I've felt from getting back in the pool lately has been from returning to my post-swim stretching habit - particularly for my chronically tight hamstrings. This is also why 

6. Facilities

Many public pools and pool-equipped fitness facilities also have a hot tub and/or sauna. 

Need I say more?

That's also where I choose to do my post-swim stretching - the turbulent water provides a welcome massage as I stretch, leaving me relaxed and feeling like a happy pile of jelly. This is also why I try to make it to the pool after my evening run on Thursday; so I'll have those tired, sore muscles in the best possible shape to recuperate during my rest day on Friday.

I strongly believe that swimming a couple of times a week is an excellent addition to my training for ultras, and suggest that it's at least worth a try for anyone else, too. I don't advocate sacrificing sleep to go swim during the week of a race - many lane swims are early in the morning or (in my case) later at night, so I'll forsake the pool in favour of extra Zs in the few days before a key event - but unless you're literally running every moment outside of work and sleep I'd suggest you could find time for a 30min swim here and there.

If you don't know how to swim, I strongly advise learning - there are classes available for adults who have never dipped so much as a toe in the water, and they'll get you swimming functionally without judgement or ridicule. It's a skill that can save your life (or the life of another, should you come across a person drowning and have the knowledge to safely perform a rescue), and a form of exercise that you can continue throughout your entire existence since it offers resistance and cardiovascular benefits with no damaging impact on fragile bones or joints. Not to mention, it really can be fun and relaxing; we spend the first months of our lives floating weightlessly in our mother's womb, and on a good day an easy swim can let you recapture just a bit of that sub-aquatic tranquility.

Go on - make a splash!

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