I can often tell when swimmers are running because of things they carry over from the water to land. Here are a few ways you can minimize some of those common mistakes if you hope to add some valuable cross training to your workout regimen.
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Relax Your Shoulders
The easiest way to spot swimmers running is by their hunched-up, stiff, or tight shoulders. They use their arms a lot in swimming and tend to carry some of that tension while running.
Swimming requires full-body tension in order to hold a good bodyline but running rewards suppleness and fluidity over rigidity and tightness. Relax your shoulders and neck. Your shoulders should never creep toward your ears.
Let Your Body Twist
In addition to relaxing your shoulders, you also must learn to let your shoulders counter-rotate to your hips as you run. Again, this might be difficult because of your swimming background. In swimming, you create tension through your core so that your shoulders and hips are moving together. But in running, they move counter to each other.
A proper arm-swing in running requires that your right elbow goes back as your left leg extends to create a better position to use your posterior chain muscles (glutes, hamstrings, and calves) at the end of your stride, as well as to prepare your leg to swing through to begin the next step by tensing the tissues through the front.
Focus on your arm-swing while running to help counterbalance the rotation happening in your pelvis in order to keep your head level. This can also help absorb some of the impact, so that your head doesn’t bounce as much. Most of your movement should be behind you, not to the front.
Also, just as when you swim, don’t cross over your centerline while running. Your centerline will be moving as you rotate your shoulders. Keep your shoulders relaxed, your elbows bent at about 90 degrees, and your arm-swing going back, not forward.
Some runners find it more comfortable to decrease the angle of their elbow bend as their arm swings forward (to less than 90 degrees) and increase it as their arm swings back (to more than 90 degrees). How each runner carries his or her elbows is dependent on personal preference and varies from runner to runner.
Hips and Ankles
Many swimmers lack the appropriate hip and ankle mobility to run with proper efficiency, which can lead to a bouncy run, which increases the overall load on their joints. The focus should be on moving forward, not up and down.
A lack of ankle mobility is common because of the plantar-flexed, toes-pointed position that swimmers spend most of their time kicking in. This can cause an adaptive shortening of the Achilles’ tendon, which limits how far your ankle can go into dorsiflexion, or how far your toes can go up toward your shin.
To test your dorsiflexion range of motion, half-kneel with your toes about 5 inches from a wall. You should be able to touch your knee to the wall without your heel raising off the ground.
Can’t quite make it? Stretch your calf muscles to build flexibility.
Your hips are another area where mobility can be limited. This isn’t always swimmer specific. Instead, a lack of hip mobility often comes from the amount of time spent sitting at work, commuting in a car, watching TV, etc., or other sedentary activities.
You need at least 10 to 15 degrees of active hip extension without arching your lower back in order to run well. (Elite runners will be able to get up to 30 to 40 degrees, but unless you’re running sub-5-minute miles all day, don’t worry about getting to this point.)
To work on your hip extension, you can go into the same half-kneeling posture as the ankle test and then squeeze your butt to tuck your hips under you and lean forward until you feel a stretch through the front of your hip and possibly down your thigh.
Swimmers sometimes struggle with breathing while running.
They can get excited about the idea of getting all the air they want and will breathe quickly and shallowly. This won’t help you run faster and will only create a slightly hypoxic environment that’ll hinder your running. You should breathe in a controlled and measured way, making sure the air gets all the way into your lungs with each breath in order to allow for proper gas exchange in your lungs.
The breathing patterns of swimming and running are reversed. In swimming, you have a slower, controlled exhale and a short, fast inhale because you only have your mouth out of the water for a short period of time (except when doing backstroke). In running, you want to do it in reverse. The inhale should be relaxed and slightly prolonged, and the exhale should be slightly faster and more forceful.
Just as some swimmers count their strokes to establish a breathing pattern while swimming (such as breathing every third stroke in freestyle), you can use your steps to create a breathing pattern in running. When running at a relaxed pace, you can breathe in for three steps and out for two. You should always use an odd number for the total number of steps, so you’re not always inhaling and exhaling on the same steps—you’re slightly less stable through your spine on inhales because you’re engaging your abs. If you’re running faster, you can speed up the process and breathe in for two steps and out for one.