Sunday, 28 July 2013

How Swimming Can Make You A Better Runner

Although I have been running all my life I only started running seriously, entering races, in the last year and a half since I turned 40. So there is an element to my running which I think is a reaction to a looming mid-life crisis (a subject that I have blogged about before). Possibly in a similar mid-life crisis vein I have recently started taking swimming lessons.

I can swim but unless I am doing something like breast stroke I quickly get out of breath after one or two lengths and so I thought it would be good to improve my front crawl and be able to swim “properly”. First of all I am loving the swimming lessons. Learning a new skill at any age is great and gives me a real sense of achievement. If this is a symptom of a mid-life crisis I wish I’d had one ten years earlier.

What I had not anticipated from the swimming is how it is improving my running.

Learning how to improve my front-crawl stroke serves to highlight every aspect that is wrong with my running style and helps me improve it. When I run I am able to “hide” the weak points in my running technique by compensating with my strengths. As I am new to swimming I’m not able to do this and so I am forced to address my weaknesses. Let me give you two simple examples:

1. When running I tense up my shoulders too much. I’ve been told this before but when I relax them I find them slowing rising up again and tensing after another five minutes of running. Similarly on my first swimming lesson the teacher quickly pointed out how my arms were far too tense in the “recovery phase” of the stroke - this is the phase when your arm is above the water and so by definition cannot give you any forward movement. He told me to relax more and just “swing through with my elbow”. It was the instruction to “swing through with my elbow” that made all the difference, simply being told “to relax” wouldn’t have worked.

I suspected that this might hold the key to not tensing my shoulders when running. Instead of just trying to relax I decided to try and swing my elbows when running (thinking of them as pendulums). All of a sudden in swinging my arms more I found my shoulders naturally relaxed.

2. The next correction my swimming instructor made to my stroke is how I kick. I seem to kick from the knee when instead I should be kicking with my whole leg. "Kicking has very little to do with the legs” my teacher told me rather counterintuitively “you should kick from your stomach and glutes”.  

Again this immediately resonated with me in regards to my running. I knew already that I don’t engage my glutes enough when I run, relying far too much on my calf muscles. In other words like my kicking when I swim I compensate for my weak glutes by running “from my knees”. Practicing the right kicking technique in the water has already started to pay dividend when running on dry land.

The whole point of this running blog is not to make you a better runner, (I even state this explicitly in the blog’s description at the top) but to share my thoughts and insights that running gives me about life. And so I was originally reluctant to write about swimming and improving my running technique, but another change in my life changed my mind.

Recently at work I have started a short secondment doing a different job in a different department. I think I am good at my original job but like my running I have weaknesses, however like my running I have learnt how to cover up these weaknesses by playing to my strengths - I think we all do this in our work and different aspects of our lives. My new job - just like my swimming - forces me to confront my weaknesses.

And that is my running thought today:

If we want to improve any aspect of our lives often the only way is to do something completely different from the very thing we want to get better.

(The picture today is of an indoor swimmingpool - the last place I thought would improve my running)

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