Swim Your Way to Recovery

Why swimming may just be the best recovery method for endurance athletes. By Betsy Medalla

Looking back at my regimen as a member of the national swim team, I consider myself lucky that I managed to train and retire without any nagging injuries. I am amazed at what I put my body through back then:

4:30 a.m. Wake Up
5:15 a.m. Swim 4,500 – 5,000 meters
6:45 a.m. Breakfast in the car on the way to school
8:00 a.m. School
4:30 p.m. Dryland
5:00 p.m. Swim 5,500 – 6,500 meters
8:00 p.m. Dinner
8:30 p.m. Study
10:00 p.m. Sleep

The team shared the same training stress: heavy training load, lack of sleep, the pressure of balancing academic and athletic performance, and the anxiety of sticking to tight schedules. Not surprising then how infuriating it would be when a teammate would fall ill, miss a few days of practice, and suddenly come back stronger and faster than before.


The Concept of Recovery Evolves 

In the 80s and early 90s, the concept of recovery meant passive recovery and massage on our Saturday half-day and Sunday rest days. We lacked the terms and the research to explain why sick swimmers seemed to come back stronger after two to three days off, but we knew instinctively that there was a missing piece in the training puzzle.

Today we know better. Joe Friel sums it up nicely: “I tell athletes that the hard training days only create the potential for fitness. They don’t result in fitness improvements unless there is rest. For it’s during short-term rest that the body adapts to the stresses of exercise. Muscle strength and endurance improves. The heart’s stroke volume (amount of blood pumped per beat) increases. Capillary beds in muscles grow allowing the heart to deliver more oxygen. Aerobic enzymes increase. Blood volume increases further enhancing oxygen delivery. Glycogen stores are restocked allowing for harder workouts in the following days. And these are only some of the physical changes that result from recovery.”

Strangely enough, this article proposes that Swimming is possibly the best method of recovery for an endurance athlete.


Why Swim to Recover? 

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine examined the performance of nine top triathletes. The athletes performed an interval run of 8 x 3 minutes at 85 percent to 90 percent of VO2 peak velocity on two separate occasions. Ten hours after the run, they either swam 2,000 meters (active recovery) or lay down for an equal amount of time (passive recovery). Fourteen hours later, the triathletes were asked to do a high-intensity run to fatigue to assess how well their running performance had recovered from the previous day’s interval sessions.

The results showed the athletes had an improvement of 14 percent in their run time to fatigue after swimming for recovery compared to full rest (13:50 minutes versus 12:08 minutes). Researchers also noted a decrease in the levels of c-reactive protein, a biomarker for inflammation.



Water acts as a compressor. When we swim, we experience the effects of  hydrostatic pressure. Fluids are driven from our extremities and pressed towards our core. If you’ve ever lost a ring in a pool, this is the explanation for that. The blood flows upwards through the venous and lymphatic systems, and our fingers, arms, calves, thighs shrink slightly resulting in increased circulation first in the muscles, then in the blood vessels of the abdominal cavity, and finally in those of the chest cavity and heart. Swimming for recovery can speed up muscle healing and enhances subsequent run and cycling performances by reducing tissue inflammation.



In another study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness,  three classic recovery methods were examined in 17 elite male adult swimmers. The swimmers were asked to do two repetitions of 200-meters freestyle with 10 minutes rest in between. The recovery methods tested in this study were massage, active recovery, and passive recovery.

The study revealed that all three methods resulted in a significant decrease in blood lactate. Active recovery was the most efficient method at clearing blood lactate, followed by massage, and finally passive recovery. A significant difference in performance time was also observed after all three recovery methods; however no significant difference was noted in performance time between active recovery and massage.

In the case of the strong comebacks from short illnesses mentioned earlier, it’s possible that the training program lacked enough active recovery. One could surmise that our muscles never fully recovered, our glycogen stores were low, blood lactate high. The ideal formula might have been active recovery plus massage for the national team swimmer.

Lactic acid and lactate are not exactly the problem when it comes to perceived fatigue. The problem is when the production of lactate outruns the clearing out and use of the latter. The lower, sustained intensity of a recovery swim helps to process the excess and brings the body back to a balanced state.



Carter et al. (2002) investigated the effects of mode of exercise recovery on thermoregulatory and cardiovascular responses, with the data suggesting that mild active recovery may play an important role to dissipate heat from the body post-exercise.Put in simple terms, when we train our core temperatures rise and we experience heat fatigue. Immersion in water lowers the body’s core temperature, relieving the pressure on the body’s thermoregulation systems.

Done with that marathon or half-Ironman distance? Let’s Go Swim!

We employ a multitude of recovery techniques to recover from our workout loads.  Apart from nutritional recovery we have recovery runs, recovery rides, compression garments, yoga, massage and more.

Recovery Swimming as an active recovery option is as effective in blood lactate reduction as a recovery ride or run, sans the pressure of body weight and gravity on the joints.

Recovery Swimming naturally, and evenly, compresses the extremities allowing your muscles to heal more quickly by minimizing inflammation.

Recovery Swimming relieves the feeling of tight muscles by flushing out excess lactate. At the same time, the body returns to equilibrium and can begin to replenish glycogen stores.

Recovery Swimming can speed up the healing process by bringing the body’s core temperature back to normal.

All of these benefits, out of  a simple swim. Make it a part of your regular program.

Happy Swimming!

Int J Sports Med. 2010 Jan;31(1):26-30. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1239498. Epub 2009 Nov 11.
Effects of a recovery swim on subsequent running performance.
Lum D1, Landers G, Peeling P. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19908172

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