One of the most frequently asked questions I get from non-swimmers is: "Doesn't it get boring looking at the same black line, up and down the pool, day in and day out?"
Although I hate to admit it, the answer to that question is simply "Yes, it sometimes can get boring." So how do you stay focused, or interested enough, to keep swimming on a regular basis without burning out?
The solution may be so obvious that it's not readily apparent: try cross-training.
As a swimmer who has stared at that black line enough to probably pave the circumference of the earth with it a few times over, I have taken up running, cycling, weightlifting, and aerobics from time to time to break the monotony of this lonely sport.
While I still prefer swimming and opt to jump in the water at least four times a week, the cross-training has not only helped me stay focused and appreciative of my time in the water, but it has made me a better swimmer.
Of all the activities you can do to complement your swimming, running is perhaps the most beneficial. It helps develop cardiovascular endurance, and it requires hardly any skill or coordination (a welcome blessing for most swimmers). Better yet, running is easy to take up and do just about anywhere (especially if you're a frequent business traveler and can not always find a pool).
If you have never run before, the most important first step you can take is buying the right shoe. Go to a store that specializes in running shoes; make sure the shoe salesman has running experience if possible; if not, be wary of his advice as he may be trying to sell you a pricey shoe that his manager wants to get off the shelves.
While I cannot recommend the best shoe for you personally, I will suggest trying on several brands, and jogging in them before you buy a pair.
Once you have your shoes and you have broken them in during a week of normal daily activity (this will prevent the onset of blisters during your first run), try going for a two-mile jog. Eight minutes is a reasonable pace, and chances are you will not feel winded or fatigued at the end of your 16-minute trial.
A soft dirt or rubber track is a great place to start, and preferable to concrete or asphalt. If you have no other options, stick to asphalt, which is softer than concrete. Keep in mind that running on any hard surface over long periods of time can take its toll on your body, and be aware of aches and pains that may result from running on pavement (if that happens, stop running or find a track!).
Regardless of how good you feel, do not run farther than the initial two miles. For the next two weeks, you need to acclimate your body to running every other day. It is a shock to the system if you have not run before to suddenly start this high-impact activity, so ease into it. Give yourself a day of recovery after each run (a good time to continue your swimming!). After the first week, ramp up to three miles.
Each week, add a mile to your running workout. Always remember to stretch before and after your run, and if possible do a short swim afterwards as well. By the time you get to eight miles, you should be running comfortably for the duration of your hourlong jog.
Because running is meant to complement your swimming, I won't suggest doing sprints or interval training. The nice thing about a leisurely run is that it offers a break from pace-clock training and, if you are not confined to a track, an opportunity to cover new ground (literally!) and enjoy new surroundings.
Best of all, you will notice that your cardiovascular capacity will increase over the next couple of weeks and benefit your swimming.
During the winter months, I am more motivated to run than I am to swim, and I train accordingly. A few years ago I began running marathons, and while the experience was new and exciting, it resulted in an injury that sent me back to the pool.
Swimmers need to know their place, I guess, but in moderation, there's nothing wrong with broadening your horizons and looking beyond that narrow black line.
Alex Kostich was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is an open-water masters swimming champion.