Water feels and moves much differently than ground or air, so immersion in water instantly requires an athlete to either learn to move with more precision, efficiency and economy, or to wind up coughing up a bucketful of water. Perhaps this is why several studies have demonstrated that swimming (especially swimming with restricted breathing), although obviously nothing like running, can improve running efficiency and economy. Athletes simply learn to move with better coordination once they’ve learned strokes as simple as the front crawl, treading water, an egg beater kick, or even aqua jogging.
Of course, as any injured triathlete has quickly discovered, the pool is also the top tool in a rehabilitation arsenal, offering the ultimate combination of blood ow for recovery with very low impact. This means that if, say, a tennis player has a knee injury but knows how to swim, they’ll be able to maintain their VO2 max without the pressure to run or play matches on an injured joint. This can lead to faster recovery, better fitness once rehabilitation is complete, and a longer career.
How Cycling Makes You a Better AthleteMany of the same advantages that come from swimming also apply to cycling. While it requires less coordination than swimming, it’s a non-impact way to maintain fitness when you can’t sprint, skate, tumble, leap, bound or hop. But the benefits of cycling go beyond its value as a good rehabilitation tool for athletes from other sports.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that many athletes from other sports turn to triathlon to shed some pounds from a few too many meals at the training table or too many fancy dinners (and drinks). Due to its recruitment of extremely large, calorie-demanding leg muscles, along with its very high intensities with relatively little learning and low joint impact, cycling can help any athlete get lean fast. Cycling’s hard, glycolytic or VO2 max intensity efforts can also make it an excellent tool for building an athlete’s ability to buffer and shuttle lactic acid and to build more powerful legs and more efficient lungs.
Like swimming, cycling also improves running efficiency and economy, and can also promote a higher cadence and faster foot turnover when running, sprinting or skating—a skill that comes in handy for athletes who may not be able to achieve the same effect via downhill running or overspeed work on the treadmill. (Notably, the opposite does not apply: most runners make poor cyclists unless they’ve consciously included cycling in their training protocol.)
Finally, although most triathlon courses are nontechnical and allow an athlete to mostly zone out and hammer the pedals, it could also be argued that reaction time, focus, awareness and hand-eye coordination can be improved with more technical cycling, especially the kind that’s required for road racing or mountain biking.
How Distance Running Makes You a Better AthleteBecause of its propensity to cause a conversion of strong, explosive, type II muscle fibers into relatively weaker, endurance-based, type I muscle fibers, it’s rare to see distance running translate directly into an increase in speed, quickness or explosive power for an athlete. Indeed, the opposite is typically true. When I was a freshman in college, I could easily dunk a basketball. Once I took up spin classes, it got a bit tougher. By the time I had graduated college and morphed into an Ironman triathlete, my vertical leap had decreased to the point where grabbing the rim was impossible. Ironically, if I were to simply go lie on the couch for a few weeks, some of my type I fibers would convert back into type II muscle fibers, and my leaping and sprinting capabilities would likely improve.