Top 8 Cross-Training Sports for Young Swimmers

Swimming might be one of the toughest sports in the world to deal with between the ears. As much as we’d all like to think that our swimmers are mental machines, it’s a fact that if they go exclusively with swimming from a young age, it’s likely that they’ll burn out despite our best efforts.

I can speak from personal experience. At age 8, I began swimming competitively year-round, and gave up all other sports. By age 10, at least once a week I was hiding out in the YMCA locker room for 2 hours and getting my hair wet in the water fountain to convince my parents I was going to practice. I was over swimming, and longed to get involved in other sports. Sports with sticks, nets, and throws. Sports with shots and plays. But, at the behest of my parents, I was secluded in the monotony of lap-after-lap.

Sure, I swam all the way through high school. But The last 8 years of it was not fun at any level of the expression. In 7th grade, I was finally able to try playing basketball, and I loved it. I did fairly, but my team-sports abilities were stunted by so many years in the pool, and so back to the pool I went.

I think that the best thing that most parents can do for a young swimmers is to get them involved in other sports, and if your coach disagrees, you should seek a new coach.There’s no reasonable reason for swimmers, to be singularly sported any time before age 11 or 12.

Beyond that, these sports can help swimmers improve their swimming abilities even through high school, and serve as effective cross-training for swimmers who do not have the access to (or desire to) swim club 12 months out of the year.

But if your long term goal is, one way or another, to nurture your child (or yourself) into a top swimmer, there are some “other” sports that are better than other “other” sports. These are sports that I typically see the most successful swimmers come out of. Furthermore, this list is can serve as a handy guide for parents who are considering getting their kids involved in swimming. If your kid excels at one of these sports, they’ll probably go far in swimming as well. So without further ado, here is my list of the top 8 sports for young swimmers to try out to maximize their swimming abilities.

8. Volleyball- In this instance, it’s more of a matter of correlation than causation. The same body type that makes for good volleyball players makes for good swimmers. The exploding off of the legs can really help with starts and turns however. I’ve also had several swimmers report that the strength they develop from swimming does a lot to improve their volleyball serves.

7. Cross-Country Running– Cross-country runners often make good swimmers because they have great overall conditioning which allows them to train long and hard. The mental conditioning of long runs also helps prepare them. Finally, they develop highly efficient muscles that are needed for swimming. Couple this with some upper-body development, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great swimmer. Note, however, that  this  combination is more effective when the athletes are younger. Most adult runners struggle mightily in the pool.

6. Football (American)– The pure strength and raw power that football players develop often can develop great  pure speed. They also tend to have a real intensity and discipline to their training, which results in them usually be the harder workers in practice. Football players rarely develop to distances much longer than 100’s due to the bulkiness and lack of  efficiency in their muscles, but for those first 50+ yards, they have a ton of thrust. The upper body strength usually serves them well in the butterfly events.

5. Dance– Every summer, I bemoan the number of swimmers I have who are lost to dance, either temporarily (their competitions always seem to fall on championship weekend), or permanently. They are almost always in the better third of my swimmers.  Dancers develop perfect muscles for swimming, that is to say long and lean, and powerful legs. Plus, they have great ankle flexibility (point your toes like a ballerina!) which gives them powerful kicks.

4. Baseball/Softball- The key here is the way stickball players use their hips. In both baseball and swimming, the big key to generating power is the hips. This is much more obvious in the baseball swing, however, than it is in the freestyle stroke. It is also something that is difficult to think out, and requires swimmers to feel it out. Swimmers who start developing this feeling on the diamond really seem to have a much easier time grasping it in the water. Shoulders is the real thing to look out for here, so make sure your kid gets a quality coach who teaches them proper throwing mechanics.

3. Soccer–  There are many soccer players who, without even training, I’ve seen demonstrate a lot of ability in the pool. Soccer helps develop overall conditioning, along with lower body strength and fast-twitch muscles. It also puts very little strain on the shoulders which might manifest itself in the form of tendinosis/rotater cuffs/etc. as the swimmer ages and logs more pool time.

2. Water Polo– Ok, this might seem like a no-brainer. But aside from the obvious (swimming), it helps the swimmers get a very good feel of how their bodies move in the water. It can also help strike a balance between keeping a swimmer in the pool/swimming shape year round, and not making them swim monotonous laps year round.

1. Gymnastics/tumbling– For evidence, see one Kukla, Yolane, who in just 3 years went from gymnast to a 14-year old swimming phenom and Australian Naional Champ. You can always tell a gymnast in the pool, because their turns are awesome, and they learn very quickly. All of the flipping and twisting helps them develop incredible core strength, but even more importantly, they develop the body awareness to recognize what their body is doing wrong and how to correct their strokes. Most other swimmers don’t really get this skill until they’re teenagers. Gymnasts also have incredible starts, derived from their power. They also make incredible gym-rats, and do exteremely well in the weight room.

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Enrique Cubillo
5 years ago

The cross-training benefits of SpikeBoarding for swimming are fantastic. SpikeBoarding is a simplified, super casual and fun way to Nordic XC roller ski. Unlike roller skiing, SpikeBoarding has no added complications with independent skis that can cross tips. SpikeBoarding has no bindings and no straps on the SkateBoard Spike. All the while SpikeBoarding delivers strength, endurance plus, not only balance but bilateral limb development with balance. The bilateral work will assist swimmers with bilateral breathing. The core work is as good as it can be. It is a constant core work out. Fun, never forget SpikeBoarding is fun, full body and the athlete bears weight with far less impact than running.

13 years ago

I dont know how usefull it is for cross-training but I know parkour is extremly useful for avoiding/coping with burnout! The freedom of movement is a perfect change from moving back and forth in a lane!

13 years ago

you left out the martial arts. I have seen a lot of the same effect as gymnastics, which I would also have chosen as my number one. Caroline Bruce, a high school age Olympian in 04, started as a gymnast and stayed active in it throughout her swim career.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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