Swimming For CrossFit Athletes | The Benefits + How To Begin

swimming for crossfit

With a new year comes new challenges – and mine is to learn to swim properly! Not just for Tribal Clash, but being able to hit the pool every week to do effortless lengths is amazing to me. I started my lessons last night and will be learning every Tuesday for the next 13 weeks, so I’m sure I’ll let you know how I get on.

I’m very lucky that one of my coaches (and friends!) Emma is a mega swimmer, who has won international medals in swimming – with thanks especially going to her CrossFit training. She very kindly agreed to write a post about the benefits of swimming in relation to CrossFit, and she should know, having coached former Fittest Woman Sam Briggs, Games athlete Sara Sigmundsdottir, and Meridian Regionals athlete Emma McQuaid.

Read on to find out Emma’s tips and how you can start to add this awesome activity into your training – at any age!

First off, to introduce myself, my name is Emma Gage and I am the director of SwimWod. I am a Swimmer and a CrossFitter and I am proud to say I am a coach of both disciplines. I swam as a teenager to national level, making it on the podium at national championships and being a reserve for the European Youth Olympics, but never quite making it onto a British Team due to a succession of injuries which eventually led to my early retirement. I swam at University but was nowhere near the times I used to be able to do, and it was definitely more about the beers then anyway!

swimming for crossfit

Some 7 years later I took up CrossFit. I fell in love with it and I started competing in 2012. In 2014 I was asked to take part in a swimming competition to help a friend out for the county masters team. I figured I would be able to hold my own and produce okay times as I had a level of fitness through CrossFit training, but I never expected to beat my lifetime PBs on the day! This was purely on CrossFit training NO swimming. I couldn’t believe it! It was there and then that the realisation hit me that CrossFit really works. It makes you stronger and fitter and is a great assistance tool for other sports, so I decided to see what would happen if I followed a Swimming and CrossFit training programme.

I joined a Masters team and got back in the pool 3-4 times a week, while still maintaining my CrossFit training 5 x per week. Over the next year I qualified for the Masters World Championships in Russia and ended up winning 2 x gold, 3 x silver and breaking 2 x world records. And at that competition I qualified for the Rio Olympic Trials. Genuinely one of the best weeks of my life!

swimming for crossfitters

My training regime was different in that I swam only 3-4 times per week whereas normal swimmers do 8-10, but it definitely worked! Not only was I faster than ever in the pool, I was also much fitter in the gym as well: I had great pacing, and endurance and my interval work was better than ever. Since then I have travelled all over the world with swimming – competing and training, and I have been coaching both CrossFit and Swimming with clients ranging from brand new to elite international athletes such as Samantha Briggs (CrossFit Games Champion 2013) and Holly Hibbot (2017 World Championship Finalist).

I also set up my company SwimWod for athletes like CrossFitters and Triathletes to have access to swimming training and coaching, because I don’t believe it is used enough in functional fitness training and people always moan when swimming is used in a CrossFit competition as they are not confident with it! Surely being able to swim is one of the most functional type of fitness and survival skills there is?!

swimming for crossfit

Benefits of Swimming

Swimming is a great thing for people to use in their training due to a number of reasons. 1) It is an all over body workout. You use arms, legs, back and core all at once. 2) It is low impact. So if you have an injury or a niggle, it is a great thing for you to do as there is little impact on the joints and you are supported by the water. 3) It is brilliant for cardiovascular development. Your lung capacity will increase and your endurance and stamina will increase. It will also teach you better breath control which you can then apply to your training “on land”! 4) It is good for muscular endurance. Your shoulders, legs and core do A LOT when swimming so their ability to cope with repetitive intensity will improve. 5) It is also a great thing to do as an active recovery on your “rest” days as there is low impact on the body and you can just do it gently rather than at any intensity.

swimming for crossfitters

Swimming for Adult Beginners

If you want to get into swimming but maybe are too scared or feel like you don’t know the technique or have never had lessons, it’s never too late to learn! There are loads of opportunities for adults to learn how to swim, to improve what they already know, or to get back into the water after not having done it for years.

Check out your local swimming club. Often they have adult classes for beginners or masters training sessions for those who already know how to swim. Or if you would rather it be a private session, there are plenty of private coaches about (myself included if you are based in the Manchester/Stockport area!). I also do CrossFit specific programming whereby the sessions aren’t just swimming they incorporate CrossFit style WODs and exercises.

swimming for crossfit

Top Swimming Technique Tips

The first thing you need to master when it comes to swimming is breathing. You can’t breathe the same way in water as you can on land – that might sound obvious but it’s not as simple as it sounds! You have to control it and breathe out slowly and restrictively, as you might do in yoga. It takes practice but once you master this it will massively help.

Secondly try to always make yourself as streamlined as possible. Your aim is to move forwards through water with as little resistance as possible. On front crawl you can do this through rotating your body with your shoulders, so imagine you’ve got an axis down the centre of your head and body and you rotate your torso around this while reaching out in front with your hand/arm; or on breaststroke putting your head between your arms on each stroke when you are gliding.

swimming for crossfit

Finally, if you struggle with your hips sinking, try putting your chin closer towards your chest while swimming. This should raise your hips up and cause less drag. This does involve putting your face in the water though so head up breaststroke won’t work!


Adding swimming into your CrossFit training will benefit you in so many ways. We’re always told to make it varied and be prepared for anything so why just stick to the usual Olympic lifting and gymnastics? Get yourself down to the pool once or twice a week and add another skill to your belt. And it’s not just about boring swimming up and down doing length after length… there is a science to it of course, with the right coaching and programming you will see huge progressions both in and out of the pool.

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Pool photos by Neil Shearer Photography for Kitbox

2 Comments

  1. January 5, 2018 / 9:42 am

    This was a very useful read. I have been doing Crossfit for 5 years and I’ve been swimming for about 3. I’m fairly confident with my front crawl by now but I’m quite heavy and can’t still get much speed when swimming. But I still enjoy it 🙂 I’m eyeing triathlons this year since I run as well but am thinking now that maybe a bit of swim coaching early this year would be a good idea…

    • Sarah Harradine
      January 5, 2018 / 10:04 am

      I’d like to give a triathlon a go this year too! I’m terrible at front crawl, which is what I’m having lessons for, but always think a bit of coaching is beneficial at any level.

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