Is swimming good for rugby players?

Whatever rugby position you play, running, sprinting, plyometrics, and lifting weights should be the four cornerstones of your training. After all, to be a good rugger, you need that unusual combination of fitness, speed, power, and strength. Add some mobility and agility and all your rugby fitness training bases are covered.

Unfortunately, as sports-specific as all of these methods are, they can be pretty hard on your body too. This is especially true during the competitive season when hitting the opposition week to week takes even more out of your body than hitting the gym.

Running can also be problematic for some players. When you run, your feet hit the floor with a force roughly equal to eight-times your bodyweight. That’s a lot of force if you weigh 140 pounds, but what if you tip the scale at 200 pounds plus? It’s no wonder that running is such a common source of injuries.

Of course, rugby is a sport that involves a lot of running. The average player covers 4-6 miles per game, and top players can cover as many as ten miles. While running is and should be part of your rugby training, it’s worth tempering your efforts to minimize your risk of injury. Rugby is hard enough without running yourself into the ground – both literally and figuratively.

If running is taking its toll on your feet, ankles, knees, and hips, or you just want to try another way to get and stay in shape, there are several alternatives that can be equally effective.

Good options include:

We’ve discussed cycling, rowing, circuits, and indoor conditioning in the past, so, in this article, we’ll dive into the subject of swimming.



Is swimming good for rugby?

The short answer to this question is yes, swimming is good for rugby players. Swimming offers several benefits and advantages that make it ideal for including in your rugby fitness training program.

Those benefits and advantages are:

Non-impact – pounding the pavement can be hard on your joints. With pool-based workouts, the water supports your weight so that your joints are under much less stress. This can be beneficial if you have sore joints, are not built for long-distance running, or are rehabbing or returning from injury.

Versatile – you can use swimming for aerobic and anaerobic training. Long, slow, steady training is simply a matter of jumping in the pool and swimming for 30 minutes or more. Alternatively, you can do short, sharp sprint intervals. You can also do fartlek training. In terms of intensity and duration, you can replicate most land-based running sessions in the pool.

Full body – running and cycling are all legs, all the time. Swimming works your entire body with an emphasis on the chest, back, and shoulders. You can also use different strokes and drills to target specific muscles. Breaststroke, for example, is especially good for your upper back whereas you can isolate your lower body by using a kickboard and slipping on a pair of fins. 

Good for recovery – a leisurely swim is an excellent way to speed up recovery after other intense workouts. As well as being non-weight-bearing, swimming pumps oxygenated blood all around your body, which will speed up the removal of waste products. The cool water may also have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Good for mobility – swimming can help develop and improve your mobility, especially in your shoulders, chest, and back. Ruggers often suffer from tight upper body muscles and joints, and that often leads to chronic aches and pains. Swimming can increase your range of motion, which may help restore normal joint and muscle function. 

Varied – think that plowing up and down the pool will soon get old? We hear you! However, you aren’t limited to just swimming lap after lap. Why not include pool-side conditioning exercises like push-ups, planks, and squats to break up your swimming sessions? This form of cross training is especially useful for ruggers.

Accessible – most towns and cities have several public-access pools, and if you are on the road, many hotels have pools too. Unlike gyms, that usually require membership before you train, pools tend to be more welcoming so that you can just turn up and swim.

The drawbacks of swimming

Swimming can definitely help ruggers get in shape, but it is not without a few disadvantages. In the spirit of offering a balanced view, the main disadvantages of swimming are:

Technique – to get a good swimming workout, you need to be able to swim with at least a degree of proficiency. If your swimming stroke is so inefficient that you are exhausted after a single lap, you won’t get much out of your poor-based workouts. The good news is that learning to swim will make you much more efficient and you’ll soon find yourself gliding through the water like a pro.

Boredom – staring at the bottom of the pool for lap after lap can be boring. Interval sessions are much more engaging, but long, slow swims are far from exciting. If you find long swims as dull as ditchwater, consider investing in waterproof headphones and a swimming computer. The music will help the time pass more quickly while a swimming computer (an activity tracker designed specifically for swimming) will track distance and time so it won’t matter if you miscount your laps. 

Illness and infection – while swimming pools are usually chlorinated to ward off disease, they can still lead to illness. Ear and sinus infections are not uncommon, and the chlorine itself can cause rashes and other allergic reactions. These problems may be worse in wintertime.

Cold – swimming can be refreshing during the warmer months, but that can soon turn to chilling when the winter arrives. You can wear a wetsuit to maintain your temperature, but this is not usually the done thing in indoor pools. If you dislike being cold, wintertime swimming may not be an attractive proposition. You WILL warm up as you get into your workout, but making the transition from warm, dry land to cold water can be a shock to the system.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


Sample swimming workouts

If you like the idea of swimming for rugby fitness, here are a few workouts to try. As with all workouts, make sure you spend a few minutes warming up before you start. Some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises are a must, focusing on the shoulders, hips, and ankles.

The best stroke for rugby fitness swimming is freestyle. It’s the easiest stroke to learn, allows you to power through the water at a decent speed, and also teaches you breath control. These workouts assume you’ll be swimming freestyle unless otherwise stated.

  1. Distance time trial – pick a distance and swim it in the shortest possible time. Decent swimmers should be able to cover a mile in 30 minutes or less. If you are new to swimming, start off with 400-500 meters and add 100 meters per week. Try to cover the distance non-stop, only pausing for a second or two when you turn at the end of each lap.
  2. Out and back intervals – sprint the length of the pool, climb out, and bang out a set of 20 push-ups. Dive back in and swim another length of the pool. Rest 60-90 seconds and repeat. Rotate the mid-lap exercise for variety.
  3. Arms, legs, full – grab a float and hold it between your knees. Swim a length using your arms only. Next, hold the float out in front of you and swim a length using your legs only. Kick, rugger, kick! Finally, ditch the float and swim a final length using your arms and legs. Rest a moment and then repeat.
  4. Medley – for this workout, alternate between your repertoire of swimming strokes. You should be able to do freestyle, breaststroke, and some semblance of backstroke, even if you can’t do butterfly. Do one length of each of the strokes you know, rest a moment, and then repeat. And yes, it’s normal for some strokes to feel harder than others.
  5. Hard out, easy back – dive in or push off the side and swim one length as fast as you can. Keep your head down and breathe as few times as possible. Enjoy some hypoxic training without climbing a mountain or wearing one of those masks! Swim back slowly to recover. Keep going for a predetermined time, e.g., 20 minutes.
  6. Water polo – water polo is basically aquatic rugby. Why not make swimming a team training session by playing a friendly game of water polo? During the game, it is forbidden to touch the floor or the sides of the pool so, even if you don’t get much ball possession, you’ll still get a good workout.

Swimming is an excellent addition to your rugby fitness training schedule. The fitness developed in the pool should transfer well to the pitch. However, because running in rugby is all-but unavoidable, you should still include at least some running in your workouts.


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.