If you associate swimming with sunny vacations or something just for kids, you should know that you’re missing out on a seriously good form of exercise. We’re not talking splashing round the pool, floating on your back and generally relaxing. If you want it to be, swimming can blow many of your favorite exercises right out of the water. And if you’re not ready for a straight up swap, well then swimming makes for an awesome addition to a cross-training routine.
Swimming is a particularly great form of active recovery for runners. A swimming workout allows runners to further improve cardiovascular fitness whilst giving tired legs a break. It also calls for different movement patterns compared to running, so a swimming session will target some muscle groups runners tend to neglect.
What’s so special about swimming?
Swimming is an incredible form of cardio, it uses all of your major muscles simultaneously – whatever stroke you use. Swimming isn’t just a great whole-body exercise, it’s also super easy on the joints. When it comes to low-impact exercise, it doesn’t get much better than swimming. Swimming isn’t just low-impact, it is no-impact. This makes it ideal if you’re overweight, suffer with knee, ankle, hip or back pain when doing other exercises, or just want a joint-friendly workout. If you’re looking for an exercise that tones, strengthens and conditions the body sans the jarring, unforgiving impact of other exercises – swimming is it.
The best swimming stroke
In theory any stroke (check out the pros and cons of all 4 swimming strokes) will do, but front crawl, which is also known as freestyle, is probably your best choice. The elongated body position and low profile in the water means that front crawl allows you to travel further, faster and for less effort.
Learning to breathe correctly is probably the hardest part of freestyle swimming, but once mastered will mean that you should be able to swim rings around even a decent breast stroke swimmer.
Breaststroke is another popular swimming stroke. The appeal of breast stroke being that you can perform it with your head out of the water. This may be attractive if you are nervous of putting your face in the water, but the high chest/low legs position common in the breast stroke means that there is a lot of drag to overcome, slowing you down and making it less suitable for serious fitness swimming. A good alternative is backstroke, which allows you to go relatively fast, but keeps your face out of the water.
How to make swimming a workout
To make swimming an effective workout, you need to be able to swim far. Swimming one width of the pool will do as much for you as running for 30 seconds before running out of steam; which is not much. Just like running, you have to work on building endurance, i.e. swimming further. In other words, your workout should last longer than 5 minutes!
Ideally you need to be able to swim for 20 minutes at a time at a reasonably good pace to get payback in terms of better fitness levels or significant calorie burning. A great way to swim longer is to do intervals – alternating between faster and slower (recovery) periods of swimming. Swimming further takes time, perseverance and patience – just like running. Take it easy; don’t overdo it, but push yourself and build steadily week on week.
But that’s not all. Here are some more tips to get fit and lose weight swimming:
1. Swim with good form. Water is much denser than air and so you need to try and carve through it like a hot knife through butter. Poor aqua-dynamics means that each meter you swim will take more effort because of increased water resistance. The more economically you can swim the easier it gets, and the further you can swim – just like running. It’s part practice, part patience. It takes time for everything to come together. But it will.
2. Swim in lanes. Public pools can be very crowded and nothing will ruin your flow more than having to dodge people swimming widths while you are swimming lengths. Try to swim when the pool is divided into lanes so you can focus on steaming up and down in a straight line rather than zig-zagging.
3. Join a swimming club. Swimming clubs offer structured workouts and coaching and also the potential for a competitive outlet for your fitness. Beginners are always welcome and many clubs offer masters (older) swimming sessions as well as beginners and improvers lessons.
4. Don’t just swim – train. Swimming is great exercise but only if you go into the water with a plan and swim with determination and effort. Floating aimlessly about for thirty minutes or so won’t do much for your fitness! Instead, break your workout down into a warm up, technique drills using kick boards, pull buoys etc, main session consisting of intervals or any of the other training systems described elsewhere in this book and, finally, a cool down.
5. Learn a variety of strokes and use them to break up your workout. Different strokes use different muscle groups and while front crawl/freestyle should be your “go to” stroke, breast stroke, back stroke and even butterfly all have their place. Use these strokes in your warm up and cool down as well as your active rests between harder bouts of swimming freestyle.
6. Hydrate. Although you probably don’t realize it, you lose water when you are swimming. Exhaled air contains a lot of water (in the form of vapor) and although it is washed away instantly, you’ll also sweat. Take a plastic or otherwise unbreakable bottle with you and drink as you would during any land based workout.
Even if you choose not to swim for exercise, swimming is an all but essential skill that could one day help save your life or the life of another. If you can’t swim, consider joining one of the many adult learn to swim classes that are part of most local authorities swimming pool schedules.