Let's deal with the weight loss issue right off, because if we don't, you might bypass one of the best exercises around.
Swimming, tradition has it, is not a good way to lose weight – an enduring piece of misinformation that admittedly isn't dispelled by newspaper photos of Hindenburg-size marathon swimmers stumbling from some frigid ocean.
True, when you swim, your body is supported by water, and because you aren't forced to fight gravity, there can be less calorie burn. It is also true that some marathon swimmers won't be modeling underwear anytime soon (actually, it behooves marathon swimmers to carry some fat as valuable insulation against frigid water). And it's true that a 150-pound man swimming at a leisurely pace burns roughly 6 calories a minute. He could burn nearly twice the calories running at a pedestrian 12-minute-mile pace.
But before you turn your back on the pool, consider this. That same 150-pounder can double his calorie burn by swimming faster. Swimming butterfly (the most difficult of swimming's four strokes) burns roughly 14 calories a minute – a better caloric burn than tennis, squash, or football (soccer). What we're talking about here is intensity, and that explains why Olympic swimmers (unlike marathon swimmers) have the sort of body that gets the role of Tarzan.
Swimming offers others other benefits that can't be ignored. Because you are supported by water, it's a low-impact sport and thus virtually injury-free. For the same reason it's also a great exercise if you're overweight, since it spares your joints the pounding experienced in gravity-bound sports like running.
The varied strokes used in swimming take your joints through a full range of motion that can improve flexibility. Most important, few exercises give you the head-to-toe muscle workout that swimming does.
You are using almost all the major muscle groups of the body. the legs, hips, abs, chest, shoulders, and upper back – all of these muscles are working. You can also get tremendous stimulation to the heart and respiratory system. As far as general health goes, swimming is an excellent conditioner.
Here's a likely scenario: Excited by the prospect of all these benefits, man goes to the pool. Man dons suit and goggles. Man pushes off the wall and makes for the other end. Man gives self and lifeguard a serious scare.
Swimming, it needs to be said, is not a sport that comes effortlessly. Witness recreational pools, which are typically filled with folks who look like they're more interested in self-preservation than exercise. We're going to show you how to make that transition from thrashing wheezer to graceful swimmer and how to improve even if you're already at home in the water.
- Get Qualified Instruction – Learning to swim may seem like something for preschoolers in water wings. But even if you can successfully navigate from one end of the pool to the other, proper technique is not something that you can learn on your own.
- Be Patient – We expect to pick things up quickly. Swimming won't be one of them. Learning proper stroke techniques takes time, and that takes patience. People want results right away, but swimming is extremely technical, which is really frustrating for a lot of people. Learning swimming's four strokes – freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly is not difficult, but it is essential that you learn how to do them properly if you want to get the most out of swimming.
- Relax In The Water – When you're learning to swim, relaxing is the most important thing that you can do – and the most difficult. When people are learning to swim, they get nervous and they tense up. And when they do that, they find themselves sinking, and it's just that much harder. You need to relax and stay loose. If you happen to be one of those people whose muscles lock into a state resembling rigor mortis whenever you go near the pool, you may want to pick up a pair of swim fins. They make your kick more powerful, which means that they will keep you up and planing across the surface, even when you're tense and tight.
- Get The Right Equipment – There's not a lot that you have to buy, just a suit and swimming goggles. The choice of suit is yours. Racing suits are light and comfortable. More important, they offer virtually no drag in the water. Swimming goggles are a must. Keeping the pool from becoming a virus reunion requires liberal use of chemicals and many of these chemicals are hard on the eyes. Occasionally, you'll see swimmers wearing nose plugs or earplugs. Save your money. Unless you're particularly prone to swommer's ear, the human body is designed to withstand moisture in these particular orifices. In any event, earplugs tend to fall out while you're swimming, and nose plugs make it hard to breathe – and when you're swimming hard, you want to be sucking in all the oxygen you can.
Swimming For Fitness
Swimming looks easy, especially when you watch experienced swimmers glide through the water. But swimming is an extremely demanding sport; for beginners it can be a fight just to get to the other end of the pool.
To achieve solid basic fitness, try swimming three to four times a week, logging between 2,000 and 3,000 yards (roughly 1.5 to 2 miles) each workout. Most swimmers can get that kind of distance in about an hour.
If you're fairly fit but new to swimming, experts recommend swimming between 500 and 1,000 yards each workout. Then build slowly from there. Swimming is a vigorous activity. You'll be using new muscles, and it's easy to stress them. Shoulder injuries are especially common among overzealous newcomers.
- Start With A Warm Up – Swimming may be a forgiving sport, but you still want to loosen up before plunging into a high-bore workout. Experts advise swimmers to warm up with a 400 yard swim – 200 yards freestyle, 100 yards of backstroke, and 100 yards of breaststroke – mixing up the strokes to bring all the muscles into play.
- Work Up To Intervals – Although you can get an excellent workout by swimming straight time, doing the same stroke at the same pace for half an hour or so, you'll burn substantially more calories by doing an interval workout. This is nothing more than a series of swims separated by a specific amount of rest (the interval). For example, you might do ten 50-yard freestyle swims, leaving the wall every minute. Or you might do five 100-yard freestyle swims leaving the wall every 2 minutes. A typical swimming workout consists of several sets, with roughly 10 to 30 second intervals between each swim of the set, then several minutes rest between each set. The important point is not to allow too much rest during the set, you don't want to fully recover between swims.
- Mix Your Speeds – A lot of people just condition themselves to swim at one speed because they do the same kind of workout all the time. If you want to improve, you need to learn to swim fast. It's not that every swim needs to be a sprint. The idea is to mix things up. Rather than swimming the same half-mile pedestrian plod every day, for example, do intervals instead. And make at least one of those interval sets involve fast swimming. Swimming fast brings more muscle fibers into play, taxes the heart and lungs more, and burns as much as twice the calories. Of course, when you're swimming fast, you'll need to rest longer between each swim so that you can really make a quality effort. For example, when doing ten 50-yard swims, you may want to leave the wall every 2 minutes instead of the 1 minute recommended for a slower pace. You're resting more, but I guarantee you will be beat. An additional point: It's always a good idea to do your sprints set early in the workout while you're still fresh.
- Mix Your Strokes – Many swimmers swim nothing but freestyle. If you're one of them, you're missing out. Tossing swimming's other strokes into your workout will help you hit more muscles and improve your flexibility by bringing different motions into play.
- Put Your Arms And Legs to Work – Pulling (swimming using just your arms) and kicking (using just your legs) are good additions to any swimming workout. Pulling is a great upper-body conditioner. Kicking hits your legs; add a pair of fins, and you'll increase ankle flexibility, making your legs work even harder. And because they involve large muscles, kicking and pulling elevate your heart rate almost as much as swimming the complete stroke. When kicking, don't use a kick-board. Holding on to the plastic foam board raises your upper body and drops your hips and legs down. Good swimming means balancing the hips and head near the surface of the water; Having your legs angling down like anchors does not accomplish that.
- Get A Fast Burn – If you're looking for a tough workout that you can do in minimal time, here's a challenging option. The key to this workoutisn't speed, but reducing your rest periods to the absolute minimum. Using the stroke of your choice, keep the effort fairly easy, say 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. But keep the rest period between swims very short, no more than 7 to 15 seconds, depending on the distance you're swimming. For example, if you're doing a series of short swims (say, 50 yards), you may want to rest about 7 seconds between each one. For longer swims of 200 yards, for instance, take 15 seconds between each one. Keeping the rest periods short allows almost no time for recovery. This keeps your heart rate up and banging, giving you a terrific workout in a relatively short time. You're training your heart to be a lot more efficient. And it does mean more time in the pool. It means swimming more laps in the given time. You can get in a great workout in an hour lunch break.