Swimming takes center stage at the Rio 2016 Olympics as Michael Phelps, Conor Dwyer, Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky and their teammates go to work. Swimming’s popularity is on the rise, as aging baby boomers look to maintain their fitness, without the pain and risk of injury that accompany sports like running, cycling and tennis. Water is 700 times denser than air, making swimming a cardiovascular and strength workout.
Scott Bay, one of the top Masters swim coaches in the U.S., calls swimming “the fountain of youth.” He notes that regular swimming has slowed the aging process in the hundreds of adults he coaches in Florida. An Indiana University study similarly concluded that regular swimming can put the aging process on hold not just for years but decades. There’s no better reason to hit the water this summer and reap the incredible health benefits of this full-body workout.
Take the plunge and you’ll begin to see results that include:
- Increased cardiovascular strength and endurance
- Increased respiratory function
- Resistance training for arms, shoulders, back, glutes and legs
- Improved core strength with each kick, rotation and stroke
- Enhanced flexibility and improved range of motion
- Potential improvement in health markers including blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood chemistry
- Calorie burn in the 400-600 calories an hour range, which compares to running (when done at workout pace)
- Therapeutic effects of hydrostatic pressure and cool water, which promote blood flow, remove waste products and enhance the healing of injuries
- Long, strong musculature, making for a desirable body shape (Have you seen the bodies of Olympic swimmers?)
- Improved cognitive function as your brain works to coordinate the technical aspects of each stroke.
Dr. Sonia Millan of Florida Hospital Flager Orthopedics & Sports Medicine recommends swimming to many of her patients, especially those who are overweight or have joint pain. “I advise patients to swim to maintain cardiovascular health without beating up their joints,” says Millan, who swam competitively in her youth and now trains with a Masters team and competes in open-water races and triathlons. ”I find swimming a valuable cross-training tool,” she says. “I can rest my joints while still getting a great workout.”
According to an international study commissioned by Speedo, swimming is also a powerful tool for fighting stress and depression. It provides a more complete break from the real world and the demands of technology than many other forms of exercise, offers similar benefits to meditation, and improves self-image.
Ready to Dive In?
Before you hit the pool, gently warm your large muscles groups with some dynamic yoga poses and easy arm circles to get your shoulders warm.
Start your swim with a slow 100-200-yard (one length=25 yards in most lap pools) freestyle warm-up.
- Kick with a kickboard. Kick 6 x 25-yard lengths on an interval or resting 10 seconds between each 25. Concentrate on kicking from the core, with minimal knee bend.
- Move to drills to improve your stroke. Swim freestyle with hands closed in fists for one 25 and then swim normally on the way back (this drill makes you use your whole arm to pull and makes you appreciate your hands). Repeat for a total of 3 x 50 drill down, swim back.
- Fingertip drag drill. Swim freestyle by dragging just the tips of your fingers across the top of the water (this drill forces you to have high elbows and reach your fingers far out in front of you, without crossing that midline). 3 x 50 drill down, swim back.
- Mix in other strokes. Swim backstroke, breastroke and even learn to swim butterfly. 6 x 25 stroke.
- Short sets. Try sets of 25s, 50s and 100s depending on your skill in the water. Give yourself 10-30-seconds rest between intervals.
- Long swim. Do a longer swim of 200-500 yards (8-20 lengths).
- Increase total distance. Keep track of your yardage and try to build it up with each session in the pool.
To maximize the health and fitness benefits you reap, mix up the types of swim workouts you do each week — some longer and some faster and shorter.
Get the Gear
Swimmers use a variety a gear to enhance technique, build strength, and, if desired, make swimming easier. Check out Swim Outlet for a broad selection.
Basic gear includes:
- Chlorine-resistant swimsuit
- Silicone swim cap (most serious swimmers wear a cap)
- Goggles (consider a tinted pair if you swim outdoors)
- Pull buoy
- Mesh bag to hold all of your gear
Use the kickboard to work on strengthening your legs. Use a pull buoy and paddles to focus on your pull. Try a snorkel to take the breathing out of the equation. Fins can help teach proper body position, strengthen your legs and core, and help you feel how you should be swimming. Keep in mind, the better your stroke, the more enjoyable swimming can be.
U.S. Masters Swimming
U.S. Masters Swimming, a national nonprofit adult swimming organization with programming that includes workouts, clinics and competitions, boasts more than 60,000 members, ages 18-100+, with 1,500 clubs and growing. Some members are former competitive swimmers, but many learned to swim as adults. Coach Bay encourages new swimmers to get started by finding a coach and taking lessons. “If you are athletic, it won’t take long to get good,” he says. “Swimming is lifelong skill, so it is a good investment.”
Evanston’s NASA Wildcat Masters coach Jacob Hanson encourages newer swimmers to continually improve technique and offers these tips (for swimming freestyle) to help you swim faster and more efficiently, and to protect swimming muscles from injury:
1. Your body position should remain flat in the water, with your core engaged throughout the stroke. You should have a slight rotation in your hips as you extend each stroke, loading the arms and lats to pull water. Your head should be facing the bottom at all times, to help maintain body position.
2. With each arm pull pretend there is a line drawn in the middle of your body, from your head down to your feet. As your arm recovers in the air, entry should be in front of the shoulder, leading with the fingertips. Many new swimmers cross that middle line which requires unnecessary stress and energy to pull.
3. Breathing impacts body position and the pull. As your arm is extending at the shoulder to catch water, the breath must be quick, with one goggle remaining in the water. You should exhale before turning your head to take a breath. Timing is everything here; if your breath is too long (exhale and inhale), your arm will cross that middle threshold, which will impact your body position, and make your stroke less efficient. Learn to breathe bilaterally.
4. The kick follows the flat body position, at a steady pace. The kick should start from the bottom of the core/hip flexors. Most new swimmers kick from just the knees. Pretend your legs are like giant whips, starting from your core.
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