So you have started your path to get in shape. Looked over the different gyms, read personal trainer reviews, decided shin splints and joint pain do not hold the same appeal as your fun run friends say, and that joining one of those fitness cults where people meet in an old oil changing facility just was not for you. Welcome to less crowded (and less sweaty) world of swimming.
If you are new to this area of fitness, I encourage you to keep at it because at the beginning, it will feel intimidating. I assure you, the intimidation goes away quickly and you will realize the benefits of swimming outshine other activities. Why do I lead with intimidation? Naturally many feel self-conscious in the gym. The thought of all these fit people criticizing you with a judgmental look while wearing their snug flattering attire might be one reason. Perhaps you are unsure how to use a machine, or what exactly you are supposed to do. Or, maybe you feel intimidated by the person benching 300 pounds and asking you if he can grab the weights from your bench. Swimming is a little different. For starters, it is self-competitive. The “alpha male” mentality is dropped here and you realize very quickly, you are in a race against yourself. Those around you are very willing to offer advice rather than intimidation. So with the typically gym climate removed. How do you begin your start in fitness?
Finding a facility
Before you swim, find your facility. If you have a home pool, great! However, even most home pool owners will become dissatisfied with the distance of their pool if they are aiming for lap swimming. Many municipal pools are great as they have designated areas for lap swimming, usually inexpensive, and typically offer equipment for you to use.. The downfall of the municipal pool? The designated lap swimming areas are typically rather small and many bodies will be crammed into a small space. Also, most of the rentable equipment is usually a little more beat up. Gyms with lap pools are great as they are usually in doors, heated and better cared for. The downside of the gym, they are usually more expensive, and there might be some fees (especially) if they have a spa. Lastly, you may look for a natatorium (personally my favorite). They are larger in size, meant to handle large swim team practices, add a competitive vibe, and equipment is usually up to date. With these, you can often buy a pass instead of paying a monthly subscription or membership fee. The problem is many natatoriums house multiple team swim practices throughout the day and even multiple teams at a time. They also host swim meets. If your schedule is not very flexible, a natatorium might not be the best choice.
Once you have found your facility, the next step is attire. No, you do not need to buy racing shorts...or as some may call it, Speedo’s. Speedo is a brand that makes wonderful swimming equipment from goggles to kickboards to brief cut racing shorts. If you are a beginner, you do not need these, if you are an advanced swimmer looking to conquer the limits of your fitness capabilities, you still do not need these. Racing shorts/briefs are meant for one thing: speed. They reduce any and all drag and should only be used for that. While having no resistance in the water may seem like a good thing, it actually limits your growth and speed because you are not forced to swim with restrictions. Two pieces are also discouraged in lap swimming. Really any swimsuit that is fashionable is highly discouraged. Why? Well, in my years of lifeguarding and competitive swimming, let's just say, these suits struggle to keep their contents to themselves. For men, I recommend a regular swim suit or a pair of board shorts, or even drag shorts. Drag shorts are a boxer brief cut pair of shorts that have little nets or pockets to slow you down. This will add more resistance without crippling your for. For women, a one piece, preferably covering up to the neck. Aside from the above mentioned possibility, a suit that remains closer to your neck and chest will also reduce the amount of drag.
This can become a slippery slope. While this can be very helpful to your routine, it can also be distracting. When you first begin, I recommend a pair of anti-fog goggles, and if your facility does not have them, a pull buoy and kickboard. These do not need to be fancy, they need to do the job and that is it. Fins, monofins, hand paddles, vertical snorkel masks, and such are really unnecessary until you get into very specific competitive areas of exercise.
When you start, I recommend warming up. Take your time, adjust to the temperature as well as the distance you will be swimming. I recommend you kick one to two laps first. A lap means that you will travel down to the other side and then return to the wall that you started from. While this is confusing, it is important to understand this now so you do not disappoint yourself when you think you are swimming more laps than you actually are. A warm up should start slow, allowing you to feel comfortable as you begin to increase the speed and distance. I use this time to adjust my kicking to keep me in a constant state of motion without deceleration while expending minimal energy. Hold your kickboard on the sides, fully extend your arms, push yourself off the wall and hold that streamline position for as long as you can before you begin to slow down. When you kick, minimize bending your knee. Your kick should never be powered by your knee. The force should come as a result of your legs moving up and down from your hip. Point your toes towards the wall rather than the floor. The positioning of your feet towards the wall will help increase the amount of propulsion while also alleviating strain from the hamstring. While you kick, try to keep your head face down in the water. This might seem uncomfortable; however, keeping your head down keeps the alignment in your back straight and this in turn keeps your feet closer to the surface. If your feet continue to descend downward, this is usually a result of bending the knee or looking upward. Your warm up does not necessarily need to start with kicking. I recommend this or pulling as a start. This helps you adjust to your workout without fulling expending more energy.
Upping the difficulty
After you warm up, if you feel like you can increase the workout, I recommend starting off with some shorter, moderate paced strokes. Try to finish at least one full lap at a time. Unless you are gasping for air at the other side, try to commit to a full lap. You do not want to rush yourself into getting to the other side. This interrupts your breathing and changes the timing of your stroke. Speed is not the most important thing at the moment, finding your rhythm and breathing is more important. If these two are not understood, you will never be able to increase your speed. Continue performing one to two laps with no more than a minute rest in between until you perform anywhere from six to ten laps total. After this rest for about two minutes and then begin some endurance laps.
Personally Breaststroke is my favorite to transition into an endurance exercise. I can set a strong rhythm with it, I have a resting streamline between every stroke and I can propel myself rather far after every kick. Whatever stroke you choose, aim to do anywhere from two to six laps at one time. If you had trouble doing more than one lap, try to do just two laps together. If you felt comfortable doing two laps on the previous exercise, increase the laps to anywhere from three to six laps. Rest two minutes between each of these laps. Try to keep your speed even for the amount of laps you swim. This will keep your breathing consistent and help you evenly distribute your energy throughout the exercise. I recommend about three sets of three to six laps for the endurance part of your exercise.
While a relaxed part of your routine, it can be one of the more difficult parts of your workout. When you are tired, your form tends to become sloppy. This will actually make your stroke more difficult because you will add more drag to your workout. More drag means more effort, which will cut through the limited about of energy you are holding on too. Take your time, go very slow and concentrate entirely on breathing and reducing the resistance on your arms. Aim for completing at least four laps as part of your cooldown. The important part is just to allow your heart rate to slowly decrease from your more exerted exercises to your resting heart rate speed.
I often see many of those starting a swim routine getting frustrated. Swimming takes a lot of energy, a lot of lung capacity and a lot of muscle endurance. When I joined the swim team, the first month I was on, I was struggling to keep up. I was always tired and always hungry. It will take at least a month for you to adapt to your new routine. The second month you will see a spike in your endurance and speed. The key is consistency.
I enjoy swimming because I can be alone to process the day, or not think about anything at all. When we would pull a thousand meters or more, I would go into autopilot and just swim. I was relaxed and could easy myself away from projects, homework, drama or whatever. Do not allow yourself to avoid the gym or see it as a necessary evil. See it as a place to unwind. This will be the motivation to keep you coming back. Not because of its low impact benefits, not because of its high caloric consumption, not because of its low risk of injury, but because after a long difficult day, you can power through the un-pleasantries, give your body the necessary stretching and exercise it needs. Also, I find I sleep very well after a good long swim.