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How to Swim to Get a Good Workout

Swimming is truly a zero-impact sport. You can get a great aerobic workout that uses your whole body. Although you can strain your shoulders if you overdo it, there’s absolutely no pounding on your joints, and the only thing you’re in danger of crashing into is the wall of the pool. Plus, water has a gentle, soothing effect on the body, so swimming is helpful for those with arthritis or other joint diseases.

Swimming is great for people who want to keep exercising when they’re injured and for people who are pregnant or overweight. That extra body fat helps you glide along near the surface of the water, so you don’t expend energy trying to keep yourself from sinking like a stone.

If you swim in a chlorinated pool, goggles are a must to prevent eye irritation and to help you see better in the water. Buy goggles from a store that lets you try them on. You should feel some suction around your eyes, but not so much that you feel like your eyeballs are going to pop out. You also need a cap so that your hair doesn’t get plastered on your face as you swim or turn to straw from the chemicals.

Swimming the right way

You’ll probably spend the bulk of your workouts doing the front crawl, also called freestyle. It’s generally faster than the other strokes, so you can cover more distance. Don’t cut your strokes short; reach out as far as you can, have your hand enter thumb-first so it slices the water like a knife, and pull all the way through the water so your hand brushes your thigh. Use an S-shaped sculling movement, where you hand moves out, then in, then out again across your body/thigh and out of the water. Elongate your stroke so that you take fewer than 25 strokes in a 25-yard pool. The fewer strokes, the better. Top swimmers get so much power from each stroke that they take just 11 to 14 strokes per length of a 25-yard pool.

Kick up and down from your hips, not your knees. Don’t kick too deeply or allow your feet to break the water’s surface. Proper kicking causes the water to “boil” rather than splash.

Breathe through your mouth every two strokes, or every three strokes if you want to alternate the side that you breathe on. You need as much oxygen as you can get. Beginners sometimes make the mistake of taking six or eight strokes before breathing, which wears them out quickly. To breathe, roll your entire body to the side until your mouth and nose come out of the water — imagine that your entire body is on a skewer and must rotate together.

Swimming tips for rookies

More than almost any other aerobic activity, swimming relies on technique. The following tips can help you get the most out of your swimming workouts.

  • Take a few lessons if you haven’t swum in a while. Beginners waste a lot of energy flailing and splashing around rather than moving forward.

  • Break your workout into intervals. For example, don’t just get into the pool, swim 20 laps, and get out. Instead, do 4 easy laps for a warm-up. Then do 8 sets of 2 laps at a faster pace, resting 20 seconds between sets. Then cool down with two easy laps, and maybe a few extra laps with a kickboard. Mix up your strokes, too. The four basic strokes — freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly — use your muscles in different ways.

  • If swimming is your bag, join a Masters swim club. These clubs, located at university and community pools nationwide, are geared toward adult swimmers of all levels. A coach gives you a different workout every time you swim and monitors your progress. Best of all, you have buddies to work out with. Don’t worry about being slow; the coach will group you in a lane with other people your speed. If you have a competitive spirit, you can compete in Masters meets, where you swim against others who are roughly your speed.

  • If you find swimming a big yawn but enjoy being in the water, try water running or water aerobics. Water running is a pretty tough workout because the water provides resistance from all directions as you move your legs. It’s an excellent workout for injured runners because, even though it’s nonimpact and easy on your joints, it helps maintain aerobic conditioning. Don’t assume that water aerobics is for little old ladies in flowered caps. With the right instructor and exercise program, you can get a challenging water-aerobics workout. Water running can be even tougher.

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