Swimming is a form of exercise that is often overlooked. It may not be as high impact as, say, weight training or wind sprints, but it is an amazing way to condition your body — if you do it right.
The most important part of swimming is not hydrodynamic swim suits, but form. The proper form of a stroke not only makes the exercise more effective, utilizing all the muscle groups possible, but it also makes it far safer. Rotator cuff injuries are quite common in swimming, because a great deal of stress is placed on it if the front crawl, the most common stroke, is not performed correctly.
It’s important to learn the form of the strokes before attempting to swim intensely. The specific forms can be found littered around the Internet. Don’t feel, however, that you must have mastered a stroke to go swimming; professional athletes strive for years to master the form of strokes. It isn’t necessary for a good workout.
Getting a workout swimming is a lot like getting a workout in the gym. You sometimes do large muscle groups all at once, and sometimes you isolate. While every stroke in swimming is a full-body workout, it works different muscles differently, and sometimes swimming two km of front crawl is just boring.
There are plenty of things you can do to isolate muscles while swimming. The first is to use a pull buoy. A pull buoy is a small foam flotation device that fits snugly between your thighs. It allows you to stay straight and afloat without kicking, leaving you the ability to isolate your upper body. You would be surprised at how intense and (pleasantly) painful pulls can be, and in addition to isolating your upper body muscle groups, it will help you focus on your upper body form.
The opposite of the pull buoy is the good ol’ fashioned flutter board. A few hundred metres of flutter kick may not seem hard, but it gets hard. It is great for every muscle group, particularly your lower body, and also great for your form.
There are plenty of other things you can do to increase the intensity or resistance of a swimming workout. My favourite, and least favourite, is to use flippers. You might be saying to yourself “that’s cheating; you’re just going faster,” and that would be stupid. By wearing flippers you are only increasing the surface area of your foot, thereby increasing the resistance of each kick. After doing dolphin kicks or even flutter kicks in flippers, a few hundred metres can be brutal.
The different strokes in swimming obviously focus on different muscle groups. However, every stroke uses basically every muscle group from the neck to the toes; it all depends on form and intensity. Different strokes are easier than others, and some are more efficient. The more efficient your stroke, the fewer calories you actually burn. Flopping around, barely moving, actually burns more calories than an efficient front crawl, where there is little wasted energy and therefore less effort.
As a workout, swimming burns about 89 per cent of what you might burn running for the same amount of time. So, if you ran at a reasonable pace for one hour straight, it would burn only 11 per cent more calories than swimming for one hour, and it is far easier.
Personally, my swimming workout lasts about one and a half hours, totalling at least 900 calories. That is a big chunk of energy. Also I get a kick-ass full-body workout, and if I work on my (very hideous) butterfly stroke, I get one of the most intense cardio workouts ever. Add on the fact that you don’t really come out smelling like B.O. because the water naturally cools you, and you’ve got one kick-ass workout.
Swimming is a low impact total body workout. It’s great for your heart, circulation, physique and co-ordination.
Not only is swimming a great way to exercise, but it’s also a very involved sport. There are so many volumes of techniques, drills, sets and exercises that you can always work a muscle in a different way, or challenge yourself. I recommend going to Goswim.tv, which is an amazing and free resource for swimmers to get video examples of drills and techniques. So many times I have been left breathless and crumpled from its workouts. Also, they are fun and they keep swimming from becoming about stale lengths.
So grab a swimming schedule and hit the U of M pool, or if you’re self-conscious, there are a multitude of adult swim courses available through Bison Recreation Services, one of which I have been taking for the past three months. It has been an amazing investment of time. I have had the best workouts of my life at the U of M pool and I wholeheartedly recommend you give it a try.