THE GREAT ADVANTAGE of swimming over most other forms of aerobic exercise is that it places demands on all parts of the body, not just on the heart and lungs. Not only does swimming increase your endurance, it also acts as a superb conditioner for the upper body. At the same time, because water supports your body, there is very little stress on your bones and joints which means that injuries are rare. If you are looking to do P-Company, the Commando course or SAS selection, you should consider swimming as a supplement to running because you won’t pass the courses without the leg strength that running provides. On the other hand, if you are simply trying to improve your fitness and you don’t like running, swimming can be substituted minute for minute.
All you need for swimming is a costume and a pool. If your eyes are sensitive or you wear contact lenses, you should consider investing in a pair of goggles. I haven’t got any great preferences for swimming cossies, though I imagine that those which are specially made for swimming races are probably pretty good — they certainly show off your package if you like that sort of thing.
If you can’t swim, you will have real difficulty learning from a book. Your best course of action will be to head off to your local pool and book yourself some lessons — I’ve yet to visit a pool where there isn’t an instructor — which will enable you to start with some confidence. The two strokes that you will need to know are the front crawl and breast-stroke; other strokes are useful but they are only the icing on the cake. Once you learn how to swim, you never forget — it’s like knowing how to walk.
How Far and How Fast?
My own swimming workouts tend to be fairly unimaginative, because I use swimming as a supplementary exercise to running and gym work. Normally I just swim continuously up and down the pool for 30 minutes or so, usually doing breast-stroke, sometimes alternating breast-stroke with front crawl. If you have similar limited aims in mind, and can stand the boredom, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do the same — it’s a perfectly good way of exercising. There are some far more interesting swimming workouts, however, and these are outlined below. A point to note is that your training heart rate is likely to be about 15 to 20 beats per minute slower than when taking other forms of exercise, because, being horizontal, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard getting the blood around your body.
An excellent way of building up endurance is by swimming ‘pyramids’. An example of this might be a ‘5’ in which you swim I length, followed by a set rest period (say, 20 seconds), then 2 lengths with the same rest period and so on up to 5, then down again to r. In total this comes to 25 lengths which in a 25-metre pool is 625 metres, a bit more than a third of a mile. Swimming an ‘8’ in a 25-metre pool (I—z-3-4-5-67 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 I) adds up to 1,600 metres, about a mile. An advantage of this workout is that the short rest periods help you to maintain your speed without letting your heart rate drop out of the training range.
Interval swimming not only builds endurance but helps with speed as well. Interval training comprises a timed swim alternated with a timed rest. Once you have gained confidence as a swimmer, start to time yourself to see how quickly you can do certain distances. You may find that you can do too metres in 4 minutes; if so, try intervals of 4 minutes 30 seconds — this means that you give yourself four and a half minutes to swim too metres and take a rest before doing the next too metres. Put the intervals into sets of 4 (4 x too metres) and build up the number of sets that you can do, awarding yourself a couple of minutes’ rest between each set. As the weeks go by, your times will start to improve, giving you more rest between each interval; when this happens, shorten your time allowance — remember, you don’t want your heart rate to drop out of the training range.
Eating and Drinking
When I was a kid I was told that if I ate before I went swimming I would get stomach cramps and drown. This has been tested scientifically and is a load of old bollocks. Having said that, it isn’t ever comfortable to exercise on a full stomach, so avoid eating much for an hour or two before swimming. However, it is worth drinking some water both before and after swimming — the reason being that you sweat just as much as when you are taking other forms of exercise, only you don’t notice it. A glass or two of water, or some other soft drink, will prevent dehydration.