Swimming Laps: A Cool Workout | Tips for a Cool Workout

In the cool waters of a pool you can leave the world behind AND get a great workout.

For me, swimming is a matter of sanity. When I dive into a massive pool of cool water and crank out 2,000 yards of aquatic pain-and-pleasure, all the tensions of my life are left behind.

When I was six, swimming was about holding my breath and collecting colored rocks until panicked instructors pulled me out. During college, swimming meant surviving 10,000-yard workouts in the mornings and figuring out how to come back for more in the afternoon. I’ll admit, I couldn’t handle that. Still, it was a shock when I transferred from Division I University of Texas to a small Iowa college that didn’t have even a pool.

After graduation and relocation, I joined a Masters Swim Team in Los Angeles. Surrounded by former Olympic medalists and various world-record holders, I found a place to hone my weaknesses into strengths and learn what high-level training was really about. Once I faced the fact that there were always going to be swimmers faster than me, competitive swimming became a simple matter of competing with myself. That was when I got all my personal bests on the books.

It was also in another century. The last real competition for me, a Long Course National Championships, was in 1993. These days, swimming is about my health. I’ve joined that great herd of humanity known as “lap swimmers.”

Tips and Techniques

Though I’m only in the water once or twice a week, I’ve learned a couple things that just about any swimmer can do to increase efficiency and effectiveness. If you only have a limited schedule for swimming, a few simple tools and techniques will give you leverage in the aquatic universe and keep you out of trouble in the deep end.

• Fins. Though swimming primarily utilizes upper body muscles, the biggest muscles in your body are in your legs. Also, you neutralize gravity in the water (you float), further lessening the load on the most important muscles in your body. Most competitive programs use fins to increase the aerobic impact of training. Not only do fins increase the workload on  the legs, they tend to drive a swimmer to a more upright position, making one longer in the water and giving each stroke more efficiency and leverage.

Once a swimmer gets used to the stress on their legs and how to measure out the proper amount of kicks per stroke, the overall effect of fins can be quite inspiring. Manufacturers have gotten into the act as well, creating shorter fins to allow a balance of kick speed and load on legs. TYR makes longer Flexfins to increase foot flexibility and speed while building leg strength, as well as the shorter Crossblade training fins for optimal kick beat.

While on the West Coast, I saw a lot of  Hydro Finz, whose wide V channel and flanges from the boot allow for an even thrust. Speedo makes the Optimus fin with a cut-out area that allows for a higher kick speed. And then there is the original short fin called Zoomers that some old guys like me still use. Any of these models can be used to increase both stroke quality and comprehensive conditioning.

• Hand Paddles. Like the multitude of different fins on the market, hand paddles, which are designed to increase the load on a swimmer’s arms, are also available in assorted models. Some paddle makers, like Strokemaker, claim their design forces a swimmer to hold the correct position to get the most out of each stroke.

Having experienced firsthand the shoulder problems associated with paddle use, I don’t recommend them to casual swimmers. When I use paddles, I always make sure to warm up beforehand, work on long form and body rotation, and allow my stroke frequency to relax. Alternating between fins and paddles offers a nice change of pace and a good workout.

Pull Buoys. Paddles are often used in concert with a pull buoy, which is essentially a floatation element held between the legs so that a swimmer can isolate upper body work and focus on proper shoulder rotation and correct hand entry.

• Pace Work. Varying the intensity of the workout is a simple principle that applies to all forms of exercise. In swimming this can be accomplished by changes in speed. You can vary your laps by increasing the effort from slow to fast on one lap, then another one from fast to slow, then as fast as you can go, and finally totally slow.

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The most common complaint I hear about lap swimming is how boring it can be. But just about everyone agrees that it’s a thorough, low-impact workout that one can do at almost any age.

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