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Should I Take the Plunge and Move My Workout into the Pool?

The treadmill hasn’t exactly left me swimming in gains

Knowing how to swim in a competitive style is an incredibly convenient tool to have in your repertoire when it comes time to choose a method for cardiovascular training. Because even if your swimming skills aren’t highly refined, it doesn’t make a lick of difference with respect to the perceived exertion your body feels as you struggle your way down the lane. As long as you can stay afloat, you can benefit from utilizing the swimming pool as your liquid playground.

Here’s the straight dope, though: Swimming is brutal if you’re not accustomed to it. Training to swim is a good metaphor for life, inasmuch as you need to endure the incessant aching in your muscles and lungs as you continue to drive yourself ever forward against constant resistance. Also, no other training methods can adequately prepare you for it, because no other environment simultaneously restricts both your movement and your airway to such a severe degree.

I’m not really much of a swimmer. How should I go about training in the water for weight loss in particular?

The other issue with swimming is that it can be unbearably boring. Unlike being able to watch TV while on the treadmill, StairMaster or elliptical, you’ve got very few distractions to take your mind off of the black line at the bottom of the pool.

If you’re like me, and you consider the accompaniment of music to be a non-negotiable element of your workouts, you can thank your lucky stars that headphone and earbud solutions have progressed to the point that you don’t need to proceed without the presence of a soundtrack laid out by Young Jeezy or Lil Wayne, the same way Michael Phelps did.  

But even with music in your eardrums to pump you up, swimming is often so uncomfortable that many ambitious people throw in the towel (or retreat in search of their towels) before they even spend 10 full minutes in the water. So asking you to commit to swimming without rest would probably mean a premature upping of the ante. 

I know you’d love to believe that your hour-long sessions on the elliptical have prepared your heart and limbs for the feeling of a swimming workout, but you honestly have no clue what’s in store for you. You’ll never know the pain of attempting to pull yourself forward while everything in your environment is trying to bring you to a halt until you subject yourself to that misery firsthand. It’s a whole lot different from anything you’ll ever experience training on a stationary cardio device, or even moving outside through the open air.

So what should I do if I can’t sustain very long swims?

You should string together shorter swims. Even highly trained swimmers spend the bulk of their training time piecing together swims of relatively short distances that typically range from between 50 to 200 yards (or meters) at a time. 

Part of this is owed to the fact that the majority of swimming events fall within this range, and there isn’t much strategic sense behind the practice of training swimmers to comport themselves over distances far greater than anything they’re likely to encounter during any of the races they’ll ever participate in. It’s also far more intuitive to receive stroke and form advice every few minutes so that essential corrections and adjustments can be made, as opposed to forcing swimmers to complete long sets with incorrect form before advising them that they were swimming incorrectly the entire time. Practice makes permanent, so there’s no sense in allowing bad form to take root and linger.

I don’t know how much time you’d ordinarily reserve for cardio, but for an average swimmer, a set of 10 swims of 100 yards or 20 swims of 50 yards is going to take about half an hour, which is plenty of fat-torching time. This is especially true if swimming is your post-resistance-training cardio, and you’re using it to round out a comprehensive workout of an hour or more. Thirty minutes of swimming at a time, in two- to four-length increments, with 10 to 15 seconds of rest between swims is all most people will ever require in order to reduce fat and skyrocket their conditioning levels.

Are there any other things I should know about swimming before I commit to this?

I’m glad you asked. 

Afterward, you may find yourself experiencing some of the most brutal hunger pangs of your life; take it from a guy who once stopped at a Burger King drive-thru after a Saturday morning practice and smashed three Whoppers in a row. If you’re training outside of water, your body often regulates heat by causing itself to sweat and cool the skin. Most pools are set at a temperature far cooler than the surrounding air, which means none of its energy is diverted to the body-cooling process. Instead, swimming causes your body to accelerate its metabolic rate in order to keep itself warm, and this process is very demanding of the digestive system.

Here’s what that means for you: There’s a stereotype amongst swimmers that they’re the athletes who are the most likely to indulge in vast quantities of food — some of which isn’t conducive to maintaining a svelte, hydrodynamic physique — and this is because the stereotype is true. Because of the unique performance environment of swimmers, combined with the caloric demands of the sport, they have a tendency to leave practice and go straight for the nearest high-carbohydrate, high-calorie source of sustenance. 

Many competitive swimmers are able to get away with this, because swimming upwards of five hours daily can easily result in 4,000 or more calories being burned simply as a consequence of fitness-focused efforts. Swimmers at this level could eat an entire large Domino’s and not replace all of the calories they’ve burned. However, if you’re not cognizant of what’s happening inside of your body, your caloric intake can easily outpace your caloric burn, and one month into your in-water training, you can unsurprisingly find yourself with a thicker waistline than when you started.

Does that make swimming a non-starter then?

Not at all. I’m always going to encourage you to make regular deviations from your favorite treadmill and learn to enjoy the smell of chlorine in the morning. You won’t get to revel in the satisfaction of the sweat accumulating on your brow as a telltale sign that your body is doing something productive, but the ubiquitous presence of pain, soreness and discomfort will be more than adequate to tip you off as to the progress you’re making. 

Just plan ahead and pack yourself a relatively healthy, high-protein, post-workout snack before you hit the pool to ensure that you won’t be hitting the fast-food royal court of Burger King and Dairy Queen immediately afterward.