Every Body Into the Pool

By Matt Fitzgerald |

Swimmers aren’t the only ones swimming these days. John Clay, running back for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, primarily spends his time in the pool during the off-season. The ING New York City Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi swims year-round for cross-training.

Why the rush for the water? Well, swimming laps burns from 400 to more than 700 calories an hour, builds muscle, and increases aerobic and anaerobic capacity. But it’s what swimming doesn’t do that attracts some of its most dedicated fans.

“As a non-weight-bearing activity, swimming is much less stressful on the body than other forms of exercise,” says Eric Hansen, head coach of men’s and women’s swimming and diving at the University of Wisconsin. “For that reason,” Hansen adds, “I believe swimming should be a part of everyone’s fitness regimen.”

So why doesn’t everyone swim? Some are avoiding what’s known as black-line fever — that feeling of mind-numbing boredom you experience while swimming endless laps in the pool, staring at that black line on the bottom. Others avoid the pool because they simply don’t like swimming, period.

That’s too bad, because there are lots of challenging, enjoyable ways to build fitness in the water that don’t involve simply paddling from end to end. And even if you don’t want to swim at all, you can still burn fat and build strength, speed and stamina in the water.

“Aqua fitness has really expanded recently,” says Carol Argo, a Los Angeles–based aqua fitness instructor who has created a series of aqua fitness DVDs (www.carolargo.com). Today, the options include everything from aqua Pilates to water calisthenics. “There’s something for everyone — young or old, beginner or advanced,” says Argo.

Ready to take the plunge? Turn the page for a selection of smart water workouts (swimming and nonswimming) from aquatic fitness experts who know their way around the pool.

Strength Workouts

Water CalisthenicsWater offers more resistance than air, but the effect of gravity is lessened in the pool. You can take advantage of the viscosity of water and overcome the reduced gravity to get a great strength-building workout by introducing equipment such as a kickboard (which is normally used for kicking drills). The following water-calisthenics workout is adapted from swim coach Steve Tarpinian’s book, The Triathlete’s Guide to Swim Training (VeloPress, 2005):

  1. Continue pushing and pulling for 30 seconds.


  1. Continue rotating your shoulders left and right for 30 seconds.

  1. Return to the start position and repeat 10 times.

  1. Just before the board reaches the surface, reverse your movement and push the board back underneath your chest.

Water PilatesIt may sound odd, but water Pilates is becoming popular across the country. The following workout is adapted from Argo’s DVD Water Pilates. Begin with a warm-up by jogging in place in the water for five minutes, focusing on controlling your breath. After completing your warm-up, proceed through the following sequence of movements:

  1. Continue alternating right- and left-leg abductions with opposite-direction arm swings for one minute.

  1. Keeping the “ball” underwater, use your arms to trace a large figure-8 shape with it (as though drawing an 8 pattern on the bottom of the pool). Continue for one minute.

  1. Continue swinging your right leg forward and back for 30 seconds; then reverse your position and repeat the exercise with your left leg.

  1. Continue crossing one leg over the other in alternating fashion with small, quick movements for one minute.

Fin and Paddle DrillsThere are two key tools that competitive swimmers rely on to develop upper-body and leg strength: fins and paddles, both of which create more drag. Pool fins are stubbier than their open-water counterparts, diving fins. “Their purpose is to increase the surface area of the foot and increase water resistance when you kick, which strengthens the legs,” says Tarpinian, creator of the Swim Power DVD series (www.swimpower.com). Swim paddles go on the hands and help build the muscles of the shoulders, upper back and upper arms.

Fins and paddles help build strength and also allow swimmers to focus on improving their kick and arm pull. Here’s a strength-building swim workout using fins and paddles alternately:

  1. 50 yards normal freestyle.
  1. Remove the paddles and swim a few laps of easy freestyle to cool down.

Speed Workouts

OK, OK, there’s a little lap swimming here. But these workouts are good for spiking your heart rate and improving your speed in the pool. The more efficient your stroke is, the faster you’ll be in the water, and the less tiresome swimming will seem. Good form is key to speed, though, so unless you’re a real pro, you’ll benefit from getting some form pointers before you begin.

10 x 25The length of the standard indoor lap pool is 25 yards. Thus, 25 yards is the shortest interval you can conveniently swim in such a pool. It’s also the perfect interval length for speed-building swim workouts. According to Tarpinian, swimming fast 25-yard intervals increases swim speed, tones the muscles, boosts anaerobic fitness and burns lots of calories. And, luckily, swimming a set of repeat 25-yard intervals could not be simpler.

  1. Cool down with a few more laps of easy freestyle swimming.

Swim GolfOne of the most important concepts in swimming is distance per stroke — how much distance your body moves forward in the water each time you pull through with your left or right arm. The best swimmers tend to cover the most distance per stroke, because they have powerful arm pulls and streamlined body positions that minimize drag. Swim golf is a workout that San Diego–based triathlon coach Jim Vance likes to use with his clients because it makes a game of trying to improve your distance per stroke.

  1. Concentrate on increasing your distance per stroke by pulling more powerfully with your arms and getting your body more streamlined in the water. “Changing one small thing can show a big improvement that can be seen objectively,” says Vance.

Stamina Workouts

The stamina you build in the water will translate to dry land, too. Injured runners who rehab in the pool are often surprised at how fit they are when they towel off.

Deep-Water RunningDeep-water running is popular with those who need a break from the roads. You can run in the pool to get the same fat-burning and cardiovascular fitness benefits you get from land running — without the pounding on your legs. Deep-water running doesn’t require any special equipment. All you do is simulate a natural running motion as closely as possible while floating in deep water. You can run in place or move slowly forward with a slight modification of the running motion.

Special flotation belts such as the AquaJogger make it easier to simulate a natural running motion by keeping your body afloat so you can concentrate on moving your legs forward and backward as when running on land.

Deep-water running can be pretty boring if you just maintain a steady, moderate effort for 20 or 30 minutes. Instead, do interval workouts like this one:

  1. Cool down with five minutes of easy running.

The Water Polo Leg BurnerWater polo players have a very high level of all-around fitness: strength, speed, endurance — the whole ball of wax. The sport requires that athletes often keep their heads above water without using their hands, which means they have to tread water powerfully with their legs.

They develop this ability by doing workouts like this one, provided by Triathlete Magazine editor and 2004 Olympic Swim Trials qualifier Brad Culp of San Diego, Calif. “It’s a very intense workout that increases leg strength dramatically,” says Culp. “It takes less than 20 minutes to do, but you wouldn’t want it to last any longer!”

Warm up by swimming a gentle breaststroke or modified breaststroke (head out of the water) for five minutes. Next, find a spot at the deep end of the pool and complete the following sequence:

  1. Cool down with five minutes of easy breaststroke or modified breaststroke.

Time TrialSwimming laps doesn’t have to be dull. In fact, it can be quite engaging if you limit the distance, crank up the intensity and pay attention to the clock. Culp suggests that even noncompetitive swimmers perform occasional time trials — solo races against the clock over a set distance — to boost their swim stamina in a motivating way. “Time trials enable you to track your improvement over time, and they motivate you to work hard to keep improving,” he says.

  1. As you gain fitness, increase the distance of your time trial. If you really get into it, says Culp, you can go all the way up to 1,500 meters (1,650 yards) — the classic test of swimming endurance.

Freestyle swimming is not natural. It must be learned, and years of dedicated practice are required to perfect it. But there are some things you can do to climb the learning curve faster. Here’s what Steve Tarpinian, author of(VeloPress, 2005) and creator of theDVD series , recommends.Get a lesson. There’s no substitute for an expert to watch you swim and help you correct form flaws. Note that not every good swimmer has a flair for teaching, though. “Ask people to recommend a good coach at the facility where you swim, or at the store where you buy your goggles,” Tarpinian suggests.Drill down. There is a lot to think about when you swim freestyle: keeping your elbow high during your arm pull, rotating your hips, keeping your kick tight and more. Technique drills break down the swim stroke into its parts, allowing you to focus on one at a time. “As a beginner, you should devote most of your time in the pool to drills, not actual swimming,” says Tarpinian.Break it up. Swimming endless laps is not only boring, but it actually slows the process of technique development. “The longer a swimmer of any level swims continuously, the more his or her form breaks down due to fatigue,” says Tarpinian. “Breaking up your swim into very short intervals allows you to keep swimming without fatigue and with better form.”Whether you’re swimming, doing a strength workout or practicing form drills, the right equipment can help you get a top-notch water workout. Here’s a look at some of the most popular and effective gear options.Kickboards both buoy you and take your arms out of the equation, increasing leg strength.The short, curved, vented blades ensure you zip through the pool. For deep-water sprinting, a buoyancy belt, underwater dumbbells and ankle cuffs for added resistance. The broad blade provides max resistance; holes allow water to pass through, so stroke isn’t affected. These webbed neoprene gloves increase resistance and dry quickly.


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