Swim Fit

Swimming is one of the best all-round exercises. Tracey Linguey looks at how to get started and get fit

T'S the only exercise you can do lying down, so swimming has to be good.  But just because you're supine, don't think it's an easy workout.

Swimming is the best total body exercise you can do because it uses every muscle group in the body.  "And it's one of the most aerobic, right up there with cross-country skiing," Swimming Victoria coaching director Michael Piper says.

Water is also 14 times thicker than air so it offers plenty of muscle toning resistance in any direction you move.  But its main value is that it is low impact, and that means you are much less likely to sustain an injury. Water supports about 90 per cent of your body weight, so there's no painful jarring of your joints and it helps prevent post-workout soreness.

"It places an insignificant amount of stress on the body," Piper says. "So it's particularly valuable to those who are injured or who may be Susceptible to injury."

Research shows swimming also may be the best form of exercise for the brain. "Vigorous swimming improves circulation and oxygen flow to the brain, but without the repetitious impact of an activity like jogging and running," Arnold Scheibe, who teaches neurobiology at UCLA in the US, says.

And it's great for asthma. "Swimming is recommended for young people and has the same benefits for older people," Piper says.

So why not jump in the pool and start swimming your way to fitness this summer? If it is already part of your workout, why not set goals and enter an open-water event?

Victoria has excellent public swimming pools. So what is required? Once you've paid your pool entry fee, all you need is a costume, a pair of goggles and perhaps a cap.

There are four basic strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. Most recreational swimmers stick with freestyle.

If you haven't dipped a toe into a pool since high school, it may be worth taking a few lessons to get your breathing rhythm and technique right.  But that's not essential. The key, according to Piper, is to build slowly while maintaining a constant pace and technique.

"The recreational swimmer can see significant improvement quickly," Piper says.  As a minimum for those swimming for general fitness, Piper suggests once or twice a week for 20 minutes. For those training for an event or seeking a higher level of fitness, a minimum five sessions a week, preferable daily, for up to an hour is recommended.

"The aim is to swim constantly with low intensity," he says. "You need to keep the heart rate 40 to 60 bets per minute below its maximum. For most adults, the maximum is about 180, so you need to be swimming with a rate of 120 to 140 for as long as possible and with sound technique."

Once you've found your confidence in the water, Piper suggests a starter program of 10 lengths of a 50m pool with 20 seconds rest between each lap. (Or as much as you can manage building up to 10 x 50m.) "Then you can increase the frequency of the laps and shorten the rest," Piper says.

The more competent swimmer may have a 1000m aerobic set as the key component of the workout. They would start with a 500m warm-up followed by the 1000m, which could be broken into 20 x 50m with 20sec rest 10 x 100m with 15sec rest or 2 x 500m with 30sec to 1 min rest.

Rhythm, too, is important.  "Swimming is a different exercise in that it is foreign. We're used to walking or running on dry land, but swimming takes more time to get into a rhythm," Piper says.

"Breath control is more important, more rhythmic. You can enforce breathing when doing some dryland exercise, but with swimming it has to be part of the procedure."

Another way to sustain your swimming is to use training gadgets.  "They can allow a swimmer to do a lot more," Piper says.

"Instead of struggling along swimming two laps, fins may allow someone to swim eight laps well."  Kickboards, pull buoys and hand paddles can also give swimmers a break in their training schedule.

Piper says supplementary exercise can be helpful.  "Stretching, which can include disciplines such as yoga, assists with the suppleness of the body," he says.

Strength or resistance training can also be useful.  "But if you're looking to improve your swimming by building up muscle mass, you will need to do specific exercises that simulate swimming.

There are many ways to enjoy your swimming apart from training on your own. You can join a lifesaving club, AUSSI Masters swim club for those over 25, play water polo or train with a triathlon squad.

Try: www.aussimasters.com.au 
www.surflifesaver.com.au 
www.trivic.org.au  or
www.swimmingvictoria.org.au