For the entire year your pool is pretty predictable: “Hey Larry“, “How are you Mary?”, “Want to split the lane, Conor?“. (These are a fictional Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool, not the actual real-life Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool).
Then it’s the start of January and the first full week after New Year, they arrive, the Resolutionistas. The New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and/or get fit folk.
Every single year we see them and every single year they are usually gone by the last week of January or the middle of February at the latest.
On the one side they can cause problems for regular swimmers as they fill lanes with Furious Bob’s who have no idea what they are doing. (Thanks to Niek Kloots for the updated link. Just in case that link breaks, I’m mirroring the letter on a static page on LoneSwimmer.com).
On the other and more important side, people who really want to make a change need help and encouragement.
So in a spirit of encouragement for those Resolutionistas who are embarking on an attempt at building a better new life with swimming as a component, be it to lose weight, get more exercise, become better swimmers or any of the above, I thought I’d offer some advice from someone whose primary qualification is a lifetime throwing himself into and off of things.
- Swimming is hard. Really, It’s far harder than you think. Sure it doesn’t seem so, as undistinguished-looking middle-aged folk like myself saunter down the deck wearing (shudder) Speedoes like that TV ad singing I gotta be me. Surely the fit looking young people lounging outside the sauna are more worthy of emulation? Good swimming is a combination of superb cardio-respiratory conditioning (heart and lung fitness), highly attuned proprioceptive senses (understanding what every part of your body is doing) and multiple hours and years of technique training. And I’m an average swimmer by swimming standards. Almost no other sport you have done will compare, thought ballet or dance, about which I know nothing, come to mind as analogous. Think you could pull off a Swan Lake prima donna performance based on 20 minutes practice every second day for two weeks? I don’t. So give yourself a break and take your time. By the way, dump the board shorts and bikinis and take a look at swimming etiquette. There’s a good reason all swimmers wear proper swim wear: Everything else adds drag and therefore difficulty.
- As with any physical exercise consistency is the single most important aspect. You can’t go from zero to hero in four weeks. You have to think long-term. Not a day, instead a week. Not a week , instead a month. Not a month, instead a year. A year is long isn’t it? No, it’s not. You have to rationally understand your improvements are made through attainable and sustainable improvements and measurements. Ridiculous targets in fitness level, ability or weight loss will either not be reached and will lead to disillusionment, or if you make some unexpected change, like weight loss accelerating after four weeks of exercise, it will not be sustainable. Swim, then swim more, then keep swimming.
- Keep realistic and consistent measurements. There’s hardly an engineer or sportsperson alive who doesn’t think that measurement is vital to improvement. Measure simple things in swimming. First if you can swim 100 metres or yards continuously, whether that’s two or four pool lengths. Forget about how long it takes you because you are not ready for racing. Then see if you can repeat that five times. Then keep an eye on long you have to rest between each 100 metres. I’ve been keeping a detailed log for years, and I enjoy seeing my own progression. But remember, swimmers don’t think or talk in lengths or laps.
- Learn to breathe. Seriously. The most repeated complaint any swim coach or swimmer has ever heard from a non-, beginner or improving swimmer are the words “I can swim fine but I have problems breathing“. If you cannot breathe, then you actually aren’t a good swimmer. That’s like saying a particular car is good except for the small problem that it needs fuel. Swimmer all repeat coaching aphorisms. I have always liked; swim around your breathing, don’t breathe around your swimming. That means that breath comes before movement in order of priority. You learn to breathe properly in a controlled fashion and integrate that into your stroke. Want the super-secret swimming secret of how this is done? Exhale constantly underwater. Don’t tell the other swimmers I told you the secret.
- Swimming really does take effort. The other thing swimmers all hear is that their swimming looks effortless. Swimmers are like swans in that way, all seeming grace on the surface, but furious action underneath. We warm up in the pool then we do the main swim sets, then we cool down by easy swimming at the end.
- Swimming is poor for weight loss in beginners. You will not be getting as much exercise as you think, because you really probably are out of breathe. That is not the same as effort. Swimming also stimulates appetite, unlike many other sports and people often overeat after swimming. (On the positive side experienced hard-training swimmers can generally eat as much of anything as they want as they consume so many calories. Ever eaten 6000 to 8000 calories, in a day, every day and not gained weight?) But some good news also results from a 2013 scientific study that shows even moderate exercise results in changes in the genome that affects fat storage.
- Keep it simple but vary each day. You should not be trying to emulate the good swimmer in the lane. Be Pepe Le Pew: Relax, and set your sight on eventually catching up with Mon Cherie when they are not expecting it. Don’t do complex sets but don’t do the same thing every day. The main part of your swimming set is that central portion, where you do one particular thing. Today you can do sets of four lengths with a shortish rest. Tomorrow you can do single lengths and try to do them faster with a longer rest between.
The clock is your friend. Learn to watch it, not for how fast you are swimming, but for how long you are resting. Reducing rest interval times means your heart cardiorespiratory (heart and respiratory fitness) is improving. Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the most important predictors of long-term health.
- The Internet does not know what you are doing. I don’t mean Facebook or Twitter etc. By the way though, don’t post what you are doing there until you are sure it will stick (at least a year). Instead I mean that YouTube etc have great swimming advice. I even have some here. But I or YouTube are not as effective as the good swimmer in your pool or the local swim coach who can see you. Someone who knows what they are doing who can make actual suggestions relevant to your specific swimming is the best option.
- Enjoy the improvements. People often say to enjoy the process and that’s true but it’s deceptive. It is the case that every swimmer will tell you, that swimming is full of frustration and exhaustion. Sure there are those indescribable days of “flow“, but they are rare. But the real enjoyment comes from being consistently healthy and fit, and from actually seeing improvement. Your bad swimming days are not special. Your bad swimming days only become special if you allow them to be your last swimming day.
I’m with you. It’s never too late to start, and you can do it.
You are already the captain, pilot and owner of the greatest vehicle you will ever own, your own body. You just need to get a bit more familiar with the controls.
What about we meet here next year and you can tell me about your success?
HOWTO: Write a simple swimming training set (loneswimmer.com)
How To use the pace clock (Farther, Colder, Rougher)
HOWTO: Read Swimming Notation (loneswimmer.com)
HOWTO: Lane swimming etiquette (loneswimmer.com)
HOWTO: Introduce interval training to your swimming (loneswimmer.com)