It is known that people are usually more influenced by the other people they know, friends and families, than by experts. It’s from my swimming friends that I have learned most, not distant (both in geographic terms and ability) world champions or experts. I eke out my improvements incrementally, often going backward. I listen to friends, to them telling me what I’m doing wrong, and I watch and learn from what they do. It’s personal, intimate, tangible and sustainable. I try to avoid the frustration of comparing myself (unfavourably) to Michael Phelps, Trent Grimsey or other world swimming champions.
So I try to do the same on this blog. To be real and to be realistic. To give real world swimming advice, advice from an average swimmer, who just happens to have two hard-won areas of expertise (cold & open water). I try to write advice you can learn from and actually repeat yourself. So I’m revisiting and revising my 2013 New Year post, aware that some people will be looking for specific guidance in the New Year and asking many questions that I receive throughout the year. I put aside my natural cynicism to focus on the positive and pass on some of the things I’ve learned over a life of various sports, without ever having been a “jock“.
For the entire year the pool is pretty predictable: “Hey Larry“. “Hello, 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 who swim in my local pool, and all three of whom are a pleasure to share a lane with as each of them is completely familiar with lane swimming etiquette).
Then it’s the start of January and the first full week after New Year, the New Year’s Resolutionistas arrive. Those New Year’s Resolution folk who want to get fitter, to lose weight, to be healthier. According to something I heard on the radio this morning, 58% of Irish people who made a New’s Year’s resolution specifically in the area of fitness or weight loss were successful. That’s a very promising figure. Over half made a change that stuck.
As swimmers we know how fantastic a sport it is. It is truely an open accepting sport that you can keep at for your entire life. But we also know how difficult. The swimming pool is a slightly different arena to other sports, because while every single year we see the arrival of the Resolutionistas, every year they are usually gone by the middle of February. Swimming is generally far more difficult to integrate into a program of fitness or weight loss than almost any other sport and people start without understanding this. Other people start with a level of expertise or even fitness in another sport that they assume will transfer to swimming, which it doesn’t.
But people who really want to make a change need help and encouragement.
So in a spirit of encouragement for those Resolutionistas amongst you who are embarking on an attempt at building a healthier new life with swimming as a component, here’s some hard-won bro-science advice from someone whose primary qualification is a lifetime throwing himself into and off of things and who has managed to keep his heart rate below his age for a few decades.
- SWIMMING IS HARD
Really, it’s 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 guy and 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 excellent CARDIO-RESPIRATORY FITNESS, highly attuned proprioceptive senses (understanding what every part of your body is doing) and multiple hours of TECHNIQUE training. I’m an average swimmer by swimming standards. Almost no other sport you have done will compare. 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 think so. 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. Telling you swimming is hard is to stop you getting discouraged so…
- GET TECHNIQUE ADVICE
Most pools, even those that don’t have clubs, will have swim classes. Swimmers cannot tell what they doing wrong, especially when they don’t know what the correct technique is. The first step in improving is finding out what you are doing right now, so simple stroke analysis is very valuable. This involves someone watching you swim, noting the areas that most need improvement. Some lifeguard can and will do it. I do it a couple of times of year if I see someone trying hard who wants some assistance. The other options are to get swim lessons (most pools provide these), public or private, or even join a Master’s club which usually accommodate ranges of skills. There are always ways to find this if you remember that every good swimmer you see had to do the same. No-one becomes a good swimmer by accident.
CONSISTENCY IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ACTION
You cannot 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. A life is long and if you learn to exercise sustainably, that life will be longer and healthier. 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. Nike’s ad famously says “Just Do It”. That’s never been quite right. It’s should always be JUST KEEP DOING IT. Above I said the New Year swimming Resolutionistas give up by mid-February. If they just kept going two more weeks they’d almost certainly have felt the improvements that would have encouraged them to continue.
- KEEP RECORDS
There’s hardly an engineer or sportsperson alive who doesn’t know 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. We track distance and time. Measure your heart rate once a week before you get out of bed. Weight yourself (no more than) once a week.
- LEARN TO BREATHE
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 can’t “swim fine“. That’s like saying a particular car is good except for the small problem that it needs petrol. I have always liked the swimming aphorism; “swim around your breathing, don’t breathe around your swimming”. This 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.
- GET AN UNDERSTANDING OF LANE SWIMMING ETIQUETTE
You can read this post, but the easy Golden Rule of pool etiquette to be aware of those around and that they are doing. So if they are faster, you don’t turn right in front of them or speed up so they can’t pass you. Everyone must co-operate to make a pool lane work effectively.
- VARY THE INTENSITY
Don’t do the same thing every day, especially just swimming continuous lengths. Put simply, there are three main types of physical effort: aerobic (continuous and easy to sustain using normal breathing), anaerobic (includes sprinting) which can only be done for short period as it requires high levels of oxygen, and threshold (the effort level above easy aerobic and below sprinting, which can only be increased with training). Try to FOCUS on each one on different days. Don’t always do complex sets but don’t do the same thing every day either. Warm up, do a main set, cool down. This post explains how to structure a basic swimming set. 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. This post is a very basic introduction to zone or heart rate training and this post is an Introduction to Interval Training for swimming.
- SWIMMING IS POOR FOR WEIGHT CONTROL FOR BEGINNERS
There are two reasons: You will not be getting as much exercise as you think, because you really probably are out of breath. Panting from being out of breath is not the same as effort. Also swimming is an appetite stimulant, unlike most 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.) Some good news also results from a 2012 scientific study that shows even moderate exercise results in changes in the genome that affects fat storage.
USE THE LAP CLOCK
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 cardio-respiratory (heart and respiratory fitness) is improving. Cardio-respiratory fitness is one of the most important predictors of long-term health.
- ASK OTHER SWIMMERS FOR HELP
We are happy to help (so long as you ask us when we are between sets). The Internet does not know what you are doing. YouTube and other sites have great swimming advice. I even have some here. But this or any site 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 always the best option.
- THE SAUNA AND THE WALL AREN’T EXERCISE
I see people substitute the sauna for swimming so much. As I see people standing at the end of the lane. Neither are actual exercise. Exercise isn’t all the peripheral diversions. It’s not the chatting with other people, breathing hard at the wall, or getting your body temperature up from a particularly hot sauna. Just swim.
- HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
I can resolve to be a 1:15 per 100 metre swimmer. I can train, work on technique and change my diet. I will still not be a 1:15 per 100 metre swimmer. The expectation is unrealistic, as I have been training, working on technique, and even occasionally watching my diet, for years. So I would get frustrated and despondent. Your goals need to be realistic and self-maintaining. Targeting a constant minor weight loss or fitness increase is more sustainable than a big target. What you want to do is build habits and a lifestyle change. You do that by making the targets achievable and the progress incremental and possible. Take the long view.
- ENJOY YOUR 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 good swimming days are special but your bad swimming days are not special. They 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)