My email for the last week has been buried since a Loneswimmer post was selected for WordPresses Discover feature. Welcome to the large number of new subscribers, who have little understanding of the strange world into which they have wandered, full of middle age men and women in Lycra throwing themselves in winter into water that is the same temperature as the inside of fridges at home. Voluntarily! I mean, why not stay at home and get into the fridge instead?
I have to warn our new visitors though that this blog talks a bit more about the day-to-day life of an average swimmer, and what I can extrapolate from my own experiences, physical and psychological, that I think might be beneficial for others. If you stay, you might learn something that could be useful. But you might also think all open water swimmers are mad.
In that surge I have some promotional emails from the local supermarkets, who for the last few months were encouraging me to consume everything. They have now started encouraging me to purchase domestic cleaning materials, yoga mats and kettle-bells.
Tomorrow will see the first of the January surge in people convinced by their email spam, TV ads and many largely vacuous media articles that they need to exercise more.
Many will not succeed. Many will.
What separates those two cohorts? I think I know what the two key features of any successful physical regime and I’m going to tell you.
As is known by its millions of practitioners worldwide, swimming is a sport that many can and do pursue for an entire lifetime. It is accommodating of a wide range of skills and personal motivations. Swimmers report a range of physical benefits from better flexibility and balance to cardio-respiratory health and improved immune systems.
There are mental benefits from the meditative repetition of a well-honed physical act. Swimmers report being anxious without their regular swims but calmer and more in control after a swim. Swimmers also enjoy the community of other swimmers and benefit from the emotional links of shared similar frustrations and rewards. Not least, we enjoy knowing that our sport, so often dismissed by others, is tougher than any of the non-swimmers realise.
We are swimmers, and the other four-fifths of the world is our domain. The graceless ineptitude some of us demonstrate (certainly me) disappears when we enter our natural domain. What scares the rest of the world entices and seduces us. In water we are graceful, powerful and freer than most others can imagine, Homo Aquaticus, mermen and merwomen, veritable were-fish.
On this site I try to be real and to be realistic. I eke out my own improvements incrementally. I often go backward. I try to avoid the frustration of comparing myself (unfavourably) to Kevin Murphy, Michael Phelps, Trent Grimsey or other swimming champions and attempt to impart real world swimming advice, advice from an average swimmer. I try to write advice you can learn from and use yourself. Each year I revisit and revise my annual New Year post, aware that some people will be looking for specific guidance in the New Year. I put aside my natural Irish cynicism to focus on the positive and pass on some of the things I’ve learned over decades of exercise. Nothing here is a secret. Nothing.
New Year’s Resolutions aren’t meaningless. Fifty eight percent 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.
The swimming pool is a slightly different arena to other sports, because while every single year we see the arrival of the New Year’s Resolutionistas, every year they are mostly gone by the early weeks of February. Swimming is generally far more difficult to integrate into a program of fitness or weight loss than most other sports and people usually start without understanding this. Some people start with a level of expertise or even fitness in another sport that they incorrectly assume will transfer to swimming.
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 advice from someone whose only qualifications are a lifetime throwing himself into and off of things and who has managed to keep his heart rate near his age for a few decades. I hope you will use this to keep at swimming beyond the first four weeks. I hope I’ll see you in the summer down at the coast using the fitness you’ve wrested forth to grant you the freedom in the water that you’ve imagined and that is possible.
The first key to successful physical improvement
I mention the emails, the advertising and the media campaigns above for a good reason. These items are external, often societal or familial expectations or even impositions. People want you to lose weight. To get fitter, to be slimmer. But are you going to keep doing something that’s imposed on you? It is the very simple fact that we are more likely to do something because we want to do it for ourselves. I have a particular dislike for professional “Inspirers“. You know them, the Facebook and Twitter people who post simple and simplistic one-sentence exhortations to be all you can by being like them. Have you ever felt like a failure when you read some world champion telling you that all you have to do is believe? They are not really wrong, but either their motivation or their explanation is suspect. Most of us cannot swim like Ian Thorpe simply by believing. Most of us are too old, too late to start, too kicked about by life and experience. What they should say, and what makes the difference, is Do What You Want To Do.
That’s gets misinterpreted though. It doesn’t mean do whatever you want, like sitting on your arse never doing anything else. It means what the psychologists call “intrinsic motivation“. It means that to improve or even to persevere at anything, even something as apparently simple as physical fitness requires that you want to. What the reason is for your own intrinsic motivation is entirely personal. You might want to lose weight to feel better about yourself. You might want to get fitter for someone else in your life such as kids or partner. Some people are genuinely motivated by the desire to compete and beat others. Some times the desire is simple and easily articulated, sometimes it’s more complex and nebulous. My own reasons have changed over the years, and on any given day they might be different but there will always be some overriding drive, such as being somewhat in shape so I can enjoy being able to do physical things if necessary. I swim in the pool to improve my overall capability of open water, so I can get out and confidently do what I love so much, which is swimming alone in open water, not relying on anyone except myself and my own knowledge and experience.
It doesn’t matter what your reasons are, it doesn’t matter if they change, so long as it’s coming from within you and can sustain you. Do what you want to do. You’ve used the first key to open the door. Now it’s time to take the path on the other side.
The second key to successful physical improvement
For people without a lot of experience in physical activity, this is the what stops them: It takes time. You cannot go from zero to hero in four weeks. You have to think long-term. Not a day, instead think a week. Not a week , instead think a month. Not a month, instead think a year. A year is long isn’t it? How the hell do you plan to do all that physical effort for a year?
No, it’s not. A life is long and if you learn to exercise in a sustainable fashion, 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” but 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.
The tools for successful physical improvement
- You feel rubbish at the start
I’ve been observing for years that one of the least explained aspects of physical exercise is warming up. Every experienced athlete of any discipline knows you have to elevate heart rate gradually. Hearts are not friction-less electro-mechanical engines. They need to endure increasing demand to be able to sustain that demand. Put more clearly, your heart cannot go from eighty beats a minute resting heart rate to one hundred and fifty beats per minute like flipping a switch. People unused to physical exercise think that the extra sweating and heaving for air early in the session feels like they are heaving a heart attack. It feels awful, their face gets very hot, they can get headaches, they burst out in sweat all over. Why the hell would you want to do that every day? The thing is, warming up is rarely pleasant. Just understand that until it becomes second nature it will take you five to twenty minutes to warm up and than once you have warmed up, you can actually do more, and do it more easily. What was hard at the start becomes easy later on, once you have warned up! And once you get used to the idea of warming up, of starting with less strenuous effort and integrate that into your overall plan and expectation, your whole experience improves.
- SWIMMING IS HARD and that’s a good thing
Really, it’s harder than you think. A huge misconception is that swimming is easy. 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 CARDIO-RESPIRATORY FITNESS, 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. But I want you to realise that telling you swimming is hard is not to discourage you. In fact i’s that challenge that is partly responsible for making swimming a lifelong pursuit.
- GET TECHNIQUE ADVICE from anyone you can
Most pools, even those that don’t have clubs, will have swim classes. Swimmers cannot tell what they themselves are doing wrong, especially when they don’t know what the correct technique is. The first step to 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 lifeguards can and will do it. I do it 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 help, just know that every good swimmer you see had to do the same.
- 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. But this site or YouTube or elsewhere are not as effective as the good swimmer in your pool or the local swim coach who can see what you are doing. Someone who knows what they are doing who can make actual suggestions relevant to your specific swimming is always the better option to the online experts. Ignore Total Immersion and Swim Smooth and Race Club and every single one of those, good or bad. All of those franchises have the goal of getting your money by making you ignore the fact that someone in your local pool will be of more benefit to you and cost less.
- NO-ONE CARES WHAT WE LOOK LIKE
Swimming also seems really intimidating in that it’s performed with less clothes than any other sport. But the simple truth is that because we all spend out time significantly under-dressed, swimmers are probably more accepting of diverse body shapes than most other sports. How you look has little relevance to your swimming ability and every one of us has spent so much time in pools that we take little to no notice of other people. Most of us don’t have the Olympic physique that is really quite rare in swimming.
- LEARN TO BREATHE OUT
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 can’t “swim fine“. 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? Slow down and exhale constantly underwater. Too many beginners try to breathe in and out above water.
- 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 What They Are Doing. So if they are faster, you don’t start or 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. But the truth is there isn’t a swimmer in the world who isn’t frustrated by sharing a lane with the Furious Bob’s who never practice lane etiquette. The more you swim, the easier it becomes to deal with.
- VARY THE INTENSITY
Don’t swim the same way every day, especially not 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. Second, swimming is an appetite stimulant because water is colder than body temperature. Unlike most other sports and people often overeat after swimming. You can do almost no swimming, and still get an increased appetite, which also leads people to think they have exercised harder.(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 cardio-respiratory fitness (heart and respiratory fitness) is improving. Cardio-respiratory fitness is one of the most important predictors of long-term health.
- GOING TO THE SAUNA AND RESTING AT THE WALL AREN’T EXERCISE
I see people substitute the sauna for swimming all the time. 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 sitting in 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. 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.
- 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. See if you can repeat that set five times. Then keep an eye on long you have to rest between each 100 metres. 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.
- 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 very rare. The real enjoyment comes from being consistently healthy and fit. 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 and pilot 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)