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Why choose swimming?

This is an excerpt from Janet Evans' Total Swimming by Janet Evans.

The benefits of swimming are numerous, significant, and undeniable. Swimming can be beneficial to people across a broad range of ages and abilities: the very young to the very old, the very slow to the very fast, those with injuries or degenerative conditions, pregnant women, beginner to serious athletes, and fitness buffs. Swimming positively affects many aspects of life, including physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It's no wonder that physicians, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, and fitness coaches alike laud swimming as one of the best ways to stay in shape.

Swimming is the ultimate all-in-one fitness package, working most muscles in the body in a variety of ways with every stroke. When strokes are performed correctly, the muscles lengthen and increase in flexibility. The significant repetition of strokes improves muscle endurance, and because water creates more resistance against the body than air does in land exercise, the muscles are strengthened and toned. Swimming also significantly enhances core strength, which is important to overall health and stability in everyday life. The hip, back, and abdominal muscles are crucial to moving through the water effectively and efficiently. Swimming builds these core muscles better than any abs video or gadget advertised on television. Finally, a properly structured swim workout provides incredible improvements to the cardiovascular system. The nature of breathing when swimming-with breath being somewhat limited in volume and frequency-promotes greater lung capacity and a consistent intake of oxygen. Both aerobic and anaerobic gains can be made in the same workout.

Compare all this to other activities, which offer benefits to only certain parts of the body or areas of fitness. Running increases cardiovascular fitness and tones the lower body. Rowing builds endurance and strength in both the upper body and lower body. Weightlifting tones or builds strength in the muscles targeted. Pilates and yoga improve core strength and flexibility. But the beauty of swimming is that it literally does all of the above in every single workout! When you're a swimmer, there's no need to choose each day whether you'll focus on your upper body or lower body, muscular strength or cardiovascular endurance, core strength or overall flexibility. Swimming also is easy on the body, as long as a proper warm-up and cool-down are incorporated into each session. The pounding the body takes during running, high-impact aerobics, basketball, tennis, and kickboxing is replaced by near weightlessness in the water. In short, consistent swimming tones the body, improves cardiovascular health, and lengthens the muscles, all without breaking down the body.

Swimming is also good for the mind and spirit. The methodical repetition of swimming combined with its nonimpact nature creates a soothing, relaxing form of exercise. A good swim can clear the mind after a tough day at work, calm the spirit with a sense of quietness to give the brain a chance to sneak up on problems with creative solutions, and give you time to catch up with elusive ideas. Swimming is a great way to be alone in a world that increasingly demands that we be available to anyone and everyone 24-7. Carrying a cell phone or pager is totally feasible on land-and reaching the point where it's almost expected-but you can't swim with a PDA strapped to your chest like a heart-rate monitor. In addition, swimming for more than 20 minutes or so signals the body to release pain-killing, euphoria-producing endorphins that promote a keen sense of well-being. Regular swim workouts help on an emotional level, too. The discipline it takes to commit to swimming and to push yourself through tough workouts improves self-esteem, instills confidence that other challenges or hurdles can be overcome, and inspires dedication to taking care of yourself in all facets of life. All of this culminates into feeling really good about yourself, inside and out.

Besides the physical and mental benefits provided, swimming has many practical advantages over other forms of exercise. As long as lifeguards are present, swimming is extremely safe. Swimmers don't risk getting hit by a car or chased by a dog; they never have to choose between finishing a workout and being alone in a dark or dangerous area; and they don't have to wonder when the equipment was last sanitized. Also, workouts can be completed with equal ease alone, with a partner, or with a group of swimmers. Environmental conditions are relatively consistent regardless of time of day or year, so the amount of equipment, preparation, or planning changes very little. Swimming for fitness is also relatively inexpensive. The amount of gear can be quite minimal, and the most useful gear is inexpensive and durable. There is no fancy equipment or machine to maintain. The cost of using a pool is comparable to that of joining a gym or health club, and often the facility offers additional perks such as weight equipment or group classes that come standard with facilities that have a pool.

I believe the benefits of swimming are enough to make everyone want to rush out to buy a suit and appropriate gear and to begin swimming every day of the week! Physically, you'd become as fit as ever; mentally, you'd slow the effects of aging and begin solving problems in a single workout; and emotionally, you'd be on a constant swimmer's high. But, as we all know, it never works out quite like that. Life happens, and even the most dedicated swimmers will encounter difficulties in keeping to their routine. Some people might struggle to find the perfect facility that has the perfect lap swim schedule. Others might cringe at the idea of getting wet in the middle of the day, of putting on a still-damp swimsuit from the previous day's workout, or of wearing a swimsuit in public in the first place (although it's amazing how quickly the awkwardness of walking from the locker room to the pool in a swimsuit fades). Even after 30 years, the hardest part for me remains simply jumping in, especially when the water or air is chilly. Despite the benefits swimming offers, the excuses or interruptions that threaten our consistency of getting any form of exercise can be daunting, especially to newer swimmers.

Regular swimmers know that sticking with an established schedule allows them to experience the all-around healthiness and well-being their workouts bring. A few motivation boosters, such as working out with a partner, joining a masters swim team, and, most important, having a plan, coupled with the knowledge of the tremendous benefits of swimming, will help beginner and veteran swimmers alike get to the pool more often and work hard once they get there.

Most people would benefit from working out with at least one other like-minded person. The single most important characteristic of a great training partner-more so than comparable ability-is comparable commitment to the activity. Differences in speed can be addressed with equipment or workout design. But a lack of dependability, such as always being late or prone to cancel, is detrimental to the concept of a workout partner. Meeting another person at a specific time is usually all the impetus needed to get there when motivation otherwise wanes. But even after getting in the pool, a buddy often makes the time there more pleasurable. Completing a full workout as written is tough some days, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. Pushing yourself to swim hard is easier when someone else is right there testing his or her limits along with you and helping to break up the workout with friendly competitions. Afterward, it's great to have that friend to chat with about the session's high and low points and to be there for encouragement during a string of difficult sessions.

A logical progression for some fitness swimmers is to join a group of swimmers. United States Masters Swimming is a national organization open to all swimmers age 18 and over. More than 500 clubs are located around the country, and each has scheduled workout sessions developed and administered by an experienced swim coach. Swimmers of virtually any level are welcome on masters teams. The most important skills to have are understanding the lingo, being able to read workouts, and being able to read a pace clock. If the coach says to swim five 500s on 7:00, you need to know what that means and how to execute it. If the coach says it's time to pull, you need to know to put on your paddles and pull buoys. (All of this is explained in the book.) Although swimming ability varies greatly among individuals on a team, each workout entails steady swimming for 45 minutes to an hour and covers about 3,000 yards (2,743 meters). Being able to relatively easily complete a workout of 1,000 to 1,500 yards (914-1,371 meters) that includes an interval set should enable you to successfully join the team. Generally the atmosphere at masters workouts is not intense or pressure packed, so individuals get out of the sessions what they put into them. Joining a team does cost money, though the fees generally are in line with the costs of joining a health club or gym. More information can be found at

Whether you get your swimming in with someone or alone, the single most significant way you can help yourself improve is to have a plan. Schedule your workouts into your day rather than let the day determine when you get to the pool. Without the premeditated effort of adding your swim workouts to your calendar every week, fitting them in will be a long shot on most days and a reality on very few.

The pages of this book are filled with information on how to reap the most benefits of your time in the pool by getting prepared and having a plan. Part I covers the various types of gear and how each piece helps you improve. The technique of each stroke-freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly-and their turns is broken down so you can mix up your workouts and improve your overall swimming performances. The primary concepts of swim training are explained, such as setting goals and charting workouts, the makeup of a workout, and interval training. Finally, specific exercises, routines, and drills are provided to enhance your workouts.

The meat of the book is parts II and III. Part II includes 60 workouts that vary in type, intensity, distance, and time. These workouts are broken into five categories that can give new life to your lap-swimming days, your fitness, and your rate of improvement. Part III puts it all together to provide you-regardless of your swimming season or goals-with programs to help you meet those goals. Twelve programs incorporate the 60 workouts from part II and range in length from four to eight weeks and in workout frequency from three to six days a week. The natural progression of these programs enables swimmers to move smoothly from one program to the next. The final chapter describes the purpose and nature of the various training phases so that competitors can tailor a training program to prepare for a specific race or event.

Swimming is an activity many people have done virtually their entire lives. Kids look forward to days at the pool, lake, or ocean, splashing around and racing friends. When adulthood strikes, though, our uninhibited joy of playing in the water often subsides. Our minds are filled with images of swimming lap after lap in an effort to lose weight, gain fitness, or compete in a swim meet or triathlon. My goal for this book is to make swimming enjoyable for you so you can experience a combination of the childlike enthusiasm for swimming and the adultlike result of meeting your individual goals. Whether you have been lap swimming for years, swam as a kid and want to get back in the water, or have a competitive streak for masters meets or triathlons, Janet Evans' Total Swimming has been written with you in mind!

This is an excerpt from Janet Evans' Total Swimming.

More Excerpts From Janet Evans' Total Swimming