It was important for my parents to have “water-ready” young kids. Even in Wisconsin, it is generally frowned upon to lose your children off the side of a ski boat. Our favorite family summer activity was water skiing and cooking out on Lake Wisconsin sandbars. Learning to swim meant you didn’t have to run around wearing a life-jacket all day. In addition to being crazy uncomfortable, those things would seriously mess up your tan (sunburn).
I started official swim lessons at age 5, which was too late as far as I was concerned. My older sister started the year before, and I had been eyeing the diving board at Madison East High school pool. I needed a shot at that thing. I mean heck, there was a life guard next to it. What could go wrong?
As it would turn out, my swim instructor’s use of the term “free-time” at the end of my first swim session was not meant to include an inaugural launch off the one-meter diving board. Somehow that explicit rule was left out during the initial “safety” orientation. I would not say my first journey off the board and back to the edge was graceful, but it was successful.
My memory of the event includes an in-flight vision of the swim instructor, and one of my swim friend’s moms, running toward the deep end. Note: my mother remained calm and unmoved by the unfolding event. The last thing I remember before plunging into the 10-foot deep water for the first time was, “Oh, apparently it’s OK for adults to run on the deck.”
I started competitive swimming at age eight in Deforest, Wisconsin, a small town just outside of Madison. Years later, I would return to swim for the University of Wisconsin. Go Badgers!
At this point, I swim for fitness and try not to take it too seriously. That said, there are a few things you might consider if you’re thinking of swimming for fitness.
Eating before you swim
Most kids grow up hearing horror stories of swimming too close to meal time, getting a cramp, and drowning. Maybe some kid, somewhere, did that. But really, the real risk is probably more like, “If you eat too close to swim time, you might throw up in front of your friends.” They won’t forget it either. So, I recommend you wait a bit. Thirty minutes seems safe. In general, eating a small amount of simple carbs before you swim may help your energy level during your swim.
Feel free to start with the minimum—a good pair of goggles (and a swim suit). Goggles vary significantly in price. Just know that most competitive swimmers wear $5–10 goggles. The trick is to find a pair that fit your face correctly and don’t leak. Feel free to get tinted or mirrored goggles if you’re swimming outside. They do help.
The next step in useful equipment could include a kick board and pull buoy. A good swim workout will include some time kicking only (holding on to the board), as well as some time just pulling (using only your arms).
Equipment for the swim ninja
If you’re really feeling crazy, you might consider purchasing a pair of hand paddles to get more out of your pull; a snorkel to work on keeping your head still (looking down at the bottom of the pool); and fins (flippers) to work your legs even more. These ninja items are generally used for small portions of a swim workout.
A little dynamic
Lastly, before you jump in, consider doing a dynamic warm up to activate the useful muscle groups for your swim. Make these motions dynamic by not holding the position. Keep breathing steady during the motions: Thoracic rotation, forward fold, latissimus (lat) activation, and knee to chest motions.
* Make sure your physician has approved you for physical activity.
The Swim Itself
Most people swim further, faster, and have more fun when swimming with others. Consider joining in on a master’s swim workout. These groups typically have a large variety of skill levels, from the novice swimmer to the post-college competitive swimmer still burning up the water.
Swimming a pre-determined, well-written swim workout is the best way to go. A good swim workout usually includes a warm-up, transition set, sprint or fast swimming (the hard part), a kick set, and a cool down. While it might be tempting to have a contemplative solo, steady swim, swimming an actual workout with fast and slow parts is much better for you. More and more science is pointing to the importance of interval training for heart, brain, and muscle health. You can find sample workouts online.
Swim ninja tips: Lap swimming is generally done by swimming circles—which means swimming on the right side of the lane unless otherwise specified. This will allow more than one or two people in a lane. That’s just good manners.
After swimming, your muscles are warm. This is your opportunity to get that last bit of goodness from your time in the water. Take a few minutes to stretch your latissimus, shoulders, chest, hamstrings, and trunk rotators. Hold each position for five breath cycles and repeat twice.
You will most likely lose more water than you imagine. Plan to hydrate with your favorite (smart-hydration) beverage after a swim. The sooner the better.
Feel free to eat something solid as soon as you’re ready. This is a good time to get some protein in your system. Your body will know what do with it (think muscles). Enjoy!