So today Points North PT is broadcasting to you from the Northfield Pentathlon Swim Meet at Norwich University. That backstroke blur in the front is my daughter Natalie killing her heat. And since being a swim parent consists of a lot of hanging around waiting for your kids’ races to transpire, it seems like the perfect time to talk swimming to you. You do not have to be a blur, or even have a swim background to derive enormous benefits from the sport.

I am not a blur in the pool either, but my aquatic credentials include a 5-year stint as an aquatic therapist 4 jobs ago, working with people who for all kinds of reasons could not tolerate land-based exercise programs. I also have been a swimmer with the local chapter of the New England Masters program at The Swimming Hole in Stowe for the past 3 ½ years, which I started while rehabilitating myself after a running injury (FYI “Master’s” level refers to age, not ability, in case you were curious.).

I send people to the pool for all kinds of reasons. For people with difficulty weightbearing, for example after a knee or ankle injury or surgery, it is the perfect medium to improve gait mechanics. Buoyancy in the pool decreases the impact of gravity that is felt on land, and allows people in this situation to work on their gait with far less pain. For the same reason, exercising in the water frequently is the best form of exercise for people suffering with chronic pain from an injury, illness, or progressive condition such as arthritis; lessening the impact of gravity just allows this patient population to do much more and work much harder in the pool. I also send people with giant, swollen joints from a surgery or an illness to the pool just to dangle and move the affected part in the water. The hydrostatic pressure exerted by the water provides a compressive effect that helps to move fluid out of a limb, sometimes more effectively than any compression or lymphatic drainage that I am able to perform in the clinic. My injured athletes are sent to the pool to keep up their level of cardiovascular fitness while their injury is healing. And finally, call me biased but I can’t say enough about the sport for cross training, improving your lung capacity, and taking your fitness to the next level.

Taking your fitness to the next level is what I want to talk to you about today. My experience is that people are either water people or not water people. When I suggest swimming as an option for exercising, I get one of two reactions: Either people shudder in horror at the prospect of donning a swimsuit, parading around in front of people and climbing into a pool of cold water, or they say this: “I love swimming! It’s just so relaxing.”

Yeah, well, relaxing ain’t how we do it in Masters. Let’s get one thing straight, right now: Swimming is hard work. It is a sport that, when done properly, will make you tired and hungry. If it is relaxing, you may be moving, stretching out, or having a spiritual experience, but most likely, you are not significantly improving your fitness level.

So I am going to give you a few sample swim workouts to try. The workouts vary your speed, distance, and stroke, which helps you to build strength and technique and increase cardiovascular fitness. Varying a swim workout not only gives you faster results, but helps prevent what I find to be the crushing boredom of swimming slowly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I am told that some people actually enjoy this. Apparently they find it meditative, and I am not knocking the benefits of meditation whatsoever. It may calm, focus, and center you, but meditation alone will not improve your fitness. Back to the workouts–you do not need to have a swim background, know how to do a flip turn, or even know how to do all 4 swim strokes (that’s butterfly, backstroke, breast stroke and freestyle) to follow these workouts—just access to a pool and a basic idea of how to do freestyle with your face in the water. No swimming with your hair dry and sunglasses on your head allowed! Goggles and a swim cap are recommended but not required. Also helpful is either a big clock with a second hand at your pool, or a waterproof watch.

So let’s go over some basic terminology. One lap equals two lengths of the pool. One length in a standard, non-Olympic sized pool is usually 25 meters or yards. So if we say 25 meters we are swimming one pool length, 50 meters we are doing one lap, 100 meters is 2 laps, and so on. Did I tell you that swimming also improves your math? We also are going to use a perceived effort scale to vary the intensity of the workout. So think of a nice, slow, relaxed pace as about 60 percent effort. In the swimming world, we also refer to this level as “EZ.” 70 percent will require about 10 percent more energy. 100 percent will require all your effort and energy. 90 percent will require not quite all your effort, and so on. So put on your cap and goggles and jump in. Here we go:

Workout 1: Varying Your Speed

The first workout I’m going to give you will get you used to the idea of the perceived effort scale, if you’ve never used it before.

  1. Start with a 200 meter (4 laps) warm up at a comfortable pace. Take a 30 second rest break.
  2. Next, swim 3 100’s (2 laps each) in the following order: the first at 70 percent effort, the 2nd at 75 percent effort, and the third at 80 percent effort. Take a 20-second rest break after each 100.
  3. Now pick up the pace a little with 3 50’s (that’s one lap each): the first at 80 percent effort, the second at 85 percent, and the third at 90 percent. These should feel like a pretty good push but you still should have some energy left. Take a 15 second rest after each 50.
  4. Pick up the pace a little more with four 25-meter sprints: the first at 80 percent effort, the second at 85 percent effort, the third at 90 percent, and the last one 100 percent effort or “all out,” as fast as you can! Take a 10 second rest break between 25s and a 30-second rest after the last one.
  5. Swim a recovery 100 EZ, and if you have time and energy, swim a second set of steps 2 through 4.
  6. End your workout with a 150 meter cool down, around 70 percent effort.

If you followed this workout and swam steps 2 through 4 once, you just completed 1000 meters, and if you did steps 2 through 4 twice, you just knocked out 1650 meters!

Workout 2: Varying Your Stroke

Usually, you can borrow some equipment at your pool, like a kickboard and a pull buoy, which is a little float that you hold between your legs for support, so you can relax your legs and pull with your arms. See if you can get your hands on one or both of these for this next workout. If not, you can kick or pull without the equipment, or substitute a different stroke if you know one.

  1. Start with a 200 meter warm up. Take a 30 second rest break.
  2. Next, you will swim a kick-pull-swim sequence. Grab the kickboard and kick for 50 meters. If you don’t have a kickboard, flip onto your back, stretch your arms up above your head and kick on your back. Then grab the pull buoy and pull for 50 meters. If you don’t have a pull buoy then let your legs balance in the water and try to swim 50 meters with your arms only. Then swim (using your arms and your legs) 50 meters.
  3. Swim the kick-pull-swim sequence 3 times.
  4. Now, we’re going to try a 100 individual medley, or “IM.” The official 100 IM order is 25 m butterfly, 25 m backstroke, 25 m breast stroke, and 25 m freestyle. Don’t panic! It doesn’t matter if you don’t know any strokes other than freestyle. What I want you to do here is change your stroke every 25 meters. So if your 100 IM is 25 m freestyle, 25 m kick on your back, 25 m pulling with your arms, and 25 m freestyle again that is just fine with me. Just change your stroke and do something different after each 25. Give it a try.
  5. Now you’re going to swim 3 100’s of freestyle, with 10 seconds’ rest after each 100, followed by your own personal 100 IM. With the 3 100 free I want you to get a little faster each time, or “descend,” so the program will look like this: 1st 100 at 75 percent effort, 2nd 100 a little faster at 80 percent effort, 3rd 100 at 85 percent effort, then your 100 IM. Take a 30-second rest after the IM.
  6. You can repeat step 5 one or two more times to lengthen your workout.
  7. Cool down with an EZ 150 m.

If you swam step 5 once, you swam 1000 meters, and add an extra 400 meters for every repeat of step 5.

Workout 3: Varying Your Distance

This workout will help you start to swim longer distances at a less-than-relaxing pace, and makes the experience more fun than slogging back and forth by adding some variety.

  1. Start with a 200 m warm up. Take a 30 second rest.
  2. Next, we’re going to swim 400 m, or 8 laps. To help you count, on every fourth length you will flip onto your back and kick. So each time you kick a length you will have completed 100 m. Once you’ve kicked 4 lengths you have completed 400 m. Take a 30 second rest.
  3. Swim a fast 50, at 80-85 percent effort. Take a 15 second rest.
  4. Now we’re going to swim another 400, and this time we’re introducing the “negative split,” which means we’re swimming the second half of the distance faster than the first. So start out swimming the first 200 m at a decent but not too taxing pace, 70 to 75 percent effort. Once you finish the first 200, bang! Without stopping amp up your pace to something less comfortable that you can hold for the remaining 200 m, around 80 to 85 percent. Take a 30 second rest when done.
  5. Swim another fast 50.
  6. If you’d like a slightly longer workout, swim one more 400, or you could make it a 300 or 250 if you like, and every fourth length swim an IM or other stroke. Also see if you can descend slightly every 100.
  7. Cool down with a 150 EZ.

Your distance if you skip step #6 is 1250 m, and with step #6 is 1650 m.

Is it possible to try these workouts in open water? You bet! In open water, you can stick to one area and swim back and forth, and make one round of back and forth your lap. Or, if you are swimming a route, you worry less about the actual distances and use times to vary your workout. For example, in workout # 3, you can perform a negative split by swimming for 5 minutes comfortably and then 5 minutes at a faster pace. One note about open water swimming: If you are swimming a route, or anything other than an enclosed area, I do not recommend kicking on your back or any other stroke that impedes your visual field of your surroundings. It is absolutely imperative for your safety that you are able to sight your route and have a clear view of your surroundings at all times.

Give these a try, and let me know how it goes. Maybe you can find a gang of friends who want to try swimming but are afraid to go to the pool by themselves. Swimming with other people is more fun, and the little competitive edge it adds makes you swim faster. Have fun! Enjoy!

–Kathleen Doehla, M.S. P.T.