Learning to swim is a rite of passage for all Australians. Whether you grow up spending your Saturday mornings on the beach with a Nippers squad or make the annual pilgrimage to the local public pool for the school swimming carnival, your relationship with the water begins in early childhood.
Yet for many people swimming falls by the wayside, replaced in adolescence and adulthood by team sports, gym workouts and personal trainers — or, for a growing number of people, replaced by no exercise at all.
Once you’ve been out of the water for a few years, the notion of plunging back into the deep end may seem intimidating at best and absolutely impossible at worst. However, this needn’t be the case, says Tim Taylor, accredited swimming coach at Fairholme College in Toowoomba. “Age isn’t a barrier. My mother learned to swim after my siblings and I had all left home. She now swims every day and, when the time comes for her to move into a retirement home, her only request is that it has a pool,” he says.
“Many adults learn to swim in later life. They haven’t learned earlier, maybe because they had a bad experience when they were younger or they just never had the opportunity. Jump right in. It is like riding a bike and is something you can come back to at any time.”
You’ll be glad you did. Swimming is a no-impact, high-intensity activity, which makes it a fantastic cardiovascular workout while at the same time ideal exercise for people with joint problems or injuries.
“Swimming is a life skill. It gives you the option to participate in so many fun activities that Australians enjoy,” says Taylor. “Whether it’s just mucking about in the pool on a hot summer’s day, learning to surf, swimming at the beach or in a creek, paddling in a canoe, going whitewater rafting, playing water polo or just swimming for fitness, you can feel confident to have a go because you can swim.”
The health benefits of swimming are myriad. Researchers at Stanford University in California recently discovered that people who swim at least once a week are less likely to succumb to heart disease and heart attacks than those who do little high-intensity exercise. They found that heart-pumping exercise such as swimming increases the ability of the major heart arteries to expand and contract by almost 50 per cent. Having more elastic arteries is one sign of a stronger cardiovascular system.
“If you exercise more, your vessels dilate more. The more a vessel dilates, the healthier the vessel,” says Michael McConnell, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine, who led the study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging. “Those who include high-level activities, like singles tennis or swimming, at least once a week dilated their heart arteries twice as much.”
Swimming may also protect the brain from “silent strokes” — small brain lesions that can lead to mental decline and increase the chances of a future stroke — according to a new study from Columbia University. Researchers analysed the exercise habits of 1238 older people who had never had a stroke. About 43 per cent said they did no regular exercise; 36 per cent did light physical activity, such as golf or walking; and 21 per cent said they did moderate to intense exercise such as swimming, hiking or jogging on a regular basis.
Six years later, researchers scanned the brains of the participants, who by then averaged 70 years old. The scans revealed that 16 per cent had experienced silent strokes but those who had swum, hiked or jogged were 40 per cent less likely to have developed these small brain lesions than those who got no regular exercise.
“These ‘silent strokes’ are more significant than the name implies because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke,” says study author Dr Joshua Willey. “Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy.”
Swimming can help you breathe easier. According to the Asthma Foundation, swimming is one of the best forms of exercise for people with asthma, especially children. It’s less likely to cause asthma symptoms because swimmers breathe in air near the surface of the water that is warmer and more humid than normal air.
Swimming training can increase the volume of the lungs as well as help to develop good breathing techniques. Some research suggests chlorine can trigger asthma symptoms but this generally only occurs in poorly ventilated enclosed swimming pools; if in doubt, swim at an outdoor pool or in the ocean.
Former Olympic swimmer Samantha Riley says swimming is a key part of managing her asthma. “I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of four and the doctors suggested to my parents that swimming would be a good thing to improve lung function and lung capacity,” she says.
“Until I was about 15 I was hospitalised with asthma once or twice a year. From then on, I started swimming about eight times a week and I think I’ve been in hospital twice since then. For me, swimming and fitness are great ways to keep asthma at bay.” Now a mother of three, Riley says two of her young children have asthma and all three will learn to swim.
Swimming also provides an all-over body workout, as nearly all the muscles are involved, making it ideal for toning — so, as well as boosting your fitness, you’ll look great in your swimming costume.
Fish out of water If you’ve never learned to swim or haven’t braved a public pool since your school days, the question becomes where should you start? The equipment needed to start swimming is minimal: a swimming costume, goggles and, if you choose, a swimming cap are all you need. If you’ll be swimming outside or in open water, you may like to invest in a wetsuit for chilly days. If you plan to work on improving speed, endurance or technique, swimming flippers and a kickboard can be helpful; many public pools have these available for hire or for free use.
Riley recommends beginners set small, measurable goals. “Don’t just turn up at the pool with no idea what you’re going to do. Write down, or at least have in your mind, how far you want to swim that day or whether you want to mix it up with some flippers or kicking (work).”
A manageable drill for novice or returning swimmers might include a 200m easy warm-up followed by a kilometre of swimming — that’s 20 50-metre lengths — as well as some kicking practice with flippers and, finally, a warm-down.
“Incorporate structure as you would in any other sport. Aim to increase by 100 metres each week and build it up that way,” says Riley. “Try to swim for a minimum of 30 minutes in each session to get the benefits. As you get fitter and stronger, you’ll be able to swim more laps in that time. You might be a weak swimmer to start with but you can improve your endurance fairly quickly.”
As you start to improve, consider joining a swimming squad. Most public pools offer squads catering to all skill levels and goals, whether it’s simply social swimming or your aim is to compete. “By joining a squad you have the benefits of exercising with other people, which is often very motivational and helps you maintain your commitment to exercise,” says Taylor. “The environment you’re training in is extremely positive and supportive. All pools have a fence and a gate and only people who want to improve themselves come through the gate.”
Squad training has the added advantage of a professional coach to monitor and improve your progress and technique. “Having a coach supervise your exercise means workloads can be monitored and progressions and improvements can be more easily measured,” Taylor explains. “A coach can also help you identify and correct bad habits. Improved technique helps efficiency and reduces the risk of overuse-type injuries.” Riley agrees. “A coach can point you in the right direction. If you can get a few tips it’s going to make a massive difference,” she says.
What about weight loss?
Some research suggests swimming is not as effective a weight-loss tool as other moderate to high-intensity exercise. While the effects of water temperature on swimmers have not been fully tested, some experts believe swimming burns less fuel than other exercise because swimmers don’t have to work as hard to maintain their body temperature.
Many swimmers also report that they feel famished after a swimming workout and tend to eat more. This is particularly true if you swim outdoors or in an unheated pool, according to a study by the University of Florida. Researchers compared the energy used and calories consumed after riding a stationary bike submerged in cold water (20ºC) and warm water (33ºC). The participants burned 517 calories in cold water and consumed 877 calories after. When they exercised in warm water, they burned 505 calories and consumed 608 calories after.
While many swimmers fall in love with the weightless feeling that being submerged provides, buoyancy may also be a barrier to significant weight loss via swimming. Since fat floats, a swimmer’s bodyweight is supported by the water and they don’t have to expend as much energy to move as they would on land — and someone with a higher percentage of body fat will burn fewer calories than a leaner swimmer.
Women, in particular, may struggle to shed kilos through swimming, as they naturally have a higher percentage of body fat than men. However, Tim Taylor believes the many other health benefits of swimming make up for its arguably lacklustre success as a weight-loss tool. “It’s a whole-body exercise and helps to keep joints supple,” he says. “We have an 88-year-old lady who does her 800m in the lane next to my squads. It helps her maintain a range of movement and keeps her moving.”
Say goodbye to stress
With its reputation as a sport for fiercely competitive and finely tuned athletes, it may come as a surprise that swimming can be a gentle, pleasurable and even meditative activity. Both scientific research and anecdotal evidence show that swimming can help to relieve stress and ease the symptoms of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
“Swimming can be a great way to take time out from the busy world. There is, of course, the release of endorphins when you exercise and these make you feel good,” says Taylor. “(But) with your head in the water you can also let your thoughts wander or solve the problems of the world.”
Former UK competitive club swimmer Steven Shaw discovered the healing effects of swimming quite by accident. Struggling with neck and back problems after retiring from competition, he discovered the Alexander technique, a practice that aims to improve posture and use the body more efficiently by teaching people to recognise and become free of habituated limitations in their movements. A study by the UK’s University of Southampton found that one-to-one lessons in the Alexander technique (AT) from registered teachers have long-term benefits for patients with chronic back pain. Six lessons followed by exercise prescription were nearly as effective as 24 lessons.
“Because I had these problems, my AT teacher encouraged me to seek the source of it. It was logical to get back in the water (and) I started to explore the way my body moved in the water,” says Shaw. “I began to develop my own relationship with the water (and), instead of feeling burnt out with swimming, I began to notice strong, positive changes. I began observing other swimmers and to experiment to see what would happen if I put hands of guidance on someone’s neck in the water.”
His experiments led Shaw to develop his unique, Alexander technique-inspired swim coaching program, the Shaw Method (www.artofswimming.com). Now taught around the world, its pupils range from children to swimmers aged in their nineties. “We work with (people with) severe back problems, neck injuries, breathing problems (and) swimmers of every ability. At the moment we’re teaching a whole swimming club our approach to the butterfly (stroke),” he says.
The Shaw Method’s key principle is body alignment. “We call it ‘smart swimming’. If you look at a really good swimmer, like Ian Thorpe, he looks effortless, graceful and powerful. If you look at someone who’s not a good swimmer, they look like they’re having a fight with the water,” Shaw explains. “No matter how strong your arms and legs are, if your body is not properly aligned you’re not going to move efficiently through the water. The head, back and neck are key. When the neck muscles are free of tension, there’s a feeling of lengthening and widening through the back.”
Currently the only Shaw Method instructor in Australia, Sydney-based Steve Forrest competed internationally for Great Britain and was a British record holder before a shoulder injury forced him to quit competitive swimming.
“I’d been having AT lessons for several years to help with pain in my legs, back and neck, which really helped me but I was still not able to swim without pain. I was told about the Shaw Method in 2009, booked a lesson and haven’t looked back,” says Forrest.
“I think water allows one to escape the noise and stresses of modern living and allows one the space to be calm and feel free yet supported by the water. The Shaw Method requires rather more attention to detail with the strokes, which I find also helps in distracting you from those worries and stresses and allows the mind to focus on something more positive and helpful for general wellbeing.”
Chlorine vs salt
Are chlorinated public swimming pools safe? There have been several documented outbreaks of gastroenteritis attributed to contamination of public pools by the parasites cryptosporidium and giardia, which are spread through faeces.
There’s also the age-old problem of people urinating in swimming pools. A study by the University of Illinois in the US found that when urine, along with sweat and other organic matter, mixes with the disinfectants in pool water, the result can be hazardous to health. The study linked the use of disinfectants in recreational pools to genetic cell damage believed to be associated with diseases including asthma and bladder cancer.
Study researcher Professor Michael Plewa recommends that brominating agents should be avoided as disinfectants in recreational pool water. He says the best method to treat pool waters is a combination of UV treatment with chlorine, as opposed to chlorination alone.
Swimmers can also help by showering before diving in, to reduce the level of organic matter in the water and, of course, by not peeing in the pool.
Another option is avoiding chlorinated pools altogether and swimming instead in the great outdoors. More than 30,000 people enter ocean swimming events in Australia each year, with countless more swimming in the sea or sea baths simply for pleasure.
The belief that open water swimming has healing properties dates back to 1753, when Dr Charles Russel published The Uses of Sea Water, which recommended the use of sea water for curing various diseases. Saltwater is also thought to promote wound healing and to be good for the skin, while anecdotal evidence suggests it may be useful in alleviating allergy symptoms.
While the waters of the big blue are no longer regarded as a cure-all, swimming in the sea still provides a thorough cardiovascular workout, while swimming against the resistance of waves and currents is great for toning. Mastering the elements and overcoming the fear of swimming in deep water can also build confidence and self-esteem.
Australians also have the option of swimming in lakes, creeks and rivers. Just be careful of fast-moving currents and submerged debris that can become tangled around the legs.
It may seem simple but learning the correct breathing techniques can be one of the most difficult things for beginner swimmers to master. Focus on the breath is crucial, says Steven Shaw. “Learning to put your face in the water and bring your face out without creating stress and tension is very important,” he says. “As in meditation, the focus is always on the ‘out’ breath — the ‘in’ breath is more passive. If you can master that, swimming becomes much more of a meditation.”
Samantha Riley says incorrect breathing technique affects efficiency and can lead to fatigue. “A lot of people swim 50 metres and feel exhausted (and) most of the time it’s their breathing. It sounds really basic but make sure you’re blowing bubbles out,” she explains. “I see a lot of people turn their heads and breathe (both) in and out, then hold their breath while their face is in the water. You should have your head down when you’re breathing out.”
It may seem counterintuitive that you could become dehydrated when completely submerged but, as with any high-intensity exercise, dehydration is a very real risk for swimmers. If your swim workout lasts longer than 45 minutes it’s likely your body fluid will fall below optimum levels. Dehydration can lead to headaches, lethargy, mood changes and slow responses, confusion and hallucinations, kidney failure and even death.
“A lot of people don’t realise that you sweat while you’re swimming. Hydration is just as important when you’re swimming as when you’re running, for example,” says former Olympic swimmer, Samantha Riley. “I used to get much hotter after a swim session than with any other exercise I’ve done.”
You’re more likely to become dehydrated if you swim in an indoor, heated pool than if you swim outside or in the ocean. Research shows that sweating increases by approximately 7 per cent for every Fahrenheit degree increase above ambient air temperature. So swimming in an indoor pool heated to 26ºC (78ºF) on a cold winter’s day will significantly increase the risk of dehydration. As a rule of thumb, aim to drink 250mL of water for every 15 minutes of swimming.