Swim your way to a healthier you?
April 29, 2005 6:14 PM   Subscribe

Yes, another physical fitness question. I, like some others in the green of late, need to find my fitter self. I am going to turn 35 on Sunday, have two beautiful and energetic young daughters, and so…my lack of fitness is bumming me out, man.

I have two main questions. The first…I like to swim. Well that isn’t a question…let me explain. I have a bad back (partially due to aforementioned lack of fitness and the gut that goes with it) and after a bout of sarcoidosis a few years back, my lungs are not so great either. And I love the water. There is a not-so-fancy gym within five minutes of home with an often empty pool. Problem is, I find it hard to feel like I am really getting a workout. Can anyone suggest a cardio-improving approach to laps?

The second question has to do with pilates. Again, due to the back problems, some core strength would be helpful. I have read great stuff about pilates and core strength/back pain, but I have also read some scary stuff from people who aver that the worst thing you can do with a bad back is get the wrong pilates instructor.

I call on the more fit members of Mefi to help a guy out…Any advice?
posted by Richat to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am under the impression that pilates is somewhat of a gimmick. If you want to improve your strength, you should be lifting weights and doing abdominal and lower back exercises. Start slow and with light weight if you're afraid of injury, and find someone who can show you the proper form.

Swimming is a fantastic, whole body exercise. However, if you can't keep it up for 20 minutes, you're not getting a cardiovascular exercise. You need to take up jogging, biking, elliptical, anything that will keep you breathing pretty hard for 20 to 30 minutes. After you've gained some endurance, you can go back in the pool...
posted by knave at 6:34 PM on April 29, 2005


Swimming is a eeceptively good cardio workout,. What you'll want to do is swim intervals...say, 4 or 5 repeats of 200 yards to start. Don't worry about how long it takes, just swim at a comfortable effort. Stop and rest for a minute or two after each repeat. Take your heart rate (measure your pulse for 10 seconds, multiply by 6) and aim for a heart rate that is 60-80% of your maximum all-out effort.

You can also swim ladder or pyramid sets - you swim a certain distance, then add to it with each new set. A ladder might look like 25, 50, 75, 100, 125, 150. A pyramid is similar, but builds to the longest distance and then drops again (25, 50, 75, 100, 75, 50, 25). You can do more than one ladder or pyramid in a row, with rest in between, if you want.

Aim to keep your heart rate at 60-80% of maximum for 20 minutes to start, gradually increasing time as your fitness improves.

There are a lot of good swim training web sites out there. A simple Google will find you some. Many have workout plans and much more specific information about staying in the cardio efficiency zone. I can't say much more, because all my swim training is triathlon-specific, and the goals for that are somewhat different than for all-swimming fitness. Good luck. What's true for this, though, is true for all aerobic fitness: consistency is key. Aim for at least three and more like four 30-minute workouts a week for basic fitness. What is hard at first becomes easier with time and consistent effort. Promise yourself you'll give any new plan at least 2 months before you decide whether it's working.
posted by Miko at 6:44 PM on April 29, 2005


You can gain endurance for swimming in the pool. If you really enjoy swimming then that's your best bet to improve your cardio health. If you don't enjoy jogging or running but you do enjoy swimming which one do you think you're most likely to be able to stick at long enough to eventually improve your cardio?

There are several ways to keep your heart rate up while swimming. One is an exercise I used to do when I swim competitively. Find a pace that you're able to comfortably swim 50 meters in. Maybe it's 40 seconds, I don't know what your idea of comfortable is.

Add 20 [1] seconds to this and do a lap. Whatever you leftover is your rest time. You're only going to get 20 seconds or so rest time. Then you do another lap and so on.

Eventually you're not going to make it under your goal, at that point try to do a few more non stop. Add 20 seconds to your last lap and start doing it over again.

Do this until you hit 20 minutes or 30 minutes. As you do this week by week you'll improve your swim speed so you'll be exercising harder to get the same relative intensity.

The other thing you can do is just swim continuously, I did this in grad school and I'd just keep going full bore (with full bore slowing down as I tired)

[1] When I swam in meets I'd do this around a 5 second starting rest and keep ramping up from there. 20 seconds sounds like it should be easier but I only know how I work, not you :P
posted by substrate at 6:55 PM on April 29, 2005


One other note, for the interval swimming the 5 second rest was for an all out 50 or 100 meter sprint for me, or in other words I'd get to rest about 20% of the time it took me to do my first lap, so I'd think that 20 seconds on a comfortable lap would be generous.
posted by substrate at 6:58 PM on April 29, 2005


Problem is, I find it hard to feel like I am really getting a workout. Can anyone suggest a cardio-improving approach to laps?

How long do you swim? Do you really not feel it the next day? One thing about swimming is that you don't really break a sweat because you're in the water, but on the other hand, you should start to run out of breath after some number of laps, and if you haven't exercised in a while, you should wake up feeling it the next day. Swimming is great exercise, though. Just build up your number of laps each day, and once you hit a number to stick with, start working on getting a faster time. If that gets too easy, you can start swimming with weights around your wrists and/or ankles. You can also wear floatation devices around the legs and do just an upper body workout for some percentage of the laps (i.e., only using arms; legs become dead weight) if you want to focus.

But really, it's just a question of "keep going". If it really seems too easy, then double the number of laps you're doing. Even walking is great exercise if you do enough of it, so don't ditch something because it doesn't make you feel like you're about to die within 3 and a half minutes. Slow & steady, and all that. Just keep going. It will start to feel hard eventually, I promise.
posted by mdn at 7:27 PM on April 29, 2005


US Masters Swimming is a good place to start, particularly this article. Some of the info is of the "no shit" variety, but there are many good tips for getting a better workout.

For me, the hardest thing is motivation and laziness. If I swim by myself I extend my rest periods, swim too slow, and get out early. When I swim with the team, I've got a coach giving me technique tips (and yelling at me, which seems to work), so I happen to get a great workout while improving my stroke. And it can be a great social thing to swim with the same people three times a week.

Swimming with a partner or a group can help you stay motivated. If you're looking for a partner or a group, go to your local pool and ask about Masters swimming groups. Resources are available through United States Masters Swimming, which has a web site (www.usms.org). Joining a local Masters team is a great way to learn and add camaraderie to your fitness routine. You do not have to go to the competitions to enjoy Masters swimming, but swim meets for seniors can be great fun, too! Swimming is the most popular fitness activity for all ages. Remember, the cardiovascular benefits of swimming make you feel great. It is exhausting and energizing all at once, and you can do it your entire life.
posted by letitrain at 7:31 PM on April 29, 2005


I would recommend looking into Masters Swimming. It's a combination of grown-up swim team and a workout group. (Some teams are more competitively focused than others.) I tried a number of times to workout alone, and I found that I always dropped off due to boredom. Now, with my group, I get a better workout than I will ever do by myself and have good company doing it. Even if you don't join a group, their discussion forums have workouts and really supportive folks to answer questions and give encouragement.

Also, to work on core strength while swimming, dolphin kicking on your back will do wonders. But in general, improving your technique means improving your core, so you'll get something out of almost everything else too.

On preview: I see letitrain types faster than I do.
posted by dame at 7:37 PM on April 29, 2005


Another thing: I disagree with mdn on two points. I've been told swimming is less likely to make you sore than equal dryland effort. I don't know why, but I have definitely found that to be the case.

Also, don't just swim laps at a medium pace till you're tired. That may be okay while you're getting used to being in the water, but you will get bored before you get worn out. Intervals are your friend. I feel most exhausted (in a happy way) when we do lots of 50s and 100s all-out or nearly so.
posted by dame at 7:42 PM on April 29, 2005


I'm not sure why you have trouble getting a workout swimming, it is one of the most efficient workouts you can find.
Don't underestimate walking and hiking as a workout it is probably the best fat burning exercise and it can be a fun activity to share with the family.

Regarding the back pain, let pain be your guide. Try to figure out what is causing it (for me it was bad ergonomics and taking baths). A professional opinion (not chiropractor) could help. A device called the sacrowedgy worked wonders for me.

For increasing aerobic capacity, basically doing more aerobic exercise like swimming and walking helps. I'm not familiar with sarcoidosis, might want a professional opinion again. Advanced techniques like interval training won't really be useful at the start.
posted by Manjusri at 7:46 PM on April 29, 2005


Thanks all for the suggestions. To clarify, I think my issue with the swimming is as has been suggested: I have no plan, and so swim at a moderate pace, boring myself. The sarcoidosis (which is in it's remission state for me) has left my lung capacity a little diminished due to some scarring and that coupled with poor muscular endurance and a weak cardio has left me able to swim, but without a plan I just kinda dawdle.

I think I will take a look at some of the pyramid/ladder approaches suggested and try to make a plan. That is pretty much exactly what I came here for, suggestions from people with experience. I do appreciate the time you took.
posted by Richat at 9:13 PM on April 29, 2005


Oh, and I hope it isn't bad form to pick so many "Best Answers"
posted by Richat at 9:16 PM on April 29, 2005


I have a hard time challenging myself enough to get the workout I need just swimming, especially since the facility I have access to has a rather short pool. For me, stepping up the resistence has helped a lot. I do laps with Zoomers and mitts, I do laps (upright in the water, as though sitting in a chair with legs crossed, rowing) with hand paddles and a leg float, and I do laps with Zoomers and a kickboard (board held vertically in the water and fully submerged at arms length). These all make me work harder than just trying to go faster.

For boredom, I've found that a waterproof mp3 player is a big help. I'd hoped to do audiobooks, but find that I don't get an adequate seal with the earplugs so the sound quality isn't good enough to follow a book. It's fine for music, though, and that helps me hit a zen state where I can keep going instead of watching the clock and whining to myself.
posted by salt at 9:47 PM on April 29, 2005


Pilates is great, and not at all gimmicky (with a good instructor, of course). It definitely helps build core strength, which carries into both exercise activity to help you use your abdominal muscles properly instead of your back muscles, and helps with everyday walking and sitting and such. I have arthritis in my lower back and it's really the best thing I've done to strengthen that area.
posted by judith at 11:57 PM on April 29, 2005


If you want core strength, and your pool has a gym attached to it, I strongly suggest that you do some dead lifts. They'll build muscle and encourage testosterone production.

You can lift light weights to start, of course.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:42 AM on April 30, 2005


You can make swimming more intensive (you'll swim faster, as a byproduct) with fins (for example, see here), though apparently hand paddles don't act similarly [I don't see why not; in any case, they might add variety.]

Try a google search or two (YMMV):

swimming intensity fins

swimming intensity hand paddles

posted by WestCoaster at 4:40 PM on April 30, 2005


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