On January 11th, a new gym (VASA fitness) opened in my area and I finally had an affordable option to swim again and started going fairly regularly. I’m hoping that somebody might find this useful or it might inspire them to start swimming. I swim for cardio and have absolutely no interest in ever competing. Pool is SCM, three lanes, for what it’s worth. Here’s the story and some tips:
I don’t have a huge history of swimming but more than some. I took a few months of swimming lessons when I was a kid and then was a lifeguard at a small private pool for a year in high school. My freshman year of college I took a swimming class but skipped a lot of it because it was at 7am and I was by far the slowest and was holding others back. I tried to start swimming nearly every summer in school but would inevitably hurt my shoulder or back. Then the summer between undergrad and grad school, I got into swimming and swam every few days for a summer. But that was five years ago and the closest I’ve come to swimming since is floating in the lake with a beer.
When I started I couldn’t do more than 50m without stopping for several minutes rest and could only do 500m total before I wanted to die. How had I forgotten everything in just five years?! But I kept at it when I could and progress eventually came. You’ll see gaps from vacations, times when work got rough, having to go home to deal with family stuff, and the occasional time I bailed a workout because my elbow or shoulder hurt. Around the middle of May, I starting weightlifting regularly and started using shorter swims as recovery right after the workout. I alternated lifting and long swims but things are pretty irregular from this point forward – but even if things aren’t optimum, you gotta keep with it.
Here are some tips I’ve found that worked for me:
1) Set a goal for each swim, never just repeat. Sometimes a goal is to swim further total, to swim further without stopping, to swim faster, better technique, or to reduce rest. I found that if I just repeat workouts that my progress stalled.
2) Plan your workouts. After the first couple months, I started to develop a nasty problem of giving up mid workout. I’d have a general plan and start but then the inner voice in my head would start complaining about how hard it was and I would inevitably give in and rest longer or shorten my sets or go slower. To fix this, I started planning my workout before I got in the pool and wrote it down on a piece of paper and put that in a ziplock to keep with my water bottle at the edge of the pool. I told myself that unless I was injured I would not deviate from the plan. And for whatever reason, this actually works for me and keeps me honest. I also logged everything in excel afterwards and it was motivating to see how things progress. My wife has an apple watch that I wear about once a month to get an idea about calorie burn but I don’t wear it often (until she gets a new one later this year and I get hers).
3) Swimming has been a major part of my weight loss, which is about 16 pounds since march or about a pound a week. I know a lot of people say it’s hard to lose weight because of swimming but it can be done. You first have to realize that losing weight isn’t about cardio or lifting but is about eating less calories than you burn. CICO (Calories in calories out) covers about 90% of weight loss and until somebody invalidates the first law of thermodynamics, that’s what I’m going with. Cardio such as swimming can increase the calories burned but it isn’t magic, it’s just math. I’m a person who “lives to eat” instead of “eat to live” and for my weight loss goals of 1lb/week, I need to eat under 1700 calories a day with no exercise. I love to eat and I know that if I tried to eat only 1700 calories a day I would fail repeatedly and just give up. So I burn some calories swimming and that increases the number of calories I can eat while still being at a 500 calorie deficit and still losing weight. But…
4) The Thermogenic effect of swimming is real. You will be much hungrier after swimming for an hour than you would be after running for an hour because the cool water triggers your body to want food to increase warmth. It’s all in your head. I counteract this by doing two things. I sit in the hot tub for 5-10 minutes after I get out of the pool which warms me up and relaxes my muscles. And I also plan my swims such that they are always right before lunch or dinner, which I’ve planned and count calories on. So my body thinks it’s winning because it gets to eat after swimming, but my mind knows it’s won because it was all part of the plan.
4) Weightlifting! I’m a firm believer that pretty much everybody should be lifting weights. Not only is it great in general, but if you swim it can be a real help in improving and reducing injury. I tried to start swimming a couple times in college and each time would hurt my shoulders or back and have to stop. So when I got to 1600m workouts, I started lifting to help prevent injuries, especially since I primarily do front crawl and breaststroke. If you don’t lift, I would recommend it. Start with something like Starting Strength or Stronglifts 5xt5 (my favorite and has a great app) but add in some back and shoulder exercises like: Cable Rows, Lat pulldowns, Straight arm lat pulldowns, T-bar rows, Front Raise, Lateral Raise, and Face Pull. I would recommend Athlen-X, Scott Herman, and Jeremy Ethier for form videos on youtube.