I have written about swimming on the Training Think Tank blog before, always in the context of how to become faster and more competitive in the water (CLICK HERE). I think this reflects my personal bias. Having come from a competitive swimming background, I learned to value “performance” in the water rather than appreciating the physical and emotional benefits that the water could offer. I think that characterizing swimming as a training tool which athletes need to master in order to optimize performance in the sport of CrossFit™ misses the true value of what the water can provide. I believe that a large majority of the exercising population and athletes in a variety of sports could benefit tremendously from adding swimming, or at least some form of water-immersion to their training routine. This rings even more true for the “balanced fitness” athlete who is searching for ways to optimize work capacity and health simultaneously. Swimming provides both low impact conditioning tool and one of the few environments devoid from the constant sensory overload we are surrounded with on a daily basis.
From a general health standpoint swimming offers a variety of benefits which are unique to the aquatic environment. First and foremost, recent research has shown that people who swim consistently suffer lower mortality rates than people who participate in any other form of exercise, including other cyclical aerobic activities. While this is observational data, the effects of swimming on our physical and mental health are undeniable. Anyone who has spend a significant amount of time in the water whether as a competitive swimmer, freediver, triathlete, or just for their health knows this to be true. I’ve compiled a list below summarizing some of the benefits that swimming and water immersion can have on our health.
A Recovery Tool - The simple act of getting into shoulder-deep water lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation. This reduction in blood pressure can reduce strain on the heart making water immersion a great tool for recovery. The addition of movement in the water like swimming or water running can further improve lymphatic circulation and help to reduce inflammation (one of the benefits of light cyclical movement is a reduction in inflammation - this is compounded in the water). In addition, swimming has been shown to have a similar benefit on cardiovascular development as other forms of land based-exercise like running. This means swimming can be used to replace other forms of higher-impact training while still improving your cardiovascular fitness.
Minimal Impact Exercise - Swimming and other forms of water-based exercise allow for almost zero impact during training. The buoyant environment reduces mechanical joint stress allowing athletes to add conditioning training or low-intensity recovery volume while experiencing a reduction in joint inflammation. In sports where maintaining a high level of conditioning is a factor, like running or wrestling, adding zero-impact cross-training like swimming can be a great way to improve fitness during the off season or after demanding competitions. This is also true for injured athletes, the water provides a great tool for maintaining fitness while recovering from injury. If the athletes are proficient in the water, swimming can be used to develop the full-spectrum of the energy-systems as well as develop the local muscular endurance of the upper body. If athletes are not proficient in the water, a combination of using skill work and tools like fins and kickboards can still provide a unique conditioning or recovery experience.
Optimize Breathing Mechanics - Swimming is one of the few activities that forces us to regulate our breathing. It requires a rhythmic breathing pattern where inhalation and exhalation periods are coordinated with the swimming stroke. Breath timing is one of the tools that I’ve used to change the effect of a training session on an athlete’s breathing, we can ask athletes to breath every 2nd, 4th, or 6th stroke to challenge their breath holding ability while exercising. Learning to tolerate the sensations associated with breath holding itself can be quite challenging and learning to relax while that sense of panic sets in is even more challenging. Additionally, the process of inhaling and exhaling against the increased pressure of the water can also help to develop weak inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Combined, the improvements in respiratory muscle strength and breath control developed while swimming has far reaching benefits for exercise on the land.
Sensory Reduction - One of the things I personally like the most about swimming is the sense of calm and focus that comes over you as you learn to relax in the water. The water acts as almost a form of sensory deprivation that forces us to disconnect from the constant sensory and electronic overload of our everyday lives. The water is such a departure from our typical training environments where everything is designed to amp you up. In the water you can relax, slow-down, and bring your focus inward paying attention to how your body feels as it moves. The pressure of the water from all directions gives great feedback, amplifying every movement as the pressure is applied from all directions allowing us to develop a greater sense of body awareness. I feel that spending time in the water learning to relax and “feel” can help to induce the same flow-states that many people describe from meditation practice.
Swimming is an incredibly versatile fitness tool, but using swimming to access these benefits requires you to be both comfortable in the water as well as develop the skill of swimming. Many people have not been exposed to the water or taken the time to develop their swimming technique. However, this should not stop you from taking advantage of what the water has to offer. We clearly recognize the advantages that swimmers have over non-swimmers, this is why we decided to develop two online video-based progressive swimming programs. My hope is that these programs can introduce a new group of people to the physical and emotional benefits I have experienced from my time in the water.
Our first program “Introduction to Swimming” is designed to introduce non-swimmers to the water and to help them overcome the fear and panic they may first experience learning to swim. This is a self-paced program that provides step-by-step drills and instruction taking you from learning how to submerge your face in the water to full swimming.
Our second program “Swim to Win” is a comprehensive 12-week swim training program designed to develop swimming speed and endurance for non-competitive swimmers. This course was designed for anyone who wants to be able to use swimming as an additional tool in their training arsenal. This is the perfect platform for peaking your swimming ability for an upcoming fitness competition or triathalon.
If you are already a proficient swimmer but are not utilizing the water in your current training, I encourage you to make it a part of your training routine. For those of you who need help developing your swimming skills and want to learn more about our programs, visit the online program section of our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org