It’s one of the most popular forms of exercise – and for good reason. For starters, swimming’s the best all-round workout, ticking the cardio box and full-body strengthening (which makes it a great cross-training addition, whether you’re a runner, cyclist, dancer etc); it’s a life skill; and widely accessible.
“Swimming is the one activity you can do throughout your life, from birth through to older age,” says Ian Freeman, coaching system technical lead at the Amateur Swimming Association. “As well as being great at relaxing the mind and providing a social environment, because water supports up to 90% of the body’s weight, swimming is the perfect way for people with impairments, injuries or illnesses to stay active.”
This is a big part of why swimming’s the most popular exercise among older age groups. Freeman notes that the ASA has also developed Dementia Friendly Swimming sessions to support people living with dementia, and their carers, in staying active.
Despite these benefits, ASA figures suggest one in five UK adults can’t swim, while Speedo recently found more than two-thirds (69%) can’t swim more than 100m, and one in three admit they’re not confident in water. A survey by Fusion Lifestyle, a charity that manages 80 public pools across the UK, found that ‘fear of water or drowning’ is the most common reason (20%) given by non-swimmers, while 9% blamed low body-confidence and not wanting to be seen in a swimming costume.
The good news is these things can all be overcome. The thought of stripping down to a cossie does fill lots of people with dread – but swimming’s actually a fantastic way to take the focus off body-image woes, as it encourages you to shift the focus from what your body looks like, to how great the freedom of being in water, and getting fitter, feels (plus you’ll soon realise that humans come in all shapes and sizes and nobody really cares!).
Building confidence in the water might take time, but it’s possible, and group or one-on-one lessons and coaching’s widely available – sometimes for free. Enquire at your local leisure centre, visit the ASA website and check out www.fusion-lifestyle.com/adultswim. Also, Speedo is offering free 60-minute swim fitness sessions with instructors across the UK until October (www.speedo.co.uk/dive-in).
With the Rio Olympics on the approach, and triathlons growing ever more popular, there is much more emphasis on ‘training’ nowadays, but if you’re happy with your gentle, leisurely swims, that’s great too – they’ll still be doing the world of good. Freeman agrees that it’s “absolutely” worthwhile doing leisurely lengths.
“A gentle swim can burn over 200 calories in half an hour – more than double that of walking – while a faster swim would see that indulgent chocolate bar gone quicker than if you went running or cycling. Plus, because exercising in water makes your body work harder, 30 minutes in a pool is worth 45 minutes of the same activity on land,” he explains. “By combining 30 minutes of swimming three or more times per week alongside a balanced, healthy diet and lifestyle is one of the best ways to reduce body fat and maximise weight losses and maintain a positive mental wellbeing.”
If you are looking to really improve your performance in the pool or pursue goals however, there’s lots you can do.
Freeman suggests joining a local swimming club, which is a “great way to get tips on developing your swimming as well as having the support of other swimmers”.
If you’d like to structure your own swims, as a good High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout – which is proven to increase metabolism – he suggests starting with a 10-minute warm-up using any stroke, followed by eight lengths with your fastest stroke with 10 seconds’ rest between efforts, and a five-minute cool-down using any stroke.
Scottish swimmer Michael Jamieson, who scooped silver at London 2012 in the men’s 200m breaststroke and is now a Speedo Dive In ambassador, has these top three tips… “Work on the rhythm of your breathing. This will allow you to swim for longer, and makes it easier as it doesn’t sap your energy so much. Secondly, work on your leg kick with freestyle. Kicks are really important, taking the stress and strain off your shoulders and sending you through the water faster,” Jamieson adds. “And thirdly, swim at a lower intensity for longer, rather than trying to swim fast but as far.”