Winded and Weary? It's Time To Update Your Stroke
By Ruth Kassinger
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page HE01
When the whistle blows on Memorial Day for the first adult swim of the season, I'm in the pool. All the pleasures of a summer swim -- the near-weightless slip through cool water, the wavering patterns of sunlight on the pool floor, the calming silence below the surface -- return.
For a few lengths. Then I recall an unfortunate defect in this pool: There seems to be a peculiar shortage of oxygen in its vicinity. I keep swimming, but the lovely silence under water is now punctuated by my gasps above it. Then I remember that this pool is filled with particularly dense water (could it be all that lead in the Washington water supply?), which surely explains why my arm muscles ache and my kick is tapering to nothing. Then the final problem emerges: The distance from one end to other gets greater with every length. I decide I'd better get out before I find myself trying to swim to infinity.
The story would be the same this year, except, inspired by yet another article about how good swimming is for you, this winter I decided to look a little further into my swimming problems.
What I find is that I'm not alone in having trouble swimming easily. A flurry of books and videotapes aimed at adults who want to learn to swim better has recently been released. This spring, for the first time in 12 years, the American Red Cross revised what has been the bible of swimming instruction, its swimming and diving manual, along with its instructional video.
The fault, I now learn, lies not in the pool, but in the fact that many of us learned to swim too long ago. Swimming techniques and instruction methods have changed dramatically in recent years. So, if you would rather be swimming in the pool than lounging by the side of it, take heart. Updating your technique can make swimming not only easier, but, I can attest, downright pleasant.
The Water's Fine
There is no better fitness activity than swimming, said Steve Jordan, educator for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It is one of the best cardiovascular activities and it conditions most of the large muscle groups. Best of all, it puts almost no pressure on the joints, making it a sport for life. Because the water supports most of a swimmer's weight, it's a particularly good activity for overweight people. And since water is dense, moving through it takes a lot of energy, which means burning calories at a high rate.
It's also difficult to injure yourself swimming. Katie Moore, president-elect of the American Physical Therapy Association, said muscle strains resulting from swimming are almost unheard of. The resistance of water -- in essence, its weight -- is a function of how hard you push or pull it. You simply can't move more water faster than you have strength for.
Shoulder rotator cuff injuries occur occasionally, noted Jeff Berg, an orthopedist in Reston and team physician for the Washington Redskins. But these are the result of poor technique. Berg frequently sends players with knee injuries to the pool to maintain conditioning while resting the damaged joint.
Of course, these benefits accrue only if you swim regularly. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to get the aerobic benefits you need to swim at least three times a week for about 30 minutes at a time.
So, how do you get good enough to swim comfortably for that long, instead of clinging to the wall, sucking air after five minutes?
If you learned to swim before 1980, you were probably taught to swim by an instructor certified in the 1938 American Red Cross method. The group's manual for swimming instruction, which was not significantly revised for four decades, taught beginning freestyle swimmers to "thrash" their legs up and down and to move their arms in a "windmill type of two-beat stroke."
More-advanced swimmers were instructed to kick like "pedaling a bicycle of very low gear" and to "fling the forearm beyond the head" to prepare to take a stroke.
Body roll was anathema. The pulling hand was cupped and pulled under water to a vertical position. Swimmers were advised to keep the waterline just above the eyebrows.
Instruction began to change in the 1960s, starting at the competitive level, when James "Doc" Counsilman introduced the study of biomechanics to swimming.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Updating your swimming technique can make it not only easier, but, the writer attests, downright pleasant.
(Noel Hendrikson/ Veer)
In an article in the May 25 Health section, a statement about the rarity of muscle strains resulting from swimming was mistakenly attributed to Katie Moore with the American Physical Therapy Association. The statement was made by Karolyn Bauer, president-elect of that group's Aquatics Physical Therapy Section.
Learning How to Swim
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Transcript Allen Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation was online to discuss bike safety.