Courtesy of Julia Galan
As a coach and competitive swimmer, I am a die-hard proponent of the sport of swimming and will be the first to list all of the reasons for which swimming is THE best sport: total-body toning, less pressure on the joints, an edge over the competition for you triathletes, a sense of purpose and accomplishment…not to mention a potentially ideal physique! Given all of these advantages, swimming seems like an ideal sport, right? Not so fast. Just getting in the pool and swimming is not necessarily the key to unlocking all of its potential benefits. Below are ten misconceptions that many people have about swimming – along with some clarifications that will help you make the most of this great activity!
1) Swimming on its own helps you lose weight
Swimming is often touted as one of the best ways to burn calories and boost metabolism – therefore promoting weight loss. While the benefits of swimming are certainly not an exaggeration, newbies to the sport should be mindful that swimming often serves to increase the appetite. While the reasons for this are unknown (a common theory is that swimming in colder water prevents the release of appetite-suppressing hormones), going into the sport with the understanding that appetite control is key will help you take full advantage of the toning and strengthening effects that swimming can and will have. If you are not losing weight while pursuing a daily swimming regimen, you are likely eating more calories than you are burning. Adjust your daily calorie intake accordingly and you will begin to see results.
2) Swimmers can eat whatever they want
On a related note, swimmers have earned the reputation of being able to eat whatever they want without gaining weight because they burn so many calories. The reality is that every swimmer, whether beginner or Olympian, needs to be mindful of his or her diet. Sure, you may be able to get away with junk food when you’re training at the elite level, but it will catch up to you once you begin to (inevitably) decrease the intensity of your workouts. And let’s face it – junk food just isn’t good for your body. Maintain a healthy, balanced diet instead. Monitor your calorie intake and adjust calories according to your needs. And when you need to eat more, don’t head for the processed foods – instead, aim for a healthy, nutritionally-balanced and well-planned diet.
3) Swimming is an injury-free sport
While it is true that the sport of swimming is a low-impact exercise as compared to other sports, injuries are more common than you might think. Shoulder injuries are the most prevalent, followed by knee, neck and lower back injuries. Overuse is one cause of these injuries, but for many swimmers, incorrect stroke technique is also one of the main culprits. The good news is that this means you can take active steps to prevent injuries from ever happening by incorporating swimming drills into your workouts. Since there are hundreds of drills targeted at correcting flaws or enhancing efficiency in each of the swimming strokes, it can be difficult to find the right drills for your personal needs. This is where a coach- one who can assess your stroke individually and let you know exactly what you need to do- can be essential to your swimming progress.
4) Kicking is overrated
Ah, yes – the kick. It is the true engine of your stroke but it is also often overlooked or downright ignored by many who are just starting out in the sport. Why? Most people do not start out with a naturally effective kick. As humans we automatically use our arms and upper body to pull ourselves through the water. It is painful, difficult, and frustrating to develop a kick that will actually help to propel you through the water. The solution for many has been to simply abandon the idea of kicking and concentrate on pulling instead. Indeed, many triathletes are told to “save their legs” during the swimming portion of the event because it wastes energy. This could not be further from the truth! An effective kick is what separates an average swimmer from a great swimmer. It offers enhanced propulsion and lift, helps to increase your distance per stroke and takes the main burden off of your upper body– and thus, your shoulders. Instead of giving up on the kick, focus on improving your kicking technique and strength so that you become more efficient and minimize energy use. Kicking from your hips, developing flexibility in your ankles and working on your kick timing are some of the ways to make your kick more efficient. Practice, practice, practice and you will see results!
5) Swimming builds muscles
This is not exactly a misconception. Swimming does build muscle – and it is a total-body toning exercise. With every stroke, you are using a variety of muscles to counter the resistance of the water and simultaneously putting less pressure on your joints than you would if you were lifting weights. However, swimming is primarily a cardiovascular exercise, which means that you are not building muscle as much as you are increasing lean muscle mass and toning the muscles. Most swimmers should try to include some dry land strength training into their exercise regimen to see benefits such as alignment of posture, reduction of injury potential, and performance improvement.
6) You don’t need to hydrate while swimming
I’m in the water and I don’t feel thirsty – why should I need to drink? As Lauren Trocchio from Nutrition Unlocked explains, “[t]he inability to observe sweating makes it easy for many swimmers to overlook the importance of hydrating while working out or competing. But hydration is no less important for swimmers and can sometimes be even more critical due to hot and humid environments.” Translation? Bring a water bottle to every practice!
7) You need to swim continuously
One misconception prevailing among individuals new to the sport, including many triathletes, is that you need to swim continuously in order to build endurance, burn calories, or achieve whatever other goals you may have. While it is important to incorporate longer swims into your workouts, especially if you are a distance swimmer or triathlete, swimming continuously should not constitute the sole component of your swim sessions. Dividing up your workout into shorter, interval-based sets will add in rest and recovery periods that will allow you to incorporate more variety into your workout – and boost your cardiovascular activity. There are many types of interval-based sets to try, from fixed rest sets to broken swims to pyramid sets to advanced intervals. Through a mix of continuous timed swims, drill work and interval-based sets, you will be able to build endurance without getting overly fatigued and losing your technique.
8) Alternatively, short sprints are always the key to improving performance
On the other end of the spectrum is the frequently debated “ultra short race pace training” method, founded on the “principle of specificity”; namely, that swimming very short distances at race pace is the key to improving a swimmer’s performance. While there is no doubt that short-distance race pace training should play a role in swimming training, as with continuous swims, it should not be used as the sole method of training. USRPT also discounts the importance of drills, strength training and kicking for advanced level swimmers by claiming that they are “ inappropriate training content for serious or highly-trained performers” (Rushall 2006). However, as USA Swimming articulated in a recent commentary on USRPT, “a good strength and conditioning program is an asset to an athlete, not a counter-productive waste of time”. And as Bob Bowman aptly described, USRPT is like spinach – it’s good for you, but “I’m not going to eat spinach every day”. Again, race-pace training can play a positive role in performance improvement, but it should not be the only method used. Variety is the spice of life – and swimming is no exception.
9) Technique is for the weak – intervals are what count
This point is related to misconception #8. Although technique is much more widely accepted today than in the past, many coaches and swimmers are still convinced that focusing on technique is a waste of time, unless it is geared towards beginner swimmers. Unfortunately, this approach carries with it a high risk of burnout and/or injuries. Drills are appropriate for all levels of swimmers, from beginner to advanced. They add variety to a swimmers’ workout, and allow swimmers to reinforce proper technique by working on specific elements of the stroke without the fatigue that normally accompanies a fullstroke set. One caveat to this mantra: you need a coach to analyze your swimming stroke and guide you as to which drills you should be using and how to do these drills correctly. There are thousands of drills out there, and knowing which ones to use and how much of your workout should consist of drills requires an expert to monitor your swimming stroke.
10) The bigger your paddles and fins are, the better you will be
There is a wealth of swimming equipment on the market, from fins, to pull buoys, to stroke rate devices and more. Many swimmers consider this equipment either necessary for performance improvement or a fun way to spice up a workout. Basic swimming training gear, such as a pull buoy, can serve a variety of important purposes in swimming training. If overused, however, swimming equipment can also inadvertently become a detriment to your workout. Fins, for example, are often misused by swimmers who lack a strong kick. Put the fins on and – wow! – you are flying. Unfortunately, that is also why fins become addictive and you will see entire groups of swimmers who would rather give up swimming than put down their fins. The same scenario exists for the pull buoy. The buoy can be used effectively to fine-tune specific aspects of swimming technique. More often than not, however, swimmers use the pull buoy as a flotation device, which allows them to ease off of the kick and float higher in the water with greater ease. Paddles are often the choice of the macho swimmer – and the bigger the paddle, the better that swimmer feels about cutting through the water, nailing any poor swimmer that happens to get in the path of his errant arm. Despite their frequent misuse, training equipment can play an important role in helping a swimmer progress – but only if used properly and appropriate to the individual swimmers’ needs. Everything in moderation is a good mantra to remember here.
Keeping these considerations in mind will help you make the most of your swimming training. See you at the pool!
About Julia Galan
Julia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.