Fitness: 50 lengths a lunchbreak – secrets of a regular swimmer

After a swim – even a long one – you feel a good deal more relaxed than when you went in

A high-speed collision between my shoulder and somebody else’s knee during a tag-rugby match smashed my clavicle and resulted in my arm being put in a sling for three weeks. During the ensuing lay-off – when even the simplest activity, such as dressing, became an epic struggle – I reached an irrevocable conclusion: my days of competitive field sports were over.

This led to an obvious question for someone the wrong side of 40: what activity could I take up to stay in shape? It would have to be injury-free while still presenting a physical challenge, not cost too much and, better still, be something indoors and out of the cold. But, most of all, it had to fit into my family and professional lives.

Joining a gym was the obvious choice but, after a visit to the Markievicz Leisure Centre in Dublin 2, an even better solution presented itself. An instructor there mentioned that the annual membership subscription, a snip at a special rate of €229, also included access to the pool.

Swimming? Now that ticked every box for me. It can be as demanding as you make it, works the entire body and, given my age, is something I could keep up for many years. Best of all, though, I’d hardly be risking a repeat of my broken clavicle experience and the pool was next door to the office so I could swim before work or during my lunch break.


Before starting, however, I sought advice on what items I’d need from someone I knew in a swimming club. She recommended tight-fitting togs, which go through the water much easier than baggy shorts, and buying ear plugs as regular swimmers are prone to ear infections or water blocking their ears. Another tip was to buy a “long hair” silicon swimming cap, as it was larger and could be pulled down over the ears to offer even greater protection against water getting in. The final item was a pair of flip-flops to reduce the risk of getting a verruca.

As I’d been a competent swimmer in my youth I passed on the swimming lessons – although this would be a good idea for novices to iron out errors in technique – and opted instead to slowly build up strength and speed in my two most comfortable strokes.

10-length routine

On my first visit to the pool I did two 25-metre lengths of front crawl followed by a short break and two lengths of breast stroke. Then I took a board and front-crawl kicked a length and did the same on the breast-stroke kick. This was followed by two further lengths each of front crawl and breast stroke.

I did this 10-length routine five days a week for a month. The first weeks were a struggle – particularly for the hip, back and abdominal muscles – but developing strength and resistance in these core areas is crucial to moving through the water more efficiently. Because water creates more resistance against the body than air does in land-based exercise, I noticed quite quickly how regular swimming tones up the body.

A bus driver, who started swimming at the same time to relieve back pain, reported losing a stone after two months. A few months later he was down another stone, and seeing the funny side of forking out for a new uniform as his old workwear no longer fitted him.

Those first few weeks in the pool also taught me to concentrate on timing my breathing. Get it right and swimming is a pleasure, but get it wrong and you’ll swallow chlorine-rich water and arrive at the other end thrashing about while gasping for breath.

In her book, Total Swimming, Olympic gold medallist Janet Evans notes that "a properly structured swim workout provides incredible improvements to the cardiovascular system. The nature of breathing when swimming – with breath being somewhat limited in volume and frequency – promotes greater lung capacity and a consistent intake of oxygen. Both aerobic and anaerobic gains can be made in the same [swimming] workout."

This focus on timing when to breathe also gives swimming a yoga-like quality: all you’re thinking about in the water is getting a good lungful while all you can hear is air bubbles passing by your ears. It’s very peaceful and, as you’re not aware of anything else happening around you, your mind tends to empty itself of life’s stresses and strains. So, coming out of the water, even after a long swim, you feel a good deal more relaxed than when you went in.

Most swimming instructors recommend exhaling throughout your stroke when your head is face down – as it is during the front crawl – as this creates a more relaxed action. However, as the months passed, I found a big exhale prior to inhaling suited me and now it’s second nature.

Every month I increased my daily swim by two lengths. This softly-softly approach allowed me to bed in my strength and resistance gains, while avoiding the risk of overextending myself. Reaching regular goals was a big incentive to stay the course before raising the bar again.

Now I do 50 lengths five mornings a week – 30 of front crawl and 20 of breast stroke – and can’t wait to get in the water each morning. Some of my friends think I’m mad swimming 1.25km five times a week but, once you’re used to it, it doesn’t feel physically excessive. Anyway, I’m not a patch on the bus driver: he does 2km five days a week and he’s in his mid-50s.

Tips to improve your style
A good, and cheap, way to improve your swimming is to ask the lifeguard on duty to observe your stroke with a view to getting their feedback. Normally, they'll be delighted to help and share their expertise. You'll also pick up tips about swimming aids, such as flippers and various floating devices, which can correct errors in your stroke and send you more efficiently through the water.

Another good way to improve your technique is to search for swimming videos online. is one of many examples.

Swimming etiquette: getting it right

Always shower before getting in the water so that any dirt on your body doesn't make it into the pool and potentially into people's mouths. Always choose a lane to suit your ability: don't get in the fast lane if you're not up to it.

Keep a safe distance – about five metres – from somebody turning as this reduces the chances of a collision when they push off to go back. If there is a faster swimmer in your lane, let them pass you at the turn. There is no greater annoyance to regular swimmers than a slow-coach who refuses to let the traffic pass. Always swim in the up-and-down direction indicated. If you go the wrong way, you risk a head-on collision with another swimmer coming the right way. If you’re unsure of which direction to swim, ask the lifeguard on duty.

Health benefits of swimming

Stiffness: As your body weight decreases in water, the pool provides an ideal place to work stiff muscles and sore joints, especially if you're overweight or suffer from arthritis.

Resistance: As water is about 12 times as dense as air, every kick and arm stroke in swimming is a resistance exercise, and resistance exercises are a great way to build muscle tone and strength. Flexibility: Swimming puts the body through a broad range of motion that helps joints and ligaments stay loose and flexible.

Healthy heart: Because swimming is an aerobic exercise, it strengthens the heart, not only helping it to become larger, but making it more efficient in pumping, which leads to better blood flow throughout your body.

Weight control: As a general rule, for every 10 minutes of swimming: the breast stroke will burn 60 calories; the backstroke 80; the freestyle 100; and the butterfly 150.

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