17 March 2006

How fit must a swimmer be?

Swimming’s described as one of the best ways to get fit, as it combines a cardiovascular workout with virtually no impact on your joints.

Swimming’s described as one of the best ways to get fit, as it combines a cardiovascular workout with virtually no impact on your joints. Some insurance companies regard swimming as the most desirable of leisure activities because of its health benefits. But while the human body is naturally buoyant, propelling it through the water takes effort and swimming competitively requires punishing workouts, with hours of training each day. At international level, swimmers are supremely fit, with lung capacity to rival any of the other codes.

Typical build:
Swimming has long been regarded as an activity that people of any age and build can enjoy. One of its many benefits is that most children start out by playing in swimming pools or at the beach. That way it’s not regarded as “exercise” or a chore dictated by grown-ups, but as fun. The cushioning effect of water on the body means that older people can benefit from it too. It’s also suitable for those with lower back and leg trouble, and it’s a great way to relieve stress.

Competitive swimming is another matter entirely. Many of the Commonwealth/Olympic swimmers are tall – UK 50 metre freestyle star Mark Foster is 1,98 metres tall and weighs 92 kgs. While many recreational swimmers find they don’t lose weight simply by plodding up and down the pool a few times, competitive swimmers generally have enviable percentages of body fat. It’s probably one of the few sports suited to all body types: mesomorphs, ectomorphs and endomorphs.

Swimming events generally include the following:

  • Freestyle is swum over 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m. It’s the quickest and easiest of strokes. Swimmers start off by diving into the pool from a block. Technically the freestyle event can be swum in any style you like, but most athletes choose what was originally known as Australian crawl. Swimmers are disqualified for touching a neighbouring lane or obstructing another swimmer.
  • Backstroke is swum over 100m and 200m. It’s a bit like freestyle swum on your back, in that you alternate leg and arm strokes. Many casual swimmers find it difficult to swim in a straight line. Swimmers start by holding onto the side of the pool and lunging backwards. They can be disqualified by gliding (not stroking) at the pool’s 15 metre mark, or after turning.
  • Breaststroke is swum over 100m and 200m. It’s a more complex style of swimming, requiring perfect coordination of arm and leg movements. The legs have a strong “scissors-kick”. The swimmer’s arms and legs move simultaneously. Losing that synchronisation is a nightmare for a competitive swimmer and grounds for disqualification. Swimmers can also be disqualified for touching the pool wall with one hand during a turn.
  • Butterfly is swum over 100m and 200m. It’s a sinuous, spectacular swimming style, with the swimmer moving like a dolphin through the water, arms and legs moving simultaneously. Touching the wall with one hand while turning, or moving contrary to the rules means disqualification.
  • Individual medley is swum over 200m and 400m. It’s a demanding event where each swimmer completes an equal distance in the following sequence: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
  • Team relays are swum in 4X100m freestyle, 4X100m medley and 4X200m freestyle. In the medley, four swimmers from the same team compete, following the sequence of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. Changeovers are deemed valid when the swimmer’s feet leave the blocks once the other’s hands have touched the wall. Diving too soon means disqualification.

Training programme:
At Commonwealth/Olympic level, swimmers spend up to eight hours in the water. Each stroke has a specific technique, but swimming coaches carefully monitor the technique of their charges. One of the easiest bad habits to fall into is the tendency to “roll” during freestyle. Coaches must also monitor athletes for the tendency to overtrain, which can lead to injury.

Cardiovascular fitness:
Swimming is acknowledged as one of the best ways to build cardiovascular fitness and cut recovery times.

Resistance training and muscles:
Plyometrics will play a major rule in building swimmers’ strength. Jumping and skipping


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