Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

The Water Cure

The Water Cure: A Fitness Lesson Learned From Injured Athletes By KEVIN HELLIKER Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL April 12, 2005; Page D1

A sudden knee pain near the end of an 18-mile run turned out to mean that I wouldn't be racing as planned in a coming marathon. "Nothing but swimming," said the doctor. "For a month." A whole month! I went swimming in a bad mood. But I had no idea how fortuitous his prescription would turn out to be.

The wounded have long been relegated to the pool, and just now the lanes should be filling up with them. That's because the growth of the health-club industry is being led these days by people over age 55, says Harvey Lauer, founder of American Sports Data Inc., which tracks fitness trends. And with age comes the tender joints to which gravity-defying water is so kind. Just ask Mr. Lauer: A knee injury has pushed the 62-year-old accomplished runner into the pool, as well. Yet for many people the pool has all the appeal of a rehab center. The perception is that swimming is hard to learn and hard to do well even if you do know how, it messes up your hair, and it's boring -- unlike with running, the scenery never changes. Although the number of Americans swimming for fitness has edged up this decade to about 16 million, it remains far below the 1990 number of 19 million, says Mr. Lauer, whose data show that Americans prefer most other exercises to swimming.

By some counts, more than a third of adults say they can't swim the length of a 25-yard pool. So fitness swimming's unpopularity may reflect a widespread failure to try it. This is why an injury can be a blessing. When I look back over three decades of backbreaking cycling, stair-climbing, swimming, yoga, racquetball, weight-lifting and running, I'm grateful for the inflamed knee that 17 years ago forced me into the pool. Nothing beats swimming.

Saying that runs counter to my interests: The nine-lane pool at my gym is uncrowded, and I'd like to keep it that way. But no outbreak of swimming is likely to happen overnight because this sport is an acquired love.

Most newcomers to lap swimming find that letting the mind wander -- a major benefit of running -- isn't easy at first, what with every gasp for air causing one's feet to sink. Boredom is also a problem. It helps to train the way great swimmers do. Unlike runners, swimmers usually don't swim a mile without stopping, but instead will tackle 16 100-meter intervals, with a short break between each. It doesn't take long for your mind to master this routine while fantasizing about that big triumph you're about to achieve at the office. In my experience, swimming is much more intellectually engaging and psychologically satisfying than running.

Many who don't know how to swim believe it is too late. Tell that to the 80-somethings whom New York coach and author Jane Katz has taught to swim. "Senior mermaids," she calls them. Many who can swim believe that lap swimming is the province of those who have worn Speedos since grade school. In truth you don't need to wear a Speedo. You don't need to learn all four strokes (butterfly, back, breast and freestyle). And you don't need to do complicated flip turns. I don't flip, and I'm faster off the wall than most swimmers who do. Improvement doesn't require expensive lessons. Those who can swim a few laps of freestyle are qualified to join their local master's group. Many communities have such organizations, which offer organized practices and workshops with coaches. My local group costs just $30 a year, separate from the cost of joining a swim facility. Of course, paid lessons can make a difference. A popular workshop called Total Immersion offers weekend seminars around the country for $445.

Dutch gold medalist Inge de Bruijn. Swimming builds muscle and has aerobic benefits; a cap can protect your hair.

Fitness swimming doesn't destroy your hair. For proof of this check out the locks of the Dutch gold medalist Inge de Bruijn. It's true that hours of chlorine mixed with sun can wreak hair havoc -- but that's the recreational swimmer's problem. Fitness swimmers wear caps. The women with whom I swim have great hair and offer these tips: Soak hair in tap water before swimming and afterward use a conditioner. At a time when fitness experts are arguing that a solid program requires flexibility exercises, resistance training and a cardiovascular routine (who has time for all that?) here is the beauty of swimming: It combines all three. Its aerobic benefits are famous. Less known is that swimming is an exercise in stretching, and that pushing against water is a powerful form of resistance training. It isn't clear that swimming provides the osteoporosis-fighting benefits of weight-lifting. And some sports scientists debate whether swimming burns calories and aids with weight management as effectively as running. But swimming builds muscle, which consumes calories at an extraordinary rate long after the workout is over. When I quit lifting weights and devoted that time to extra swimming, I gained rather than lost muscle in my arms, chest and legs. Muscle gained from swimming, moreover, tends to be rounded and natural looking, compared with the so-called "cut" -- or "I-live-in-the-weight-room" -- appearance of barbell lifters. Even the best-known feature of swimming -- its kindness to joints, muscles and limbs -- is under-appreciated. During the height of my running, cycling and weight-lifting phase, I read a fitness article in which a physician said he took an aspirin a day in part to ease the pain of his workouts. "Amen," I remember saying. But since transferring virtually all of my fitness hours to the pool, where I go at it just as hard, I don't have any workout pain. It's my belief that if Americans overcame their fear of water and insecurity about swimming competency, the nation would need to build more pools. In the United Kingdom, where learning to swim is an elementary-school requirement, the most popular fitness activity among adults is swimming

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