The other day, as I sat in the sauna-like spectator section of the local natatorium, the surgical mask I wore adding to my muggy discomfort, I watched my oldest son swim in his first high school swim meet, and realized something. It was this: I really don’t care for swimming for exercise’s sake. That is probably a somewhat surprising declaration to hear from a former Navy SEAL, but it is true.
It is surprising because so much of the SEAL culture and formation is centered around the role of the combat swimmer. That legendary Navy Frogman, in his tan-colored and all-too-short UDT swim trunks, would launch from ship, boat, submarine, or helo, and swim from miles offshore — either on the surface or below it — and carry out some daring demolition attack, hydrographic reconnaissance, or surveillance operation in enemy territory.
That fabled maritime mission set is not quite as frequently employed these days as it was in conflicts past, but it remains a core function of the SEAL Teams. Thus, the basic training program, BUD/S, includes a whole hell of a lot of swimming. There are conditioning swims in the bay and at the pool, weekly two-mile timed open-ocean swims with fins, long-distance subsurface dives, short over-the-beach swims, and pretty much any other type of swim that BUD/S instructors, in their infinitely deep wells of sadistic creativity, could think up.
I did them all, of course, as anyone must do if they hope to pass the course and become a Navy SEAL. I even enjoyed some of them (the dives more so than the surface swims). I never really grew to love swimming, though, as a form of exercise. Maybe it was because I was never the fastest, even though I could swim for miles, and always had to work hard to make my drop-dead times for the two-mile swims. Who knows? I simply found it all slightly boring, and more of a chore that I needed to complete than an exercise I enjoyed. It was always more work than reward.
My son, though, actually enjoys the act of swimming for exercise. It is quite surprising to me, given his pedigree from this swimming skeptic. I am proud of him. He has never been a competitive athlete. He just isn’t into competing to win, above all else, when he plays sports. He could kind of care less, and is much more passionately into academics and these days, music. As he once told me around age 9 after one of his last games playing team soccer, “Dad, I just don’t really like sports where I sweat a lot.”
Well, okay then.
While he obviously (mostly) outgrew that sentiment, as swim team practice is as demanding an exercise regimen as you can find in high school sports, he is still not really in it for the winning. He appears to just enjoy being with his friends, swimming hundreds and hundreds of yards in the pool five days a week, and trying to improve on his times at each meet. I kept looking for that sting of defeat in his eyes when he did not place in the top spots in his first races, but it was not there. Instead, I saw exhilaration.
I think that exhilaration stems from knowing he is only a freshman, and is swimming against a wide range of quality swimmers, and that he is just proud to be there among them, slogging it out in the pool. He is actually developing that competitive drive, but with himself, to improve on his times and to drive himself to be faster. It is quite something to watch from my slightly removed perspective, as one just happy to see him committing to physically challenging himself in this way.
So, all of that is merely prelude to this: while swimming can be boring, difficult, frustrating (if you don’t know the strokes well), and requires more effort than a simple run (for starters, you need a pool or some other suitable body of water), it is probably worth your time to do it every once in a while. It contributes to a well-rounded exercise regimen, it is easy on the bones and joints, builds muscles in the arms, back, shoulders, and legs, and is one hell of a cardio workout. Swimming will also invigorate you, and give you that sense of fulfillment unique to one who finishes a decently long swim (without drowning).
I still swim for exercise, of course, despite my hang-ups on the whole thing. Partly, that is due to the fact that I have to do so as a member of my Fire Department’s Water Rescue Team. It is also due, though, in part to the fact that while I might not love it, I do gain satisfaction from it, and savor the full-body workout it provides. These days, I might just do a half-mile in the pool, or at the beach if I am back in Florida, or I will do some sort of hybrid swim/shore exercise interval training. I try to keep it from becoming boring, in other words.
Here are a couple of swim workouts for those of you, like me, who want to incorporate swimming into your work-out routine, but who are not trying to be Michael Phelps in your local YMCA pool.
A half mile is 880 yards (about 805 meters), which is approximately 36 lengths in a standard 25-yard pool, or just under 18 laps (one lap is down and back). In an Olympic (50-meter) pool, it is 16 lengths, or just over 8 laps. Mix up your strokes if you like. I do a combination of a modified side stroke (like a crawl and side stroke hybrid), crawl (freestyle), and breast stroke. You can even mix in some back stroke for an easier lap or two. It is fairly boring in a pool, I will just warn you, and you’d be better off going a half mile down the beach one way, and a half mile back, if you are lucky enough to have a beach nearby. Wear fins if you want to work those hip flexors and make your swim go more quickly.
A mile is 1760 yards (1610 meters) in the pool, which is approximately 70 lengths in a 25-yard pool, or 35 laps. In an Olympic (50-meter) pool, it is 32 lengths, or just over 16 laps. Again, mix up your strokes, and wear some fins every once in a while.
If you want a good cardio workout, do sprints. In a 25-yard pool, start with all-out 50 yard swims (3 of them), with one minute rest in between. Then take 2 minutes rest, and do all-out 25 yard swims (3 of them), with one minute rest between each. Then rest for a few minutes. Then do it all again, twice more. Finish off with a 200-yard swim as fast or slow as you want to go. That will give you a cardio slam, and a half-mile of fast swimming.
Swim/Shore Combo Workout
If you want to add a little swimming to your shore-based workout, in a 25-yard pool, do this:
- 25 push-ups on one end of the pool
- Swim a 25-yard sprint
- 20 air squats on the other end of the pool
- 25-yard sprint back
- 10 pull-ups
- 25-yard sprint to the other end of the pool
- 10 lunges (each leg)
- Swim a 25-yard sprint back to the start
Repeat for 5 rounds.
That one you can mix up and do however you want, with more swimming and/or different exercises in between lengths/laps in the pool.