Many adults know how to swim -- that is, they can get from one end of the pool to the other without too much trouble. But to swim proficiently and with finesse, they must learn to properly stroke, kick and breathe.
That's where swim coach Nancy Kirkpatrick-Reno comes in. Head masters coach at Conejo Simi Aquatic Masters and a former masters swimming world champion, Kirkpatrick-Reno has designed a four-week program to quickly improve swimming skills and overall fitness -- with drills and pointers on technique. If you're stuck in a swimming rut using methods you learned in elementary school, pay attention. "In the last 20 years, the way we swim has become very different," Kirkpatrick-Reno says, "not to mention the new swimsuits that have taken swimming to whole other levels."
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This last of a four-part series on jump-starting sport-specific workouts begins with choosing the right size pool, and ends with doing copious laps without gasping for air.
Before sticking a toe in the water, consider this advice:
* Swim in a pool that's at least 20 to 25 yards long; those pools can usually be found at high schools and some gyms. A 50-meter Olympic-size pool is best, but not everyone has access to that. "If you're going to become a lap swimmer," Kirkpatrick-Reno says, "you can't go any shorter or you'll be constantly turning." An outdoor pool is preferable to an indoor one, because the chlorine and other chemicals dissipate in the air.
* Choose a pool with a pace clock, or get a waterproof swim watch. "It will help you measure how fast you're swimming," Kirkpatrick-Reno says. "If you have no clock, how do you know you're improving?"
* Not all swimsuits are created equal. Racing suits are best, because they cling to the body and cut down on drag, which can slow a swimmer. Men should ditch the loose-fitting trunks or jams -- those, Kirkpatrick-Reno says, "are like taking grocery bags and tying them to your waist" -- and choose a more tight-fitting suit. Don't worry, tiny suits aren't the only option; snug swim jammers come almost to the knee (think triathlete gear). Women should choose a sleek racing suit as well; some two-piece options are available. Keep in mind that chlorine may eventually break down the fibers, so wash according to manufacturer's instructions.
* Swim caps can cut down on drag, especially for people with long hair. They can also protect hair from pool chemicals. Goggles are essential to protect eyes from the same chemicals, and they're available with prescription lenses and tinting and UV protection for the outdoors.
* A couple of pieces of gear are used during drills: Kickboards can help swimmers focus on kicking properly. And pull buoys (lightweight foam pieces that sit between the thighs, keeping the legs still) make swimmers use more upper body muscles.
* Keep a log to track progress in speed and distance, and note what times of day are best to work out.
* Stay hydrated. Even though you're in a body of water, you will perspire. Kirkpatrick-Reno suggests keeping water or a sports drink by the side of the pool and taking a few sips during rests.
* Don't forget to eat after a workout. Swimmers need to replace glycogen levels after exercising, and Kirkpatrick-Reno suggests some combination of carbohydrates and protein, such as a protein bar or chocolate milk.
* Do some cool-down laps after a workout. A few laps at a leisurely pace will help slow the heart rate and cool the body's core temperature.
Now on to . . .
Work out three times a week on nonconsecutive days. Don't be surprised if you're winded after just a few laps in the beginning, even if you're an accomplished runner or cyclist. Swimming uses different muscles and structured breathing and may be taxing at first. But with perseverance, quick improvement is possible. The amount of laps given are suggestions and are for a 25-yard pool, so adjust the number if necessary.
* Drills begin with streamlining off the wall. Begin with feet against the wall, and drop just under the surface of the water. Push off the wall in a streamlined position: Hands are directly in front of head, one over the other, and upper arms are tucked next to the ears. Toes are pointed. When you begin to slow down, kick a little and come to the surface. "It's like you're an arrow cutting through the water," Kirkpatrick-Reno says. "This gets you used to the feeling of going through the water, and in swimming, you want to be streamlined. You want to get your body to a point." Stop and return to the wall, or swim the rest of the length of the pool and begin again. Repeat 10 times.