Hands up if you find the nation’s favourite sport, just a little bit dull? Apparently 2.5million of us swim once a week, but the figures are falling.
Maybe it's because plodding up and down the lanes just doesn’t feel like the best way to get fit? Apart from the odd 30-minute dawdle up and down the lanes, I have never been that into the pool myself. Quite frankly, I’ve always found swimming a bit, whisper it, boring.
Interestingly however, I had heard that the benefits of swimming for runners are untold - increased endurance and oxygen capacity, plus it’s a great form of active recovery. And so, while an ankle injury has meant that my New York Marathon training programme can't include running for now, I have decided to do try something I haven’t done in 20 years - swimming lessons. Perhaps a challenge might make it fun too? I'm going to try and master the front crawl.
For my first session, I met with Georgie Bloy, my Virgin Active swimming coach, poolside. She’s buzzing, having just trained an investment banker who wants to knock a minute off his triathlon time. I tell her I’m an easier candidate - I just want to do more than two lengths without running out of breath.
Mortifyingly she films me. And really I’m not doing much right. I’ve been holding my breath underwater, so when my head does come up for air, I can’t take a big enough breath in (because I’m too busy breathing out). And, I also bob out the water, completely destroying any hope of a streamlined glide that I secretly thought I was doing. My kick is frankly quite peculiar, while my arms are not working as hard as they could.
So we start from the beginning. And because I'm not ten years old anymore, it seems to be taking me an entire 30 minute lesson to correct and undo each of my bad habits - with practice in between.
Obviously swimming is good for anyone who is injured, like me – the water supports 90 per cent of the body’s weight. So I’ve been doing aqua running with a buoyancy belt on – sprinting to half way up the pool - and something that looks a bit like an upright doggy paddle. Both are exhausting.
But training in the water also helps runners sans injury - and not just because it comes without all that pavement pounding. Water is 12 times more dense than air, making it the most efficient way of toning muscles (I can feel the leg drills I’ve been doing for the front crawl toning my thighs). Breathing is hugely improved too. Studies have shown that those with asthma benefit from swimming – and for everyone else it vastly improves lung function because of the controlled way you learn to breath. Scientists have found a direct link between the fatigue levels of marathon runner’s respiratory muscles and leg muscles – so if you learn to breathe better, you can run better.
Going back to how swimming can remedy an injury, I’ve found that the flexibility in my ankle joint has increased too – while practicing my flutter kick, I’ve had to train myself to relax my ankle and kick it out. Bloy says that this range of movement is something runners never normally practise. Plus the motion of elongating the body in the crawl really stretches out your whole body.
Finally, while all runners are in constant chase of that endorphin boost you occasionally get on a long run, research shows that swimming has the same relaxing effect as yoga on the body – which is great, because I’m terrible at yoga.
Here are the top swimming tips that I learn from Bloy:
Relax: “You want to glide through the water rather than fight through it,” she says. That means relaxing hands (some water should pass through your fingers) and ankles (which is harder to get right, I find).
Breathe: “If you feel your chest is tight it will probably have something to do with you holding onto your breath. You wouldn't hold your breath running so why would you swimming?”
Kick: “You are aiming to have the shoulder, hips and feet in one long line. The more streamlined you are in the water, the easier it will be to move through it,” says Bloy. The tip she gives me is to pretend to kick off a pair of socks. It’s harder than it sounds, but it really does increase the movement in my ankles - an area runners rarely stretch.
Stretch: “Your shoulders might get a little tighter from swimming regularly; stretch the shoulders out before and after your session. This will help with the technique of your swimming as well as keeping you mobile.”
Practise: “The key to better technique and feeling fitter in the water is practise. Your lung capacity will grow aiding your stamina with your runs outside the pool.”
For details about swimming lessons with Virgin Active visit virginactive.co.uk
The Swimmer's Starting Kit:
Speedo swim suit: I had to get something appropriate for working out - my holiday cossie wasn’t going to cut it. This sporty suit by Speedo was perfect (pictured above) - it promises to help with body positioning, with panels that focus on your core, which handily also help suck you in speedostore.co.uk.
Waterproof iPod shuffle: I discovered this amazing company that sell waterproof versions of your favourite bits of tech - like a waterproofed iPod shuffle (and earphones) to while away the hours while I’m doing laps (they also sell Nike Fuelband and the Jawbone bands), $155 waterfi.com.
Adidas aquastorm goggles: There’s nothing more distracting that water in your eyes - these goggles are moulded to the head, plus they have an adjustable nosepiece and headstrap, £9 adidas.co.uk.