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A Fitness Ruse to Avoid

The following is adapted from my article that appeared in Runner Triathlete in May 2004. It started as a response to a question in the H2OustonSwims.org discussion forum about whether or not a person should do a lot of swimming on his own in order to "get fit" prior to joining a swim workout group or otherwise working with a coach.

I define “getting fit,” for any athletic activity, as gaining sufficient metabolic conditioning to be able to express a desired set of skills, at a desired intensity, for the desired duration. The key there is the "desired set of skills" part.

The skills needed for excellent swimming (hopefully these are your “desired skills”) require the use of a very specific set of muscle fibers and motions. Less effective swimming uses different muscles and motions than excellent swimming does. Fitness for excellent swimming is achieved by repeatedly going through the motions of excellent swimming in a variety of intensities and durations. Conversely, executing less effective swimming skills only serves to increase the fitness level of the specific muscles used for those less effective motions.

Many swimmers take the commendable first step of acquiring a base of cognitive knowledge through articles, books, videos, etc. The sticky point comes when they take the second step of trying to turn that cognitive knowledge into visceral knowledge - acquiring, refining and creating habits of the physical skills needed for highly effective aquatic motion.

People are often apprehensive about getting into a swimming group, or otherwise going under a coach's eye, while "out of shape" and decide to “get fit on their own” first. There is a rub to this ruse, however, when the activity involves a complex combination of fine motor skills. Swimming is just such an activity.

Even with lots of cognitive knowledge, working on your own means working entirely on internal feedback, which may or may not be very accurate. For some, this works passably well - particularly for those who are highly organized, intensely analytical and rigidly disciplined (If you take thorough, detailed notes when watching a swimming video, reading a book or article or taking a clinic, you may fall in this category). For most, though, having an experienced coach to guide, watch and give feedback will greatly shorten the learning curve. The sooner this relationship is established, the better.

Taking the “on your own” route often results in time spent unlearning recently acquired skills and replacing them with more effective skills once the swimmer gets started with a coach. This then means a goodly portion of the “fitness” previously acquired is no longer applicable to the new skills.

If you do decide to start with the solo route, some time spent visiting the program you intend to eventually join, or speaking with the coach, can be enlightening. Look specifically for whether the coach embraces the same technique paradigm and terminology you are planning to work with. If not, the further you invest yourself prior to getting coaching, the harder the transition will be. If you plan to join a group, consider asking the coach to do a few private sessions with you prior to attending your first group practice (and expect to pay for same). This will help insure that, at least, you are building the right skill foundation for later application with your intended group. v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2004

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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