Endurance swimming is surely the loneliest sport, with its long, grueling workouts. Yet it's one of the fastest-growing athletic pursuits among fitness-conscious adults, and it's on its way to becoming downright convivial.
Thanks go in large part to the Masters swimming program, an international network of clubs that offer supervised workouts and
racing meets for adults.
U.S. Masters membership has more than doubled in the past decade, to about 27,000 swimmers at 450 YMCA, community center, and university clubs around the country. Some offer swim workouts every hour from the early morning into the night. "A lot of people like the structure and working out with others," says Dorothy Donnelly, executive secretary of U.S. Masters.
POWER TWEAK. The Masters swimming program has much to offer even the most lane-jealous lap swimmer. There's the chance to train regularly with other swimming enthusiasts. There's the camaraderie. And there's the racing, in which 40% of members participate. Teams from different clubs compete against one another in both regional and national meets. Top Masters times, even among 40-year-olds, now run surprisingly close to those of Olympic contenders. A 41-year-old Florida dentist recently broke a national Masters record in his age group with a 56.25-second time in the 100-meter freestyle. The American record is 48.42 seconds.
The program's greatest draw may be the opportunity to improve one's strokes through swim clinics, camps, and the coaching offered at workouts. Swimming is all form: An adjustment here and a tweak there can add enormous power to a stroke. A poor swimmer may get a good workout but won't get nearly the enjoyment of a trained swimmer, cover any real distance, or see very much improvement.
Also, strokes have changed enormously, even since the innovative Mark Spitz triumphed in the 1972 Olympics. Slash and splash have given way to serpentine, almost balletic movements that are a marvel to behold. The newer strokes are also a lot easier on creaky, middle-aged bodies, and, though not overly complicated, they nevertheless require patient study under a knowledgeable coach.
Training with the Masters is not for the fainthearted. Workouts may run 60 to 90 minutes three times a week and typically cover 2,500 yards, or about a mile and a half per session. Participants swim intervals, usually with a warm-up of, say, 400 yards, followed by sets ranging from 50 to 800 yards, with short rest periods in between. A common set might call for 800 yards of breast stroke with a 10-second rest between 100s; another allows for a certain time to complete a distance, so that the faster you swim, the longer the rest period before the next set begins.
While many swimmers prefer the steady pace of uninterrupted distance swimming, interval training has the advantage of pushing the heart rate higher, thus building greater aerobic fitness. (Sad to say, though, all those laps won't necessarily translate to weight loss. Unlike running, swimming is a surprisingly inefficient shedder of fat.)
"OLD BODS." The largest Masters age group is 35 to 39. Many of the newer members have come in as triathletes, liked the program, and stayed with their club. "After so many years, no matter how well you've taken care of yourself, your bones are not as adaptable," notes Donnelly, 71, who was a freestyler on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. "Running and biking are not as good for the old bod." Masters ages currently range from 19 to 90, and competition is especially brisk among the retired set. At one recent national meet, 17 competitors were in the 75-to-79 group.
To find a Masters club near you, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to U.S. Masters Swimming, 2 Peters Ave., Rutland, Mass. 01543, or call 508 886-6631. A guide listing more than 1,000 pools around the country that are open to serious swimmers costs $5. Individual Masters club dues
average $25 a year, of which $15 goes toward a national membership, including a subscription to Swim Magazine and the opportunity to drop in on a Masters workout session anywhere in the country, often at no charge. So even when you're on the road, you can always find aquatic soul mates to train with.