Throw Me in, Coach

If you want to swim your way to fitness, it may be time to retool your stroke

Bad form. It's what prevents many people who otherwise enjoy swimming from doing it to stay fit. "Their technique is so poor, they can't get a good workout," says Ellis Peters, the swim coach at the 92nd Street Y community center in New York. Indeed, even those who can easily run several miles have trouble swimming just a few laps because of inadequate breathing or an awkward stroke.

Relearning how to swim may be the answer. A good coach who teaches adults at your health club or local YMCA can show you how to sustain your swim session long enough to raise your heart rate, burn calories, improve flexibility, and build strength. The instructor can also help you devise workouts that isolate muscle groups using fins, paddles, and buoys. Plus, learning correct form reduces the chances of injuries to the shoulders, hips, and back.

WAITING TO EXHALE. Don't be surprised if you feel like a beginner again. The ideal freestyle or front crawl stroke has changed over the past 20 years, with more emphasis on whole body rotation. The old school taught swimmers to keep their body flat and fixed, but now experts say it's better to turn and sway with the movement of your arms. This enhances your speed and prevents wear and tear on your joints.

Another common error in form is holding your head up to look where you are going rather than keeping your head down and eyes fixed on the bottom of the pool. This strains your neck and causes your back end to sink. And you don't want to inhale and exhale when you take a breath. It's better to exhale slowly into the water while your head is submerged so you only have to inhale when you come up for air. That way you take in the maximum amount of oxygen.

Kicking at the knee instead of using your entire leg wastes energy, diminishes buoyancy, and can cause injuries. Alone or in combination, these mistakes can make you feel as if you are fighting your way through the water. The goal is "not to set the water in motion but to have the water set you in motion," says Dave Holland, swim coach at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who teaches adult clinics in the summer.

More health clubs and aquatic centers are adding adult swim instruction. Finding a teacher in your area is easy, thanks to the online resource ClubSwim.com. If your Y has a pool, it's a good bet it offers adult lessons (ymca.net). You might also consult the Web site for United States Masters Swimming (usms.org), which has more than 1,100 workout groups nationwide. Despite its elite-sounding name, Masters groups welcome swimmers of all abilities. Finally, find a pool where you can swim year-round. In swimming, you get rusty by staying out of the water.

By Kate Murphy

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