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Into the Deep End

An Injured Jogger and Reluctant Pool Novice
Finds Even She Can Be a Masters Swimmer


By Meghan Gibbons

Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; Page HE01


Swimming was not my first choice as a fitness activity. A devoted jogger for 15 years, I never thought I'd match the high I got from my nightly runs. I took pride in my fitness and discipline. Swimming was not a sport I associated with such virtues. Until my back went out.

It started with slight pain in a hamstring. Thinking it was a muscle pull, I did more stretching but the pain moved down the back of my leg and up into my lower back. Soon I couldn't sit for long, and running made the pain worse. Visits to numerous doctors produced varying theories -- a bulging disc, sciatica, fibromyalgia -- but no definitive diagnosis. I tried muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, all in search of a return to running. None helped enough. I was crushed.

So I stopped running and started eating. And ate my way into a 20-pound weight gain in a year. Self-pity and lack of exercise are a dangerous combination.

Mortified, I dragged myself to a local pool (as my doctor had been urging for a year), put on an ill-fitting swimsuit and started to do laps: back and forth, back and forth. Self-pity began to return. But then I noticed some people who seemed to be enjoying their swim. They swam in a group with a coach on the deck urging them on. But they weren't kids -- they were in their twenties, forties and up through their sixties. They joked in the lanes and chatted in the locker room.

Could I do that, I wondered -- until I learned they were "Masters" swimmers. Oh, experts. No wonder. Forget it. Today, as one of them, I know I was wrong. But then lots of people have misperceptions about Masters swimming -- and swimming in general. Take these, for example:

  • Masters is only for really fast swimmers.

Not at all. The term "Masters" refers to age, not expertise.

A physician and career naval officer, Ransom Arthur became fascinated with measuring the health benefits of regular swimming and convinced that swimming was an exercise you could do well into your later years. He organized the first Masters swim meet in 1970 in Amarillo, Tex. The program is now nationwide and includes more than 42,000 adult swimmers on 450 teams.

Participation assumes a basic ability to get from one side of the pool to the other. (Walking the edge doesn't count.) Beyond that, speed and swimming skill vary widely. Wherever you start, you'll likely improve.

When I first joined the group, I struggled to keep up, gasping for air between laps. Then someone suggested that I move down a lane, since they're organized by speed. In lane one are the ex-college athletes and triathletes (who are the minority). Lane two is for the less-speedy swimmers, lane three for the moderately paced. I'm in lane four.

The move helped a lot. Initially I still had to stop and rest between laps, but as my fitness level increased, I improved. Now I can finish a practice without extra rest.

Masters swimmers are grouped into teams or clubs based on the pool where they swim. "Teams" doesn't mean that you have to compete in races and, in fact, I never do. Jeff Roddin, registrar for the 23 local Masters programs in the Washington area, says 90 percent of members swim primarily for fitness; the rest do it to compete.

  • Swimming won't increase my aerobic fitness.

You're all wet. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, reports that the most fit athletes are those who tax their upper and lower bodies at the same time. The more muscles calling for increased blood supply, the harder the heart works. DiNubile notes that swimmers may not feel they are getting a vigorous workout because water cools the body and you don't sweat. But swimming provides excellent aerobic conditioning.

  • Swimming makes you so hungry you can't lose weight.

Well, that depends. According to calorie expenditure charts, swimming can burn at least as many calories as running when adjusted for your weight and exertion level. But some people don't lose weight swimming because they start eating more. Some studies suggest that lowering your body temperature -- by, for example, swimming in an 80-degree pool -- increases your hunger, but it's not clear how -- or even if -- this works. In any case, if you can keep the munchies under control (or at least substitute healthy snacks), you can definitely burn enough calories to lose weight.

Over the course of a year, I lost 20 pounds, which had as much to do with the indirect benefits of swimming as the calorie burn. Once I got into a routine of swimming three times a week, I felt a lot more energetic and was drawn to healthier foods. I also felt more relaxed and slept more soundly, so I had fewer urges to eat out of nervousness.

If you are really looking to lose weight in the pool, swimming at a moderate pace (about 60 percent of your full effort) for a longer period of time may be wiser than shorter, more-intense workouts. Weight loss ultimately depends on total caloric expenditure, so the more you swim, the more you'll burn.

  • If you're injured, it's better to rest than to start swimming.

If that's your doctor's order, then follow it. But increasingly physicians are urging patients to keep moving while they recover from an injury.

We know that inactivity leads to muscle loss and diminishes aerobic fitness, which compounds the negative effects of the original injury. But swimming, because it takes the pressure off joints and provides buoyancy, is ideal for those with injuries and disabilities who want to keep active. For some patients, swimming is a temporary fix as they rehabilitate from an injury or surgery. For others, it may be a permanent alternative to more jarring land exercises.

I've met many Masters who switched to swimming after back or knee problems. As a knee specialist, DiNubile endorses swimming for a host of injuries such as cartilage and ligament tears, as well as for chronic conditions like arthritis.

"Water is much kinder to your frame than other types of exercises," said DiNubile. "I recommend swimming and water-based exercise more to patients than just about any other form of exercise. For postoperative [knee] patients, I put them right in the water to regain motion rapidly."

Swimming's also good for the pregnant and the elderly.

Water activities were the only exercise I could do without back pain. Swimming laps was out in the beginning -- most strokes accentuate the natural curve in your lumbar spine -- so I used an AquaJogger belt, one of those styrofoam flotation devices that fit around your hips, to tread water in the deep end. The AquaJogger helped stabilize my lower back and get me moving again while my back calmed down. I did have trouble getting my heart rate up significantly, which is why I moved to laps as fast as possible.

I still have back pain, but it is much less severe and tends to come and go depending on my activity level, sleep and stretching. The only constant is that swimming helps with the pain. I also get that endorphin rush that reduces my pain significantly for four to five hours after a good swim.

  • Swimmers won't advertise this, but you can get injured swimming, too.

Yes, swimming has its trademark injuries. Shoulders are the main sore spots since swimming requires repetitive motion that is not common in daily life. Like baseball pitchers, swimmers can tax the rotator cuff (the four small muscles that hold the humerus, the arm bone of the upper arm, in its socket), irritating it through overuse. But it doesn't have to be that way. Sports medicine specialist Lewis G.

Maharam says that 10 minutes a day of shoulder rolls and other simple exercises can go a long way toward preventing such injuries. A sample exercise: Standing straight with your arms at your sides, palms forward, raise one arm until it's parallel to the floor and then slowly lower it. Do this with each arm 50 times (or use a two- or three-pound weight and do far fewer). While swimming, rolling your hips from side to side reduces strain on your pulling shoulder by helping you glide through the water with less resistance.

I developed a shoulder problem myself, but only after years of swimming and increased yardage. My doc said it was biceps tendinitis, an inflammation of the tendons on the front of the shoulder. So far, I've been able to control it by doing stretching exercises before and after swimming and using free weights and elastic tubing to strengthen my biceps and rotator cuff. I'll also ice my shoulder right after a long swim -- which for me is about two miles, or 120 lengths in a 25-meter pool.

  • There's no need to join a class since you can just swim laps on your own.

Don't believe it. One of the challenges of swimming alone is boredom -- that black line on the bottom of the pool is your only friend. In Masters you are always distracted by the coach's instructions: focus on form, try a new breathing pattern, speed up your interval. These interactions take the sting out of the repetition. I can swim twice the distance with a Masters team that I can on my own. The silent solidarity of swimming the same set with others is an amazing motivator.

The number of swim sessions available varies from pool to pool. (Mine offers six sessions a week.) Individual swimmers attend three times a week on average, but there's no minimum requirements. Another benefit of Masters swimming: You get reserved lanes, since the teams pay pools for workout times (generally $3 to $5 per person per 90-minute session). This means that you won't get stuck sharing the water with "civilian" swimmers, who can clog up lanes with very different speeds. You also get a coach, who is usually an enthusiastic ex-college swimmer who welcomes newcomers.

Although I learned to swim as a young child, swimming was a summertime diversion, not a fitness method. When I joined Masters at age 27, I had to learn to make swimming a workout, and great coaching helped. My stroke is now much more efficient and I swim year-round, three times a week.

  • Your coach will make you keep swimming even if you need to catch your breath.

No way. You can always stop and hang on to the wall for a few laps. I did this a lot in the beginning and still do it now if I'm really winded. The great thing about Masters is the peer-pressure effect. No one will razz you for sitting out a lap or two, but you start to feel like a blob if your lane of six swimmers circles past you too many times. So you'll usually get yourself going again.

  • Running will still give you a better workout.

See Misperceptions 2 and 3.

But there is an element of truth to this. The same buoyancy that protects your joints also aids your heart in its job of circulating blood. "Because of the pressure of the water, your heart circulates more blood with less effort," says Robert McMurray, professor of exercise science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "So to get your heart rate up, you are going to have to work harder" than on land.

Who am I to argue? But I've never had a Masters practice where there wasn't an opportunity to work hard.

  • Swimming will help prevent osteoporosis.

Alas, no. If limiting bone loss is your top priority, most experts agree that swimming alone won't do it. To get bone-loss prevention, you'll have to add weight-bearing exercise such as walking or weight training. In my case I use the StairMaster twice a week and lift weights two or three times (which also helps stave off rotator cuff problems.)

  • Swimming is inconvenient and hard to work into a schedule.

In the beginning, schlepping to the pool seemed like a big effort compared with lacing on my running shoes. I was always forgetting something -- goggles, towel, shampoo. Now I know it's helpful to have a single gym bag just for swim gear. I leave mine in my car so I don't have to remember to bring it with me every day. (I hang my swimsuit on my rearview mirror to dry overnight). As for getting to and from the pool, I go straight from work (like most

evening swimmers), so it's just part of my commute. We even have a saying about the temptation to stop home between work and swimming: Don't do it! Once you sit down on your couch, you'll never see the water. (For morning people, most programs have swims that start well before work time -- 5:30 or 6 a.m.)

I wish I could say that swimming has completely cured my back problem. But I still have some pain on most days, take meds, do stretches, basically learn to live with it. But swimming has helped immensely. It has allowed me to stay aerobically fit, maintain my weight and given me a low-cost, natural analgesic.

Swimming is such an integral part of my life now that my envy of runners is officially gone. I know that I have something just as good or better. Sometimes when particularly proud runners jaunt by me on the street, I imagine that I hear a slight grinding from their joints. And I think to myself -- not without a small dash of condescension -- swimming will be here when you need it.

When not swimming, Meghan Gibbons is writing her dissertation at the University of Maryland.


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