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Take the plunge into aquatic fitness

By Christopher Bergland

If you are currently just a land-dwelling primate, why not consider getting in touch with your "aquatic ape'? Some evolutionary theorists have speculated that based on our relatively hairless skin, large brain, and the layer of fat under our skin, that at one point Homo sapiens were heading in the direction of becoming aquatic-based "primate-dolphins." While most scientists view this as pure science fiction, the core nugget of truth is that humans are still among the few primates that can swim. Why not take advantage of this unique feature of your body and add swimming to your exercise regimen? Your body will be glad you did.

The Aquatic Fitness Turbine
Swimming uses more muscles in your body than any other cardio-respiratory exercise. It is among the best full-body cardio workouts you can do. If you are looking for a time-efficient way to improve overall fitness and gain upper-body muscle strength and endurance, swimming is the answer.

Aesthetically, swimming creates excellent upper-body definition with strong but aerobically functional musculature; hence the "swimmer's build" so many guys like to brag about. Physiologically, swimming is the most efficient way to increase:

Combined, that means more efficient delivery of oxygen to the muscles of your body, which means killer cardio-respiratory fitness.

No Hurry, No Worry
If you're new to the sport or haven't swum in awhile, start slow and take time to build your aquatic endurance. Since most cardio exercises utilize the large muscle groups of the lower body, you may be shocked by the large oxygen debt created by working your upper body aerobically. Combine that with the double whammy of having your oxygen availability halved due to the fact your face is often underwater, and you'll soon understand why you're gasping for air after a few short laps.

The Relaxation Response
Remember to stay calm—anxiety is public enemy number one in the water. If you're not sure of your ability, swim in an end lane for the first few visits to the pool. That way, if you do feel anxious, you can pull over to the side and hang onto the wall. Remember, in all "panicky" swim situations, the best thing to do is the breast stroke, tread water, or float on you back—or hang on to the lanes and take a break until the lifeguard helps you.

Use a Pull Buoy
A good way to starts swimming freestyle is to use a pull buoy between your thighs. You can usually find pull buoys in a big box on the pool deck at most pools. A pull buoy is a flotation device that many experienced swimmers use for pulling or stroke drills. Pull buoys provide resistance training by prohibiting the swimmer's legs from kicking. Less-experienced swimmers will benefit from using pull buoys because they automatically adjust your body position by lifting your lower half, allowing you to conserve energy in your legs and focus on relaxed breathing. If you're new to lap swimming, learning to breath naturally and feeling comfortable in the water should be your top priority.

Learn the Lap Lingo
Most pools are 25 yards long (the Olympic pools that Michael Phelps and friends compete in are 50 meters long). Many people assume, logically, that a "lap" would be out and back. Logic doesn't apply here, because a "lap" in swimming is a one-way venture. For example, 600 yards would be 24 laps in a 25-yard pool—a great and achievable goal for your first few workouts.

Minute Minder
Get in the habit of using the large time clocks that most pools have running at the starting end of the pool. Swimmers usually "leave" (push off) on the top (60) or bottom (30) of the clock and structure workouts based on a "set." The set is the number of yards you will do in a pre-set time, and how many times you will do it—the sooner you get back the more time you have to rest, and vice versa. For example, if you did a set of five 100-yard freestyle swims and allowed yourself three minutes to do each 100 yard drill, you might write "5X100 freestyle on 3:00" on your workout plan.

Simple Starter Workout
This 600-yard workout is a good place to start if you haven't been in the pool in while: Once you have gotten comfortable in the water and your upper body has gained aerobic endurance, you can increase your yardage gradually. Increase by about 100 yards a week until you get to about 2,000 yards. Once you have 2,000 yards mastered, consider joining a team to get the many benefits of team training.

Find a Team Near You
Training with a team is one of the best ways to ensure you stick with a swimming program. It's also a great way to get coaching from a professional and to find a community of like-minded athletic types.

The United States Masters Swimming organization is one of the best organized post-collegiate amateur sports groups in the country. Use the web site to find a Masters swimming program near you.

If you want to meet other gay athletes, many cities have gay swim teams that allow swimmers of all levels. Most of these teams are members of the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics. Find links to teams in your area in the IGLA's Teams & Contacts section.

Christopher Bergland is a professional ultra marathon runner and triple Ironman champion. He holds the Guinness Book World Record for the 24-hour treadmill run. He can be reached on the web at www.christopherbergland.com.