Different Strokes

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Sure, you pump your arms while you run or maybe you hold onto the poles while you glide on the elliptical, but for the most part and for most people, cardio requires the vigorous use of the lower half of the body. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. There’s one cardio method in particular that involves the entire body. That said, there are some very good reasons even natural athletes find swimming so difficult — and they have nothing to do with finding a pool. “Guys who have been in the gym tend to have a lot of muscle, which isn’t buoyant,” says Michael Collins, the head coach at Nova Masters Swimming in Orange County, Calif., since 2000 and the 2002 World Aquathlon amateur champion.

It’s not just muscle that slows you down. The act of swimming can be a counterintuitive effort. When your face is submerged, every instinct is telling you to bring your head up for a breath. But that motion pushes your hips down and puts your body in a vertical position, bringing any locomotion to a halt and slamming the brakes on your cardio. From there, people madly churn their legs to keep their head out of the water, sending their heart rate through the roof. It’s a perfect storm of inefficient movement that quickly leads to exhaustion. The good news is that a few small changes can exponentially improve your efficiency — and calorie burn — in the water.

•Learn to side-breathe. Getting used to breathing to either side, rather than bringing your head up, is crucial for efficient swimming. To demonstrate to yourself how little you need to move your head to get your mouth out of the water for a breath, try swimming on your side. Push off the wall and roll onto your left side, with your left hand leading in front of you and your right arm next to your body. Simply tilt your head up to take a breath. Switch sides every pool length until you get the hang of it.

•Swim “downhill.” This is probably the most important technique to remember: Maintain a neutral head position while swimming. If your head is higher than your butt, it will feel like you are swimming uphill. “You want to be looking at the bottom of the pool,” Collins says. “The water should be hitting you in the top of the head.”

•Don’t crash your airplanes. “Imagine parallel runways along either side of your body, just under the surface of the water,” Collins says. “A hand should go into the water like an airplane landing. The hand goes down and forward onto the runway; it doesn’t just plummet to the bottom of the pool. If you smack the water and go straight down, you are crashing the airplane.”

•Count your strokes. The number of strokes you take for each pool length is the best gauge to determine your efficiency. “Try to get under 20 strokes a length for a 25-yard pool and under 50 for a 50-meter pool,” Collins advises.

•Bag the baggies. Speedo-style bathing suits have probably deterred more men from swimming than bad weather. But traditional board shorts catch a lot of water, creating drag, pulling your hips down and forcing you to swim uphill. The answer is a pair of jammers, a new breed of suit that is more Michael Phelps and less European gigolo. Jammers are long, but thanks to their cutting-edge technological fabric, they are still hydrodynamic.

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2002