Alternative forms of exercise to maintain cardiovascular fitness and specific conditioning
Swimming is so much more than just an essential life skill. It’s an exceptional cardiorespiratory workout that comes without excessive stress on your joints.
But if your pool is closed for an indefinite amount of time, you need a way to try to stay in “swim shape,” so that it’ll be easier to resume your workout regimen when you can get back in the water.
Being in “swim shape” means to have developed valuable physiological adaptations from swimming. In plain English, that means that you’ve got a level of aerobic fitness and feel for the water that comes from repeated bouts of technique training (“muscle memory”). Below the surface, it also means that you’ve developed the core stability and breath control necessary to be able to move easily in the water.
So during your time away from the water, you’ve got a few objectives: Maintain aerobic fitness, continue to tone “swimming muscles” like your rotator cuff muscles, and not to “un-learn” breath control. You’ll also need a way to quantify your workouts to compare with what you would otherwise be doing in the pool.
Maintaining Aerobic Fitness on Land
If running is already part of your workout regimen, you may not want to add additional running sets to compensate for the loss of swim workouts because of the increased risk of injury, especially knee and ankle joint injuries. There is an effective alternative, and it comes with the added benefit of being ideal for social distancing. (During this time, you shouldn’t gather in groups of more than 10 and should maintain at least 6 feet of separation between yourself and others, whether you’re walking, running, or cycling.)
Also known as “speed walking,” race walking is an under-recognized sport that comes with gains in cardiovascular fitness similar to those of swimming and running. Don’t laugh—race walking is an Olympic sport for a reason! Try it and you’ll find that your heart rate stays elevated in response. Its unique biomechanics could make race walking an easier workout than running for people with certain injuries or other limitations.
To differentiate race walking from running, proper technique requires ground contact with at least one foot at all times and keeping your legs mostly straight. Try to maintain good posture and minimize extraneous movements.
If race walking is not for you, try jogging at a consistent pace. Try to hit a threshold at which you’re challenged by your pace and maintain the pace. What you’re trying to do is reach your “steady state” of aerobic fitness. Race walking and jogging will be adequate exercises for mimicking the cardiorespiratory demands of swimming.
If you prefer to get off your feet and onto a bike, there are several other differences to account for in assessing the relative value of the workout. You’ll need to apply the same basic principles of exercising at a consistently elevated heart rate, but because there are differences in typical heart rates at maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) between swimming and cycling, you may need to exert more energy on the bike to stay equal with a swim workout in that regard.
It might be easier to count calories for the purpose of quantifying the value of your workout. If going by the general rule that a 130-pound person burns an average of 500 calories per hour while swimming, the same person would need to cycle at an average speed of 15 mph with consistent cadence to burn the same number of calories. Remember that every time you coast, your calorie burning will drop.
Involve Your Arms
While race walking, keep your elbows locked at a 90-degree angle and extend each forward and backward in coordination the opposite foot stride (contralateral movements). Arm movements will replicate freestyle swim strokes and strengthen your shoulders and rotator cuff muscles.
It’s not as simple or safe to try to incorporate arm movements on the bike, so you may need to add some dryland exercises in conjunction with your cycling workouts.
Don’t Forget About Breath Control
Just because your face isn’t in the water doesn’t mean that you can’t practice breath control technique. You can and should replicate a swimming breathing pattern while you’re working out on land.
While immersed in water, swimmers tend to adapt to keeping their lungs partially filled with excess air at all times to assist with buoyancy. It’s like saying that you never let your car’s gas gauge go below a quarter-tank. What this means is that you’re adapting to rationing your intake of oxygen needed for your muscles and also the elimination of CO2, which is important in avoiding “lactic acid build-up,” or shifting into anaerobic metabolism.
While race walking, cycling, or any other activity, you can maintain the cardiorespiratory fitness needed for swimming by consciously breathing more shallowly. Resist increasing your breathing cadence to avoid hyperventilating. The point is to economize your respiration to maintain this training adaptation.
Keep the same frequency and volume you were doing with your swim workouts. If you swam for an hour three times a week, race walk or cycle for an hour three times a week.
If you were in the process of increasing your volume in the pool, do the same with race walking and/or cycling. Follow the same schedule that you’d had planned and increase workout time incrementally. When you can get back in the water, try to get back to your prior level of fitness as soon as possible, through increased frequency of weekly workouts and perhaps increased volume.
Race walking for maintaining ‘swim shape’
Warm up as if you were warming up in the pool—at a moderate intensity. Instead of doing one long walk, try doing 12 sets of repetitions that last four minutes with a one minute recovery (slow walking) in between. Incorporate arm movements, rolling your shoulders forward with each extension. Practice swimming breathing rhythms while race walking.
Cycling for maintaining “swim shape”
Cycle at a rate that ensures that your heart rate and resistance remain consistent. Calculate the speed needed to burn the same number of calories that you would have burned in a swim workout in the same length of time. Practice swimming breathing rhythms while on your bike.
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