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Updated: Mar 30, 2022

by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

If swimming is (or might be) your Thang, I can recommend it without reservation.

Swimming for fitness after fifty.
Of course you can do this.

Late last year, I penned a few pieces on the conditioning prescription and the power of the “Lift Weights and Play Your Sport” philosophy. On this view, the Athlete of Aging trains in the gym, building strength, power, and conditioning with this simple formula:

Strength Training with the Big Lifts + HIIT.

That is The Barbell Prescription in a nutshell. If you do the squat, press, bench, and dead for strength and add the prowler or the rower or the Bike to Nowhere for conditioning, you have built a foundation for fitness and you can get on with a vibrant, healthy life, full of adventure.

Like Caine in Kung Fu.
The Athlete of Aging Has a Moment of Clarity.

Your adventures may include a physical practice…as distinct from physical training. Let’s review: Athletes train to build strength, power, mobility, balance, endurance, and body composition--the fitness and performance attributes they need for the practice of their sport or discipline. Training is general, because all athletes need these attributes in some ratio or another. Practice is highly specific. Practice builds the very sport-specific skills and conditioning needed for excellence in that particular discipline. So: Fencers fence, ballerinas dance, gymnasts do gymnastic stuff, boxers box, climbers climb. And so on. But all of these people should squat, because, all things being equal, the stronger athlete is always the better athlete. Always. (Want to argue about that? Excellent. You’re not the first. I’ve honed that particular set of rhetorical knives to razor sharpness. The bodies are buried under the Olympic platform. Hit me with your best shot.) The Lift-Weights-and-Play-Your-Sport approach to our physical existence, in which the Athlete engages in both training and practice, is powerful and profound. To have a physical discipline beyond the training of the general fitness attributes is immensely rewarding. Tai Chi, dancing, tennis, Yoga, karate, climbing, basketball—these are (or can be) deep practices that involve myriad attributes and skill sets, transcending the physical, and thus contribute to our complete self-actualization as beings. In the series from last year, I wrote about Yoga, Martial Arts, Tai Chi, and Olympic Lifting. I’ve always intended to flesh out the series with other activities, but other topics jostled for pride of place, and in any event it seemed such a daunting project—I just can’t write All The Things. But I was asked recently about swimming, which I’ve never addressed, and I smacked my forehead. This was a huge oversight, all the more so because I haven’t seen a lot on this topic in strength and conditioning circles. Moreover, I have always loved swimming myself, and there was a time in my misspent youth when it was the cornerstone of my fitness. Swimming is excellent, and like many sports it can do double duty as cardiovascular training and practice. If practiced with due intensity (spring laps, as opposed to inner-tube-floating across the pool), it has the potential to reach into the mixed aerobic-anaerobic energy spectrum, promoting cardiovascular conditioning and muscle oxidative capacity. It does little to build muscle strength for all but the most dynapenic, deconditioned athletes, but it is an excellent modality for deploying strength and muscle endurance. You may have heard that strength training does not benefit the swimmer. That’s ridiculous. Do I have to repeat myself? All things being equal, the stronger athlete is always the better athlete. There have been reports in the literature that training programs for hypertrophy may be counterproductive in elite swimmers by increasing the hydrodynamic profile and resultant drag. Unless you are an elite competitive swimmer and your training program is somehow making you Trooly Hyooge, that’s not you. Stronger swimmers are just that: stronger swimmers. Swimming does not appear to promote the accumulation of bone mineral density where Athletes of Aging need it the most, because it does not place compressive loading on the axial skeleton. Some aging individuals with osteoporosis (and some of their misguided doctors) consider this lack of axial loading a virtue, but if you’re engaged in both swimming and barbell training, you’re getting a strong osteogenic stimulus to improve your bone health. Unless you are extremely inflexible, the effect of swimming on mobility is moderate, and it does little to promote balance or a stable gait. On the other hand, if one is able to perform the movements, swimming will help you maintain mobility, and if gait or balance are a problem due to neurological or related issues, swimming might be a better choice than, say, break-dancing, because you can’t fall down when you’re doing a breast stroke. Perhaps the most important virtue of swimming as a physical practice for the Athlete of Aging is that it is just that: a practice, which means it is a rich and complex pursuit with an endless succession of technical, physical, and performances challenges to engage, stimulate, and gratify the Athlete across multiple domains. Like Yoga, Martial Arts, climbing, T’ai Chi, fencing, tennis, and so many other physical pursuits, swimming offers much to the Athlete of Aging: improved fitness, challenge, variety, and accomplishment. And like those other pursuits, swimming offers something else, so priceless and so tragically rare among those in the second half of life: the joy of movement. It’s so important to find your Thang in the physical world, the Thang that makes you happy to move. If swimming is (or might be) your Thang, I can recommend it without reservation.

Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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