Between bootcamp workouts, running and cycling, there's probably one outdoor summer workout you're overlooking: swimming. But pool-based workouts offer many of the same benefits of your usual workouts — and then some.
"Swimming is both a cardiovascular and strength workout," says swim instructor, exercise physiologist and chiropractor Nora Fahlberg. "Plus, it's a much lower-impact exercise than running, so even elderly and injured folks can incorporate swimming into their exercise plan." (There's a reason injured runners tend to trade the trail for the pool.)
And if you thought freestyle laps are the only way to score the benefits of the water, think again. "Simply being in the water can be calming and fun," says Fahlberg. Some swimmers find it spiritual or (ironically) grounding, she says.
More good news? Even your weekend summer swim and evening bath have their place. Here's what your preferred swimming style says about you.
You feel about swimming the way kids feel about the dark: a tiny bit afraid. That's why you choose the swimming equivalent of the nightlight: the bathtub.
But swim coaches say this is the first step to getting in any pool. As Fahlberg explains, many beginners are hesitant to try swimming and pool-based workouts because they're either afraid of getting their faces wet or not being able to breathe.
Guess what? It's possible to practice both those things right from home, no matter the season. "The bathtub is a great way to practice blowing bubbles, putting your entire face in the water and getting used to having your nose and mouth submerged at the same time," she says.
If you're truly afraid of the pool, Fahlberg says working with a swim instructor is a solid move. But even then, "practicing in the bathtub is a great way to work on overcoming your fear between sessions," she says.
If you're Team Back Float, it's not because you're lazy, it's because you're energy-efficient.
Relaxing and low-energy, the back float is one of the best ways to hang in the pool, says former professional triathlete for team USA and assistant coach for Colorado College Nick Vandermolen.
"Depending on your body composition, floating may be harder or easier," he says. But don't be discouraged. "Anyone can float regardless of their frame, it's all about form and practice."
Not able to float? You're probably holding tension or stress in your body. "Once you relax into the feeling of the water and get used to drawing your belly button up to the sky, floating can be really enjoyable," says Vandermolen.
Floating may not improve your cardiovascular system or muscles much, but it will help you gain the prerequisite comfort you need in the water before moving more.
If you opt for breaststroke, you're probably good at going with the flow: The breaststroke barely makes any waves.
In addition to being a relaxing, splash-minimizing stroke, breaststroke is also great for people just getting comfortable in the water.
"Most people think that freestyle is the best beginner stroke, but I teach breaststroke to people first," says Christie. Why? Because it's easier to breathe during the stroke. "You just lift up your head, as opposed to freestyle, where you need to twist your head to the side," she explains.
Fahlberg also starts with the breaststroke because it shares similarities with the doggy paddle, so there's less of a learning curve.
To start, Christie recommends mastering the frog-like kick by holding onto a wall or kickboard. Then, head to the shallow end and practice the scooping motion with your arms.
Freestyle and breaststroke might get the laps done, but no stroke looks quite as legit as butterfly. You're basically a badass.
"It's advanced, but it's not as hard as it looks," says Vandermolen. "The butterfly is only hard if you're doing it wrong." Fair point. "There's a steep learning curve when you learn the rhythm of the arms and the legs, but once you get it, it can feel really fluid… like a dolphin or mermaid."
If you've never learned or tried butterfly before, you're going to want to hire a coach to go over the basics of the stroke with you. Or, Christie says you can search for instructional videos on YouTube. "You can find footage of the stroke from every angle. Then, take a video of yourself doing the stroke, compare the two and tweak your stroke as needed."
Keep in mind: According to Vandermolen, when learning any stroke you're going to want to master the arms and the legs separately before putting it all together.
If your go-to pool activity is treading, you're probably the mom of your friend group. Thanks to its status as a life-preserving skill, experts say being able to tread well prepares you for even the worst water accidents. Admit it, you're always prepared.
Did you know that in addition to being a life-saving stroke (no biggie), this head-above-the-water technique is also a killer workout? Yep. "Treading is a very cardiovascular exercise as well as a full-body strengthening workout," says Christie. "It'll work your core, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, quads and more."
That said, with practice, you should be able to hold a conversation as you tread, making it an awesome option for exercisers who either don't want to get their ears or hair wet or who want a more social workout than swimming laps.
You can turn treading into a workout the same way you might with running, says Fahlberg. "Do intervals where you tread really hard for a minute at a time, then rest. Or, go steadily for 15, 20, 25 or more minutes at a time."
If you're good enough at doggy paddle that you can swim allll the way from one side of the pool to the other, and choose it over all other strokes, you're probably pretty patient.
No shade. Experts say any stroke that promises to get you from point A to point B without drowning is an awesome one. In fact, Christie says that from a calorie-burning perspective doggy paddle is actually your best bet. "It's less efficient than others, so it's going to tire your muscles out faster," she says.
Vandermolen agrees, adding: "It may not be the prettiest stroke, but you're still going to get the benefits you'd get from traditional freestyle: staying afloat, moving and exercising."
If you dive in and start logging laps, chances are you're an athlete: The front crawl is a serious workout, after all.
"Swimming laps is a great way to boost your cardio and strengthen literally every muscle head to toe," says Fahlberg. And since it's a lengthening exercise (you're reaching out in front of you), it also offers a subtle stretch, which is especially important for people who crunch over a computer screen all day, she says.
Plus, swimming laps forces folks to breathe efficiently. "When you swim laps you need to learn to regulate your breathing, which has a soothing effect on the nervous system so you get out of the water less stressed than you went in," says Fahlberg. How's that for an added bonus? (If you're still not a fan of swimming laps, try this pool workout instead.)
“Make sure your technique is safe before you go long-distances; you don’t want to create an overuse injury that could be avoided with a little extra technique practice,” says Christie.
Sure, some people find the idea of a contact watersport to be terrifying. But you? You're not scared.
So, if your swimming skills are decent and you've enjoyed contact-encouraged sports like rugby, football, lacrosse or soccer in the past, you might enjoy water polo. "If you're a good swimmer, the skills will transfer to water polo, so long as the contact portion of the sport doesn't put you off," says Christie. "Water polo is really physical and an incredible full-body workout," she says.
Most big cities will have recreational water polo teams and leagues for adults. If you're looking for a team, the USA Water Polo site is a great resource.
Signing up for a triathlon is a serious undertaking. You just may be an overachiever. Were you a straight-A student?
Training for a triathlon is a great way for seasoned swimmers to add an element of cross-training to their workout routine. Plus, it has a competitive and rewarding aspect that former and current athletes will love. "Most triathletes are runners first, cyclists second and swimmers last," says Christie. "Having proficiency in the water gives you a huge leg up in triathlons."
Read more: What Is a Good Time for a Sprint Triathlon?
To determine which distance you should sign up for, Christie says you should be able to swim twice the distance in the pool that you'll be swimming in the open water come race day.