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Time to take the plunge


FEEL THE HEAT When you don’t want to brave the wintry, wet outdoors, heated indoor pools are warm oases for aerobic exercise.

Andrew O'Brien

It’s December, so let’s talk about swimming. ‘Oh no, the poor fool thinks he’s moved back to Australia’, I hear you all thinking. ‘Why in God’s name would we talk swimming in the depths of winter?’.
Bear with me, I beg you, there is some logic in my lunacy. For while we all have romantic notions of swimming in the sea in summer time, other than the triathletes, who can claim to doing much more than jumping in for a relaxing splash-about? I have the intention of getting down to Westport Quay and doing a decent swim most weeks in summer, but in the five years since we moved here, I’ve managed to do it a grand total of no times. Sometimes I blame the weather, others the tide, but more often than not I just don’t get my act together.
If swimming in the sea isn’t your thing, or it’s just too much hassle, where do you go? Why to the pool of course. But who wants to swim in warm water in what is basically a hot shed in the middle of summer? Not me thanks, which brings us neatly to my point: why not go swimming in warm water in the hot shed in winter?
Swimming is fantastic exercise for a wide range of people and for a variety of reasons. If you read the last edition of this column, you may recall that I said water-based exercises aren’t great for preventing osteoporosis, as the bones need load to strengthen, and some skin conditions don’t react well to the chlorine in swimming pools. That’s about the end of the cons list.
Swimming is great for anyone with arthritic conditions, especially in relatively warm water, as there is less load on joints and effectively no impact. The warm water can also have a soothing effect on arthritic joints. The same benefits can be gained by people with significant weight issues, where the relative weightlessness of being in the water can alleviate some of the difficulty of exercising on land for those who are overweight.
Swimming has long been recommended for asthmatics, on the basis that breathing warm humid air is less likely to irritate airways than colder, drier air. While there is logic to the argument, research hasn’t been able to prove the theory. What may be more beneficial for asthmatics is the breathing regulation that is required to swim well. Asthmatics tend to have a higher respiratory rate with shallower breaths. Learning to slow down the breathing rate is a useful tool for all, but especially those prone to asthma attacks and other breathing complaints.
I’m sure you have all heard of Bear Grylls. Did you know that before he was famous for doing slightly daft things on TV, he climbed Everest aged 23? There aren’t many high mountains in the UK, where he was living, so to simulate the effects of altitude, Grylls swam lengths of his local pool, one underwater followed by one on the surface, for hours at a time. In doing so he trained himself to tolerate both a lower oxygen concentration and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body, two factors that are key in altitude training.
Of course there are other benefits. Swimming works your upper body in a way that many other forms of exercise don’t, demanding effort through a large range of movement for a long time. The cardiovascular workout is great without being over-taxing, meaning that unless you really push, the session remains predominantly aerobic and thus less stressful (the swimmers and triathletes just spat out their coffee at that notion).
If you aren’t a strong swimmer, there are plenty of places to get lessons, either in a group or individually. For those who are reasonably good, but not necessarily expert, challenges like Swim A Mile or Swim for the Hour start early in the New Year, offering supervised and partly coached sessions. If you are feeling brave, find a mate and go sea swimming – while there isn’t any research to prove it, anecdotally people who swim in open water all year report physical and mental-health benefits.
It’s winter time, time to throw off the overcoat, slip into the togs and dive right in.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at