Water - The optimal aerobic mode?

The Surfer mythos: I never learned to swim. Growing up, I never had any consistent access to a pool, stream or river, much less the beach. There were no community pools or YMCA in my neighborhood. Not that I would ever have been a great swimmer; with my short legs, long torso and explosive strength, I was built for lifting weights, sprinting short distances, wrestling and contact sports.

The ideal swimmer physique is akin to the ideal basketball or volleyball physique: long arms, long legs with tallness is a definite asset. I most definitely would have taught myself to swim had I had access to a pool. From afar, I had a strong youthful attraction to surfing, surfers and the beach lifestyle. All brought to me through the excellent music of the day and early surfer magazines. The hot rod and surfer culture were intertwined, and I fantasized about both.

The surfer lifestyle was hugely attractive. The myth was the surfer dude did not work a day job. He lived in a shack on the beach at the Banzai Pipeline. He and the other surf bums surfed monster waves all day, getting great tans and “bleachy, bleachy blond hairdos,” as the Beach Boys related in Surfing USA.

Exhausted from their day of perfect wave riding, they called it a day at 3 pm and took power naps while their cheerleader girlfriends wore bikinis and cooked them steaks over a hardwood fire pit on the beach. Stuffed, revitalized, the blond surfer hodads and their smoking hot babes would walk down the beach 100-yards to the thatched-roofed nightclub.

In my teen surfer dream, the bros drank themselves stupid while Dick Dale wailed away on his Stratocaster playing Surfing Drums and Telstar. The surfers and their girls danced the night away to shimmering arpeggios, max reverb and volume set on 10. They would stumble home, ravish the cheerleaders, pass out in total bliss, wake up the next morning and repeat it all over. This goes on for the rest of your natural life.

Young Marty bought surfer magazines before he ever saw the ocean.  I was also fueled by the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funacello idiot beach movies, culminating in Muscle Beach Party. Elite bodybuilders Larry Scott, Chet Yorton, Steve Merijanin, Bill McArdle and Chuck D’Amato posed and strutted; the guys that I saw regularly in still photos in Muscle Builder magazine came alive in full color on the giant screen. I was gob smacked.

When Muscle Beach Party played at the local cinema, I walked from my grandmother’s farmette into town five straight days for the 1pm showing of Muscle Beach Party. Seeing that movie fired up my training for the next six months. Also featured in the movie were Don Rickles and Little Stevie Wonder, age 14. I was one month older than Stevie. I still am.

Ironically, a good friend of mine, someone that lived three miles from me, Tommy, had the same surfer dreams. He was my same age and instead of fantasizing about it, Tommy actualized his surfer dreams. He raised a $500 grubstake in 1970 and purchased a one-way ticket to Hawaii. He went to the Banzai Pipeline and, never having surfed, and being monstrous and powerful, got a job as bouncer in a surfer nightclub.

He made friends with all the legends of the Pipeline and they taught him to surf. Tommy became an expert surfer. He eventually came home, but every year he went back to the Pipeline at its most violent – which was when the heavy hitters gathered. He reconnected annually with his surfer bros. The surf bum living in a thatched hut on the beach lay 50-years in the past. I suspect in my next life I will be reincarnated as a surfer God.

Swimming as exercise: I have long thought that there is a powerful argument to be made that swimming is the King of all cardio activities. My admiration for swimming as a cardio activity has a multitude of reasons….

  • Non-impact activity: when you swim, there is no pounding the pavement or wearing the body parts out with hi-impact repetitive motion aerobic activities. When you ride a stationary bike or pound pavement jogging, all the stress is absorbed by feet, ankles, knees and hips. Over time, the stresses add up and wear body parts down. Almost every serious cardio activity involves body part stress. Compare this to swimming, where the athlete is suspended in liquid: no impact! This sets swimming apart.
  • Bi-limb cardio: generating cardio effort with arms and legs is demonstrably superior to generating the totality of the effort with legs alone. By spreading the effort between arms and legs, a greater total effort can be generated. The effort is spread throughout the body and therefore the effort seems less intense. Swimming coordinates and synchronizes arms and legs to propel oneself through the water. Swimming backwards instantly doubles the exercise possibilities. Quad-limbed cardio trumps bi-limb cardio in every measurable way.
  • Self-cooling results in longer sessions: the temperature of water keeps the athlete’s body temperature down during the exercise session. Compare this to the athlete that need contend with heat or cold during the training session. Swimming eliminates overheating and allows the athlete to avoid overheating and thereby go further. No one sweats while swimming; overheating is no longer a problem. Swimming is topnotch cardio exercise, assuming you can swim without enough velocity to make it an exercise. Swim fins can make an inefficient swimmer efficient.

Hydro-therapy training recovery stimulator: water and heat are excellent training recovery accelerators. Heat loosens tight muscle while cold dampens inflammation. Elite athletes use both heat and cold to heal and often alternate extreme heat with extreme cold to further amplify training recovery. Here are the most common forms of water and heat therapies.

  • Sauna: my first water therapy for accelerating training recovery was the sauna. I once belonged to a swank racquet and health club. They had a nice free-weight area, a racquetball court (I play) a clubhouse with a bar and good sandwiches. They also had a blazing hot sauna. Every three minutes we’d throw cold water on the red-hot rocks creating scalding steam. We’d turn ourselves into boiled lobsters. I would take three ice-cold showers in between scald-sessions. I read a Bill Starr column where he explained the sauna strategy: open the pores with dry heat and scalding steam, squeeze the toxins out of the pores with an ice-cold shower that snaps the pores shut. Repeat three times. I always felt this procedure helped tremendously. The sissies stopped us from throwing water on the rocks, it was ‘dangerous.’ Never was idiot aphorism ‘no pain, no gain’ more appropriate.
  • Whirlpool: I have had access to seriously good whirlpools at different times in my career. I have always felt a powerful whirlpool accelerated training recovery. Optimally the whirlpool has multiple adjustable jets; aiming a high-pressure stream of blazing hot water onto a just-trained body part, or a sore or injured body part, was a tremendously effective (for me) training recovery accelerator. If I had crushed my lower back, thighs and hamstrings in a hardcore squat or deadlift session, nothing soothed my blasted back and wobbly legs better than high pressure water directed on the just-trained muscles. The high-pressure stream of hot water had a massage effect (I suspect) and broke up waste products lodged in blasted muscles. The difference is next day soreness when I skipped the whirlpool was profound. If I could maneuver a sore muscle atop a jet vent, I could fall into a trance state as the water did its work. It was most effective when it was just shy of being painful.
  • Steam: my current mode of water therapy to accelerate training recovery is intense and prolonged steam. The main reason I belong to the local YMCA is they have a small steam room that no one really uses. My usual procedure is to drive to the woods, run the trails and steep grades, break a massive sweat and then exhausted, stop by the Y and undergo three rounds of intense steam. I will also use the steam room if I lift at the Y. I pick weird off times, early in the morning, when no one is there. The small tiled steam room kicks ass: it will par-boil you and send you gasping for the exist – as it did me just today. I take all I can take, maybe 3-5 minutes, then rinse off with an ice-cold shower that I don’t even feel. Then back in the lobster pot for two more ‘how much can you take’ bouts. I try and meditate to be able to last longer as I am being boiled. I always feel great after the last cold shower.
  • Ice bath, cryogenic: I have never done a formal ice bath. I know many pro athletes swear by them. The science makes sense: after an intense, ball-busting workout or training session, the body is inflamed (true that) – and what could be better to counter inflammation than dousing the entire body in ice-cold water? Bye, Bye inflammation! I like the science, but my refrigerator doesn’t hold enough ice cube trays and buying 30-pounds of ice after every training session sound like a complete pain-in-the-ass. But wait! The techno-geeks have invented a hi-tech ice bath that provides all the results of an ice bath but without the ice. The athlete walks into a booth and somehow the inside the booth is made as cold as an ice bath. By Bye inflammation! The problem is this booth costs $100,000. The Russians would replicate all this hi-tech stuff by scalding themselves in the sauna, whipping each other with birch branches, then leaping through a hole in ice. Bye Bye inflammation!
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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.