Olympic Fitness: Janet Evans’ Gold-Medal Water Workout

Why lounge around the pool like a chaise potato this summer when you could get into the water like Olympic champion Janet Evans?  At age 40, this five-time medal winner, author -- her new book is called Total Swimming -- and mother of two has plunged back into training for the 2012 Olympics -- her fourth games.

Why, after 16 years off from competition, is she going back to waking up at 4:30 a.m. and spending five hours a day in the pool and gym? “I wanted to see what I could do at 40,” says Evans in a recent telephone interview from her home in Laguna Beach, Calif. “It’s been an incredible, empowering journey.”

Whether or not she makes the U.S. Team at the Olympic trials (which are held this week) and goes on to London in July, Evans hopes her journey will inspire other mothers -- as well as dads and kids -- to start swimming for fitness and fun.  The sport works virtually every muscle in your body, notes Evans , strengthening crucial core muscles and boosting heart health. And because swimming is gentle on your joints, it’s a perfect exercise for anyone -- even if you’re pregnant, recovering from injury or have a lot of weight to lose. “It’s a great lifelong sport,” says Evans.

Evans’s whole family swims, but they also enjoy other forms of exercise: daughter Sydney, 5, loves to run; husband Bill Willson surfs; and son Jake, who turns 3 in August, likes to take walks on the beach with Mom, searching for starfish. Motherhood has made her a calmer competitor, says Evans -- win or lose, “I have a lot to come home to.”

Even if you’re not a medalist like Evans, here’s how to make the most of your water workouts:

Start Slowly

Don’t expect to churn towards the finish line like an Olympian right away. Evans advises out-of-practice paddlers to start with one to four laps, rest briefly at the side of the pool and then do another set, up to a total of 10 to 20 laps. Gradually add one to four laps at a time until you can do 30 to 40 without a break. And use your rest stops to sip from a water bottle; even in the pool, your body still needs to rehydrate.

Set a Schedule
To stay fit, swim laps for a minimum of 30 minutes three times a week. If you’re looking to lose weight, increase that time to an hour, says expert trainer Neal Pire, a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. Lap swimming can burn anywhere from 400 to 600 or more calories an hour, depending on your weight and the stroke you use: butterfly is the most intense, followed by freestyle and backstroke.

Mix It Up
For bone density and endurance, add weight training to your workout routine twice a week. When doing laps, alternate strokes to avoid muscle strain. And to avoid boredom, vary your routine -- alternate swimming laps for speed with ones for distance.

Get in Gear

You may not like the way they look, but goggles protect your eyes from the pool’s chlorine, as well as salt and algae if you swim in an ocean or lake. A swimming cap does the same for your hair. And pool toys can add function as well as fun -- kickboards can really kick up your ab workout, while various paddles, buoys and flippers help improve your strokes. Also consider picking up a waterproof MP3 player.

Find a Swim Buddy
Swim with friends for safety, especially in open water. You can meet new pool pals by joining a swim class or club at your local gym or community pool. To find a pool near you, visit the American Red Cross and US Masters Swimming.

Photo: Getty Images
by Lynn Langway