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ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS

Discovering the benefits of lake swimming

Monday, June 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

Watching my niece's swim meet at a local lake last weekend, I couldn't help wondering: Why, in a part of the state awash in lakes, do so few people swim in them?

I'm not talking about splashing around with the kids off the end of the pier or jumping in the water to go tubing. Yes, that's getting wet, and an afternoon spent doing either of those things can feel like quite a workout.

But it doesn't burn nearly as many calories as you think. Even water aerobics burns only half as many calories as the simplest swimming strokes, and most lake frolics fall far short of that. When was the last time you tried to swim more than a few yards at a time?

Let's face it: Lake swimming can be intimidating. Even if you've got (or once had) a decent stroke, there are fish, weeds and possibly toxic slime to contend with, not to mention the danger of getting hit by a boat.

More open-water events like last weekend's Glenn S. Hummer Huntington Mile at Lake Clare would help, in much the same way that 5K fun runs give recreational joggers a goal to focus on. Such events have the added benefit of identifying a safe, non-yucky stretch of water suitable for distance swimming.

Unfortunately, Lake Clare, a former gravel pit with a deep drop-off just a few feet from shore, isn't open for swimming to the general public. And the race's future is in doubt as participation has dwindled ever since flooding led to its cancellation a couple of years ago.

Though it's been a good fundraiser over the years for Huntington's Otters Swim Club, soaring insurance costs now make it difficult to sanction the event as a master's race, meet director Holly Mahnensmith said.

“It's just one of those things,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves, 'Is it worth it,'” to continue given all the work involved. “Right now, it's up in the air.”

This year, 160 swimmers participated, down from 300-400 a few years ago. Most were from youth swim clubs, but some were adult endurance swimmers, old and new.

One mile finisher in her 60s couldn't swim at all a year ago, Mahnensmith said. Another rookie, a man who completed the event's 5K race, wondered where he could find similar events in the area.

“I didn't know what to tell him,” Mahnensmith said. If there are any others, she doesn't know of them.

The closest open-water race that turned up in a Google search is the Warsaw Aqua Mile on Center Lake that took place June 8. But an ever-increasing number of mini-triathlons feature lake swims of 400 to 500 yards for water-putterers looking to ramp up their workouts.

Bowman Lake at Fox Island, for example, is big enough for a 500-meter swim with no boats and few weeds — if you stick to the triangular course (see a map at http://tristatetriathlon.org) used in the Fox Island triathlon series.

There are no lifeguards; you swim at your own risk. But why bother, when there are so many pools around?

“I like the natural elements that come with an outdoor environment. I like feeling the sun and wind and being surrounded by trees,” endurance swimmer Allison Ballard, a Bowman Lake regular, told me last summer.

Ballard, who doesn't like to race, said she'd much rather swim a mile than run even once around the block.

“I really love the trance-induced state that comes from being in the water,” she said. “I think about technique when I want to and am free to let my mind wander as I choose.”

When she has time, she explores area lake chains with her kayak.

“I jump out and swim awhile and then do a wet entry back into my kayak and go to the next lake. One of my favorite chains is Marsh Lake, Big Otter, Little Otter, Snow Lake and Lake James.”

For my 13-year-old niece, Madison, the biggest challenge at the Hummer Mile was not being able to see much through her goggles.

“It kind of freaked me out because I didn't know if I was going in a straight line or way out of the course,” she said. To compensate, she'd lift her head to check her progress, then get discouraged because “you saw the same scenery in that long stretch, so it felt like you were never moving.”

Still, she's glad she did it. Now she and her mom (my sister Traci) are planning a distance swim at her grandma's lake cottage on Loon Lake near Columbia City. This fall, Madison may join Traci and I in a triathlon.

All three of us continue to battle an ingrained queasiness about lake water. (Growing up I avoided my grandparents' pond because fish nibbles freaked me out.) But these swims feel like a conquest that's hard to match in a pool. And there's nothing like swimming in a lake to give you more of a stake in water quality issues.

If more of us swam in lakes rather than driving boats and jet skis over them, we'd all be healthier — and so would they.

Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.