Maybe you’re looking for a new way to cross-train. Or maybe you’re considering training for a triathlon, or just want to add a new sport to your regimen. Regardless of the reason, your mind is on swimming. And according to research, that’s a very a good thing.
Regularly hitting the pool can be a powerful form of exercise. According to U.S. Masters Swimming, the benefits of swimming include cardiovascular fitness, weight control, increased muscle tone and endurance, and stress reduction. Plus, it’s a low-impact sport that is a great complement to high-impact activities such as running, CrossFit and HIIT workouts, aiding in muscle recovery and injury prevention.
However, stepping out onto the pool deck can often feel like entering a foreign country. Swimmers speak their own language and abide by a special code of conduct that you may not be accustomed to. It’s enough to send you running back into the locker room.
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If swimming and swim workouts mystify (or intimidate) you, here are some basics to get you more proficient in the pool.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
If you normally work out for an hour, you should be able to swim for an hour, right? Wrong. “People think that they can take their fitness [outside of the pool] and throw it into the pool… However, there is sport-specific training. You can be very fit as a runner, but if you go to a pool, you probably can’t swim that far,” says Sam Cardona, Corporate Wellness Director for the New York Health and Racquet Club and nine-time Ironman finisher.
Take Ashley Diamond, for example. For the past 10 years, the eCommerce Strategist at Procter & Gamble and fitness blogger has tried to become a swimmer. But each time she’s hopped into the pool, she could never complete more than a few laps even though she runs and works out regularly.
According to Cardona, “You don’t need to swim for 45 minutes or swim in an Olympic-size pool.” Instead, dial-back your expectations. That’s what Diamond did. “Just like a new runner wouldn’t expect to run a mile without stopping, a new swimmer shouldn’t either. My goal for my first session was literally to complete one lap without stopping. The next session, my goal was two laps,” she says.
2. Choose Quality Over Quantity
“Think about rotating from your hips and then bring your head just above the water line to catch your breath.”
Cardona also notes that many beginners think swimming more is better. “People always want to swim a lot, but their technique isn’t good,” which won’t get you far, he says.
While coaching or standing on the pool deck, Cardona witnesses a wide variety of swim technique. He says that beginners tend to move frantically in the water, over-kicking and pulling their arms through the water in a wide arc instead of pressing the water straight past their bodies. Another common mistake is that people do not breathe efficiently. “They whip their head side-to-side or they keep their head up,” he says, which creates more resistance in the water. Instead, think about rotating from your hips and then bring your head just above the water line to catch your breath.
It can be a lot to remember at once — all the more reason to slow down and pay attention to your technique, Cardona says. “Focus on the quality of your swim [form] instead of the quantity that you swim.” That goes for everyone, from beginner to advanced swimmers.
3. Get in Gear
You don’t need much gear to get started. Just a training suit that you’ll feel comfortable in, googles and a cap. As you become more adept, you can begin to use swim props, which can help you improve your technique.
For starters, you can get your hands on a pull buoy, a piece of foam that you place between your legs, which floats your hips and legs to the surface of the water. Once your legs are out of the way, “you can just focus on your swim stroke and upper body positioning…and you can really start to feel your hand ‘catch’ in the water,” says Cardona. Kickboards isolate your legs so you can concentrate on proper kicking movement. “Your kick should be rhythmic, relaxed and should come from your hip, not your knee,” says Cardona.
4. Go With the Flow
“Don’t be embarrassed by which lane you choose. Just know that there are opportunities for everyone.”
During lap swim, circle swim is the norm. It’s just like driving. “You go down on the right side of the lane, and you come back on the other side. That way, no one runs into each other,” says Frank Busch, National Team Director for USA Swimming. Swimmers will also self-organize themselves into lanes according to their speed. At some pools, the lanes will be labeled fast, medium or slow. If they’re not, take a moment to watch the swimmers and then pick a lane. If you picked a lane that’s too fast, you can always switch. “Don’t be embarrassed by which lane you choose. Just know that there are opportunities for everyone,” say Busch.
Need a breather? Pulling over to the wall is completely OK. Just remember that stopping in the middle of the lane is the equivalent of slamming on your brakes on the highway (and no one wants to get rear ended on dry land, let alone in the water). If you need to pass someone, gently tap their foot to let them know you want to pass at the next turn.
5. Decipher the Workouts
A typical swim session consists of a warm-up, main workout set and a cool-down. Workout sets are often written out something like this: 4 x 100 on the 2:00. That means you have two minutes to swim 100 yards or meters before starting the next repetition in the set, for a total of four times through. Your rest is included in the two-minute interval (so the faster you go, the longer the rest period). And be sure to double-check the length of your pool. Most pools are either 25 yards long or 50 meters long (Olympic-sized pools).
To keep time, facilities will have a pace clock, located at both ends of the pool. Starting “on the top” means that you push off the wall and start your set when the second hand reaches 12 on the clock. “On the bottom” means that you leave when the second hand reaches six on the clock. If you’re swimming with a group, you generally allow five to 10 seconds between swimmers.
Sometimes the workout will note different strokes for the sets or “IM order,” which means you swim the lengths in the following order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Others sets are written as 500 pull, where you swim 500 yards or meters using a pull buoy.
If you need more help with the lingo, U.S. Masters Swimming has some great resources to get you up to speed on Swimmerese.
6. Join a Group or Get a Coach
Want instant accountability, camaraderie and quality training? “The ideal setting for any swimmer, regardless of ability or experience, is a group practice,” says Laura Hamel, Communications and Publications Director at U.S. Masters Swimming. Exceptions to this include adults learning to swim for the first time, who need some time to become comfortable enough to swim in a workout setting with other swimmers, Hamel says.
Once you’re ready to take the plunge, look for a local swim club or Masters Swimming program in your area. Despite its name, Masters Swimming isn’t just for people who have mastered the sport but welcomes all levels. “Many of our swimmers are triathletes, as they’ve discovered that the best way to improve the swim leg of their sport is to train with swimmers,” says Hamel.
If there isn’t a local group in your area, consider working with a swim coach. “A few sessions with an instructor will help you increase your learning curve and keep frustrations low,” says Cardona. It’s a great way to improve your technique.
Diamond joined a swim club at work, which meets two days a week before work. “In the course of three months, I went from being intimidated by lap swimming to looking forward to early morning practices,” she says. She even competed in her first swim meet recently. “The biggest factor has been the positive motivation and support from my husband, Bo, who is an avid swimmer, and my colleagues,” she says.
Now that you’re ready to make a splash at the pool, try this routine from Cardona.
Swimming Workouts: Where to Begin
For more swimming workouts for every skill level, try these three routines.
Originally posted on July 8, 2014. Updated March 2015.