Ease Into Swimming



Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author

Running is often the ‘go-to’ activity for those looking to start being active or try out a sport.  However, that doesn’t mean it is the best choice.  Lap swimming may just be the ticket for getting off the couch and easing your way into a healthier lifestyle.

No pain…no pain

Swimming is low-impact, making it ideal for people with injuries, disabilities, or who are overweight and suffering from joint stress. For runners and cyclists who cross-train to avoid repetitive stress, swimming’s a great activity to keep up fitness without increasing pounding on the body. It can be done at any age, and swimming (for this article, we’re focusing on freestyle, also called the front crawl stroke) just two to three times a week can build endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. Experienced swimmers can mix in the other three official strokes (butterfly, back and breast) for more variety and challenge in their workouts.

That said, swimming’s a technical sport. If you’re not an experienced swimmer, instruction is essential, and a one-on-one stroke assessment with a coach can be a great place to start. A coach will teach proper body position for freestyle (the body should roll side to side as you glide forward, and the eyes should be focused on the bottom of the pool while swimming, for example, not ahead), how to breathe properly, the different stroke phases, proper glide and kick, and a host of drills to work on these skills.  Experienced swimmers may benefit from individual or group instruction, as well. For great  workouts in a social environment, consider joining a local Master’s (adult) swim team. For more information, go to www.usms.org.

Be patient

Even if you’re an experienced athlete, don’t be surprised if you’re left gasping after swimming just a few laps. Swimming’s a completely unique activity, and your running or cycling fitness simply won’t transfer nearly as much as you might expect. Your first workout might add up to just a few hundred yards. That’s okay; if you stick with it, fitness will increase as well as your yardage.

Like any sport, swimming has its own culture, rules, language and equipment. Below is a quick review.

The essentials

Swimsuit, goggles, cap for long hair. You’ll generally find a swimsuit brand that best fits your body; chlorine tends to make swimsuits wear out fairly quickly, so rinse after swimming. Try goggles out of the water first; they should stick to your face and suction up around your eyes. Different brands/styles will fit your face better than others. Silicon caps are more expensive than rubber but easier to don and more durable.

Swim etiquette

Pick a lane that fits your speed.

Some pools label lanes slow, medium and fast. Otherwise, see where you’d fit in best with the flow of traffic.

Share your lane.

Pool space can be scarce. If a lane is designated for circle swimming, circle with other swimmers (generally counterclockwise). Again, choose the appropriate lane for your speed. Otherwise, split the lane.

Let them pass.

If a faster swimmer is right on your heels, stop at the end of the lane and let him/her pass.

Learn the lingo

Most pools have a large pace clock. If your workout calls for 5×50 on the 1:00, this means you’ll be swimming  a set of five, 50 yard-intervals, one each minute. The minute is also called ‘the top’, or 60-second mark on the clock. If your coach/workout says to leave at the bottom, leave on the 30. If your coach says to leave on the 45, leave when the digital clock says 45 or the sweep second hand is on the 45.

A lap is a round trip, swimming to the opposite wall and back. A length is one way, swimming just to the opposite wall. Pools come in a variety of sizes, both meters and yards, but 25 yards is relatively standard. Swim workouts are often constructed of interval sets with repeat distances of 50, 75, 100, and 150-yards.

Get the right toys

There are lots of swim “toys” that add variety to your workout and help swim skills. They’re appropriate for beginner to more advanced swimmers and include:


Most pools have loads of kickboards; you can use them to challenge your legs, address kick mechanics or for certain posture drills.

Hand paddles.

These come in a variety of shapes/sizes; be careful not to stress your shoulders when using them. They’re good for addressing stroke mechanics by amplifying the feedback that your hands get from the water.


These also come in a variety of sizes, and are good for addressing kick mechanics by increasing the feedback that the lower limbs get from the water. They’re also good for certain balance drills challenging the leg muscles, and increasing ankle flexibility,

Pull buoy.

This oblong piece of foam fits between your thighs and allows the lower body to float – especially useful for people whose legs sink too low. Also emphasizes upper-body action.


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