Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Start Swimming for Exercise

I'm taking a brief break from telling about my European travels to talk about my favorite form of exercise: swimming!

Even though swimming is a lot of fun and extremely safe sport (great for injuries), it can be really intimidating too. I've had a lot of questions from friends in real life about getting into it, so I figured it might be useful to put some of my answers in a blog posts. 

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What equipment do I need to get started swimming?

You need a sports bathing suit. I recommend Swim Outlet, I got my Nike one for $30. You can also get some good sale bathing suits at Athleta, especially at this time of the year. You will also need goggles and a bathing cap, which you can find at most sports stores and often are on sale at pools. That's really all you need. A towel is good of course!


Where do I find a place to swim?

This is usually much harder than getting the equipment together. Most people start swimming a pool, so you'll need to find one near you. First look to see if there are any YMCA's near you, because they always have pools and it's usually not too crazy to get a membership. Also, cities and towns may have an indoor aquatic center. I found a great one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when I was visiting last summer. That is a SMALL town, so if they have one, you should be able to find a pool near you :) 

What is the etiquette of swimming in a public lap pool?

First, check the schedule to see when lap lanes will be available. The busiest times seems to be weeknights and weekend mornings, so maybe avoid those at first so it won't be a crazy intimidating situation. When you arrive at the pool, maybe you'll be super lucky and a whole lane will be open. If so, just hop right in. If not, check for a lane with only one person swimming. Try to get the swimmers attention, and ask if you can share the lane. With only two people, most people will just stick to one side. Occasionally people don't want to interrupt their precious workout to talk to you (absurd), so they will just move over and give you a side, this means they realize you are going to come in and it's okay to not ask them. If you are on the left side of the lane, just swim up and back, both on that side. Same with if you are on the right, just stay on the right (which will now be the left on your way back, yikes). Things get more complicated if every lap lane already has two people in it. Then you will need to do something called circle swimming. This means, you and the other 2+ people will all swim up on the right side, and back on the left (which will now be your right because you will turn around) in a circle motion. If you need to pass someone, it's best to just do it at the end. I've heard people say you should tap them on the foot to warn them you are passing, but I've never seen anyone do this and I think it's weird, so either just swim fast past them, or do it on the end when they will likely stop for a second. Some pools have a slow, medium and fast circle swim lane. My pool does not, so if I have to start a circle swim I just look for people who look nice and ask them. Some people will say no (not that you are allowed to, people are just rude) and then just ignore them and ask someone else. 


What should I do when I get in the pool?

This all depends on what your goal is. Most people who ask me about swimming are either recovering from an injury or doing a sprint triathlon. Either way, I think the first time you swim, you should just focus on getting in and swimming 10 laps or so, if you can. Swimming is hard if you haven't been practicing, so just do what you can the first day. After that you will probably want a plan to keep yourself from getting super bored swimming back and forth. Here is an example workout: 

Swimming Workout

1 x 50 Free Warm Up
1 x 50 Backstroke Warm Up
10 x 50 Free (no rests, flip turns if you know how to do them)
1 x 50 Kick Only
1 x 50 Arms Only
1 x 50 Breast Stroke
4 x 50 Alternate between freestyle way down, backstroke the way back (no rests)
4 x 50 Fast down, slow back Freestyle (no rests)
1 x 50 Cool Down- choose your stroke
Total: 1250 yards
After you master this workout, you can start making a few of your own by mixing in some of the strokes listed above. You can also mix in some drill work, including making a fist while swimming the freestyle stroke, or doing catch up where you leave one hand above your head until the other "catches up." You can also start some sort of swimming program, like Zero to 1650 (learning to swim a mile!). 


What if I am doing an open water triathlon? 

I would still recommend starting in the pool if you have access to one, just because it's easier. When you are ready to try out open water swimming, you'll need to find an ocean, lake or pond where you can do this. I recommend searching where local triathlon clubs do their swims. They will often have maps with distance online so you can actually do the exact distance you will have to do in a race. If they don't have this, you'll just have to ballpark. I think with open water swimming it's more about the mental battle anyway, so if you don't practice the exact distance, it's not a big deal. You will need the same equipment for open water swimming, but I would recommend taking a friend if at all possible or meeting up with a triathlon group. I've been open water swimming for two years now, but I still don't go alone. Even if you can't find someone who actually wants to swim, at least bring someone with you who can watch and make sure all goes well :) Open water swimming is intimidating at first, but I love it SO much more than lap swimming now. 


Do you swim for exercise? If so, did I forget anything that someone new to the sport needs to know? If you don't swim for exercise, would you ever consider it? 




  1. I did some swimming this summer... until I had to wear a soft cast and it was no longer an option. It was very calming for me. I got a little bit board so when my arms heal enough to allow me to swim, I will be coming back to try to create this work out. Sharing a lane isn't bad for me when it's just 2. If there are 2+ - I'm out of there. It is too stressful for me as I am not the fastest swimmer... Great post! I think swimming is such a great exercise and it's kind to your body so I think swimming will be my best friend this fall/winter - and water aerobics.

  2. I used to swim all the time! I used to be a lifeguard and I was on the swim team in high school. When I first moved to Kamloops I actually attended masters swim practices at one of the local pools and they were INTENSE. We would cover close to 3,000 metres in an hour. To this day I swear doing that intense swimming for 4 months is what helped me build up the endurance I now have for running because before that I HATED running and couldn't do it and it was after 4 intense months of swimming that I started running.

  3. I love swimming! It relaxes me to - because so much of it involves focusing on breathing!

    Uhm, 1st triathlon was an open-water-tri. I didn't do any practice swims, because I figured "Well, I grew up on a lake in Minnesota". Big mistake! It's so different - but once you get the hang of it, it's okay!

    One tip I've found is if you're training for an open water tri, and you're training in a pool. Do at least 1 swim/week where you don't touch the wall. It sure does change the swim :)

  4. I love swimming! Now I haven't done it for exercise in like 10 years but I took lessons from 18 months through 6th grade and in junior high I did lap swimming. Then in high school I stopped because we didn't have a pool and I did other sports.

  5. When I was 27 or 28, I was working in a terrible environment, working long hours and away from home for days at a time. I committed to completing a triathlon and marathon before turning 30 (as a way to distract myself from the misery). That was the only time I ever swam for exercise. I loved my learning curve -- I had a ton to learn and was able to see dramatic improvements in my swimming. But, at the end, I was pretty much where I was at the beginning (not loving swimming as a form of exercise for me). Kudos to you for using it to stay healthy!

  6. I just came across your blog so cute, I am from Massachusetts as well, I love about 20 minutes east of Boston. :) Thanks for that swimsuit sight I need a new suit really bad, mine is starting to wear out. Also I love Altheta as well! :)

    I want to try to do the Triathlon swimming but I am SO SCARED of open water swimming. I am a strong swimmer so I don't know why but even in the lap pool at my gym I swim on one of the sides. Pretty much just boils down too I need to be more confident in myself.

    but yes I swim all the time for a work out!

    Sara :)