New to swimming for exercise: Your tips?
March 20, 2018 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I've recently started swimming for exercise, with the primary goal of generally improved fitness. It has the secondary benefit of elongating everything, which feels nice after I've been sitting for awhile (I go during lunchtime). What general advice can you offer? This can be examples of developing specific goals, practical tips, resources for workout planning, etc.

I learned to swim as a kid, and recently a session of park district swim lessons. They were a decent refresher, but I don't feel like I got enough out of it to prioritize continuing. Stroke-wise, I can swim freestyle and breaststroke okay, some approximation of backstroke, and my butterfly is a joke. At the pool I have access to flippers, kickboards, and pull buoys.

A few random examples of things I'd like tips on: Launching a backstroke/back streamline without getting a faceful of water (the water goes up my nose and sits in the back of my throat and I feel panicky and choke-y). I have a hard time actually going straight while swimming backstroke. Does there exist a swim cap that will keep your hair dry? (That's probably a pipe dream...) Ear/nose plugs, yea or nay? Balance of with-flippers vs. without-flippers laps? Making a plan before going to the pool?

And basically anything else you can think of that might be useful. I'm liking the way swimming feels, that it's a good comprehensive workout, and that it's pretty efficient exercise. But I don't know a whole lot more than get in pool -> swim til tired.
posted by telepanda to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Launching a backstroke/back streamline without getting a faceful of water (the water goes up my nose and sits in the back of my throat and I feel panicky and choke-y).
Keep your chin tucked down to your chest as you are launching and gently release air through your nose. Controlling your breathing is strange in swimming, because you need to let the air out while under the water, trusting that you are going to get a full breath when you breathe in next. The wire and rubber type nose plugs (used by synchronized swimmers) are a way around this, because you can breathe consistently through your mouth, without worry about water up the nose.

I have a hard time actually going straight while swimming backstroke.
This takes practice. Glance out of the side of your eyes to gauge how close you are to the lane rope. Also, with nose plugs, you can look backwards underwater, without water up your nose.

A tight latex cap can keep your hair fairly dry, make sure to squeeze the air out before you hop into the pool.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 8:39 AM on March 20, 2018

O to 1650 is the swimmer's version of couch to 5k. This is an outline of how to get from swimming zero to 1 mile (a swimmer's mile). There are also countless swimmers workouts that you can follow that will have you doing a series of rests, series of strokes and at various speeds. I would also focus on drills where you are focusing on specific part of your body, like kick drills. I use these as earplugs but I have funny ears that really don't like having water in them but these work great. I have long hair and use a silicone swimcap but haven't found any to keep my hair dry.

As to staying straight while doing the backstroke, are you swimming indoors? Usually the ceiling has lines that you can follow.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 8:42 AM on March 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

When I started fitness swimming, I felt it helped to have a longer term goal. Mine was "I am going to swim the length of Lake Champlain" so I could feel like each little bit I was doing was adding up to it, whether any day was a long day or a short day, relatively speaking. US Masters Swimming has a "virtual geographic swim" thing that i found helpful when I started.

For backstroke, i found that looking straight up at the ceiling helped me and trying to find a reference there.

I'm a pretty barebones swimmer and don't use goggles or a cap or or flippers nose plugs. My basic routine now is about 3/5 of a mile (21 laps in my pool) and I try to mix it up about 40% freestyle, 40% backstroke and 20% kickboard (back and front - I find using the kickboard when I am on my back with it under my head helps really get my back to stretch in a way it usually doesn't). I have a bunch of good shampoo at the gym--the swimmers stuff is really worth the money--and moisturizer and a bunch of other things. Multiple towels. Some people swear by the swimmers towels but I've never liked them much.

Some people use a chamois wrap around their head under their cap and that can help.
posted by jessamyn at 8:44 AM on March 20, 2018

Join the 0 to 1650 Facebook group! They are a wonderful helpful group, largely why I bother with FB at all these days.
posted by jgirl at 8:52 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Put your shower stuff, towel, and swim gear (no valuables) in something like a drawstring bag and take that with you out to the pool deck. Afterwards you can go straight to the shower and be dry before you go to your locker.

Get some light towels. The smallest/lightest with which you can still dry yourself off after a shower.

Have a plan in mind when you go, and stick to it. People tend to tire and stop really soon when starting out swimming, because of the fear of being stuck in the middle of the pool exhausted. Consult a standard plan or make up your own -- simple like: 200yd continuous free, 4x100 back with 30s break, 4x100 free with 30s break, 200 kick, 100 buoy, cool down. There, you have a workout for 1300yd. Next week, pick one section and up it 100yd.

You will enjoy it more and be less prone to injury if you improve your technique. To do that, you could watch some videos online, or go the next step and get a private lesson with a swim coach (not just how-to-swim instructors, but like someone who coaches the local/college swim team).
posted by bread-eater at 9:00 AM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I definitely like having goggles; I go back and forth on earplugs. My hair is short enough that I've never considered a cap, and I don't like nose clips because I exhale through my nose during my stroke, though I suppose that's just because it's how I learned as a kid when no one was considering giving me a nose clip and not because it's really any better than exhaling through your mouth. As for boards/pull buoys vs flippers, the former would seem to me to be the more valuable, as my arms always get tired long before my legs do, so I could see those as a way to more easily keep working my legs while my arms are resting. YMMV but for me flippers are a way to extend my range with my current amount of fitness, not a way to build fitness, especially in a pool where they'll just send me crashing into the side that much faster each lap.

If you ever plan to open water swim, or heck if you share the concern bread-eater raises about being stuck in the middle of a pool, I love love love my open water swim buoy. It is really great being able to tackle longer stretches knowing that if I really did overestimate my ability I'm still going to be ok.
posted by solotoro at 9:08 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

So on the water-up-yer-nose thing: all I can say is practice. You learn to hold a little positive pressure in your nose and how to move you head such that water doesn't get up there. Goggles always, nose plug never since you will want to blow out though it sometimes and I don't care for earplugs, some people that have ear issues like them.

A swim cap won't really keep your hair 100% dry, it will keep it out of your face if it's long. If it's short it's optional as a rec swimmer. Get used to having wet hair. Buy some athlete's foot creme while you're at it because you'll have wet feet a lot too.

I'm not big on flippers for training swims, I think you're much, much better off getting a kickboard if they don't have them to borrow at your pool.

Making a plan is good, it depends on your personality. It can help you stick to a training plan and sometimes do more than you might otherwise. Write it on a piece of paper and put it in a ziploc bag so you can check it while wet.
posted by GuyZero at 9:30 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nose plugs would drive me crazy. Ear plugs are a necessity for me. If you need them, you will know, because you'll get out of the pool and have blocked-up ears for hours and no Q Tip will help you. I need them. If I didn't, I'd skip them.

I wear contacts so goggles are also necessary. What's great about wearing goggles though is that you can see all the time. You can see the lines on the bottom of the pool, the lines on the ceiling, the lap clock, and the flags at either end that warn you you're about to bump your head into the wall.

Swim cap - I find mine work ok. My main tip is to add a little conditioner to your hair before putting the cap on and tucking it tight around the ears. Then it comes off easier and doesn't tear your hair with it. Not a lot though.
posted by Miko at 9:43 AM on March 20, 2018

Check out It was really helpful for me when I started swimming.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:44 AM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I actually think that get in pool -> swim til tired is a pretty good strategy!

Nose plugs aren't something I've ever used and in my opinion your effort would be better spent becoming more comfortable with the rhythm of breathing with each particular stroke. That's just practice, keep at it til it becomes second nature. Earplugs are a different story, you may need those if you experience ear infections or just can't stand the sensation of water in your ears.

I like to focus on counting my laps while I'm swimming; I find it sort of meditative, a way to keep my mind clear of other things and be present in what I'm doing. I also find that breaking down the count into smaller units makes it feel more manageable; for reasons unknown, counting four sets of 20 lengths seems much easier to me than counting one set of 80 lengths.

Each time I go to the pool, I try to swim two lengths more than I did the last time. I don't always succeed at that, but it's always my goal. I'm not a terribly fast swimmer, so as I've gotten stronger and able to swim for the full hour I have at the pool, I've had to be creative in accomplishing this: swimming a little bit faster (but not so fast as to become too tired to continue), swimming more freestyle and less breaststroke/backstroke, taking shorter rests between sets.

Some swimming etiquette tips: be aware of the swimmers around you. If you're turning at the end of the lane and someone is coming up hot on your heels, let them go ahead, don't push off in front of them. If you need to stop and rest, do so at the end of the lane, and off to one side so you don't block other people who are turning. Practice your backstroke when the pool is less busy to reduce the risk of veering into another swimmer. Most swimmers I've met are patient with people who are just developing their skills and glad to help them but awareness and courtesy go a long way in building positive relationships at the pool (well, and everywhere!).
posted by GreenEyed at 10:00 AM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

My gear: goggles, ear plugs, 2 swim caps, 1 cut down to fit lower over the other to protect my neckline.

If earplugs don’t keep the water out, which happens to me probably every 4th time, you can buy those alcohol swim drops which will quickly cure a waterlogged ear.

I asked my coach what the point of flippers are, since they seem to make everything easier, and he said they’re great for if your foot form isn’t straight. It trains your feet be in the right position. I don’t have too much problem with that, so I don’t use them unless I want to feel like I’m a super-dolphin for a couple laps.

Have a fun stretch goal. My current fun stretch goal is flipping underwater and pushing off like the pros do. So each time I swim, I reward myself with a few minutes practice of flipping underwater and pushing off. I’m not good enough yet to continually do it while I’m doing my laps, but it’s giving me something to work towards while I do the more boring work of laps. Or sometimes, if my activity pool isn’t crowded, I reward myself with a couple minute backfloat, eyes closed, just enjoying the feel of being weightless. I’m really trying hard not to make my swimming activity 100% about exercise, I want it to still be about enjoyment.
posted by greermahoney at 10:02 AM on March 20, 2018

My best tip: I have a waterproof MP3 player, which is awesome for not being bored. (I listen to podcasts). I have a waterproofed iPod, but Underwater Audio, where I got it, has other models.

(I will say if you do podcasts, having one where it will bring you back to the last point in a track is really handy if you have to adjust volume or hit the player for some reason. My previous model, I ended up hitting the wrong button in the middle of an hour podcast a couple of times and not being able to get back without listening from the beginning.)

Also, the headphones then act as earplugs. (I don't use noseplugs)

Swim cap: I have waist length hair, and get one of the silicone caps that is designed for long hair. If I don't do backstroke, it keeps almost all of my hair dry. If I do backstroke, it's really easy to get leakage around the neck, though if I piled my hair on top of my head before putting the cap on, a lot stays dry.

Backstroke: Try kicking off the wall gently, and just letting yourself float for a few seconds, hands above your head. For swimming straight, a lot of pool ceilings will have lines, or at least distinguishable features. I often also trail one hand along the lane line, if I'm kicking and not doing arms on my back.

My stamina is lousy (and even after 2 years of regular swimming: my body is not good at stamina), and my lungs are perpetually cranky, which makes crawl trickier than other strokes, so I alternate two lengths (up and back) with a kickboard with other strokes - I usually rotate crawl, side stroke, breaststroke, and backstroke, but it depends a lot on my mood and what I feel needs more stretching and how energetic I am. I don't use flippers.
posted by modernhypatia at 10:04 AM on March 20, 2018

I really enjoyed the Total Immersion DVDs by the late Terry Laughlin. I'd never learned to formally swim until adulthood and found that using his techniques, I was much less tired and much more relaxed while swimming. It turned into a meditation, which I didn't expect, and I credit his program for that.
posted by onecircleaday at 10:45 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I swim roughly 2500m to 7500m a week, about 2500m per session, mostly freestyle.

I'm not a big fan of the pool toys. Definitely no flippers nor plugs. I have some paddles that I don't use often. I don't like what flippers and paddles do to my stroke. I can the case for a pull buoy and kick board.

Make a plan if you have a goal. If it's going to get in the way of your workout don't. Right now I just knock out 2500m, it's kind of a moving meditation. I'll mentally race people in other lanes if I get bored.

Swimming is a good, low-impact workout, but I've found it makes me hungry and I eat more than after a run. I think it's because the water saps my body temperature.

The problem is, swimming is less of a calorie burn than running, so eating more may not be a good thing. If you're like me, I would watch out for that.

I've found swimming to be very form dependent, so the better you get, the less of a workout it is. I can usually tell who's going to outrun me on land, but I've often been surprised when I swim.

My biggest tip is to find a good pool. A poorly run pool can be chaotic and frustrating.
posted by Borborygmus at 3:25 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I found that my quest to swim set distances was made much more enjoyable by use of a lap counter. It really freed up my brain to completly go into a meditative state.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:44 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Out of the pool...
Mane and Tail shampoo and conditioner. Yep, this is for horses. It's also in the shampoo aisle. This tip was from my daughters' swim teacher at the YMCA. I still use it, particularly after chlorinated or salt water swims. Bonus -- the conditioner is applied to wet hair and not rinsed out, so less time in the shower.
A shaped head towel. I get mine at Wal-Mart. Much better than a dripping, drooping towel on the ride home.
A microfiber towel from the automotive department. The Absorbers and Aqua Dry towels go into their own tube for transport. Soak in warm water to soften before use -- really, they do a good job after a swim and don't drip all over the place.
I assume you have some type of non-skid footwear for the pool deck and the shower stall.
posted by TrishaU at 2:35 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

So says a 76 year old who started swimming 3 1/2 years ago after injuring a hip while jogging. Never went back to running and absolutely fell in love with swimming:
1) Until you feel some mastery of the stroke(s) do not worry about laps or distance. Set aside an amount of time to actually be swimming ( not just be in the pool)--25, 30 40 minutes what ever. Swim at least 4 days a week preferrably 5.
2) Work on two, preferably 3, strokes ( forget the fly unless you want to compete)--work on your strokes until tyou feel reasonably competent--helps a great deal to have a knowledgeable coach or observer who can point out things that might help--very hard to objectively observe yourself while trying not to sink. There are excellent videos available
3) Speed and distance are largely irrelevant until you feel comfortable and in conrol of the strokes--
4) Work on the basics--breathing on both sides, follow through, body position in water--take your time--you will get enough exercise.
5) I do use pool buoys and flipper--10-20 minutes nothing, 10 pool buoy and 10 flippers and little stroking.
6) Relax in the water, vary your routines unless you are doing specific drills.
Enjoy--the good thing about swimming--once you are in basic condition you can play with and improve technique to your hearts content. Cheers and good swimming
posted by rmhsinc at 9:18 AM on March 21, 2018

backstroke is just about the best thing you can do for an upper body strained by lots of typing and desk work!

Best bet for keeping yourself straight in the lane on backstroke is memorizing visual cues. If you're inside, it's easy, there should be lines of tiles or lights or something you can use. Outside is trickier, but you can do a slow starter lap, looking around, to find something useful -- a flag, a tree.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2018

oh and I'm baffled by folks using flippers for their laps. Not only does it cut down hugely on the exercise your legs are going to get (which is the reason you're there, right) but it also will artificially tighten the muscles in the back of your calves and run the risk of a crippling charley horse if your muscles tend to seize.

You'll see people doing all kind of weird sh*t in a public pool but it doesn't mean it's a good idea.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:44 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'll just add another piece of advice: trying to learn about swimming can literally make your head swim.

What I mean is that here you have a sport that's aerobic and resistance-based and also super technical. This means that people from all sorts of perspectives come at it, and try really hard to optimize it in whatever manner. As fingersandtoes says, people do, and believe, all sorts of weird shit. It doesn't help that the research on swimming keeps changing - both from a technical perspective and health perspective.

As a former youth swim instructor and someone who did swim workouts for years (and still swims 1/x week) and completed a sprint triathlon with a swim leg, all I can say is don't let the slicing and dicing of when, where, how to swim go too much to your head and become confusing. Show up to the pool on a schedule and frequency that works for you, have a plan, execute it, be making an effort, try to improve weak areas and swim longer or faster over time, maybe work with a coach for some basic tips - but don't be intimated or flummoxed by the particular advice you get, much of which is totally idiosyncratic. Much like cycling, it's the kind of sport that can weigh beginners down with this sense that there is so much to know and so much to optimize - when really, you can participate at a simple level and improve your fitness and find it very satisfying. No matter what, showing up to the pool and swimming is going to improve your fitness more than not showing up and not swimming. So definitely learn and get your plans together, but don't worry if a lot of what you hear is contradictory or confusing. I know I felt overwhelmed at times by people who want to make swimming really complex, but you actually don't have to do that in order to swim for fitness, relaxation, even competition, with gradual improvement.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on March 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Something that fingersandtoes’ comment made me think of: don’t use regular flippers for breast stroke. This should be fairly obvious if you’ve tried it for even a single stroke but again people do all kinds of weird crap.

I’m a loud, talkative, fidgety extrovert and swimming laps in a pool is the closest I’ve ever come to meditation. I’ve come to enjoy it for the calm quiet. YMMV
posted by raccoon409 at 3:13 PM on March 21, 2018

I love my swim-specific workout bag with special pockets for my wet suit.

I keep a little soy-sauce fish with some vinegar in it to combat any swimmer's ear problems.

Your hair will stay drier if you use two caps, but nothing will keep it bone dry.

Totally worth it to learn how to flip-turn if you don't know already. Not only does it keep your pace consistent, but IME you are more likely to get a lane to yourself if you look like you know what you're doing. People who are faffing around with aqua-jogging belts, etc. tend to avoid lanes with flip-turners.
posted by apparently at 12:55 PM on March 22, 2018

« Older Keeping acne under control after going off the...   |   Lunch at mid-day is inconvenient. Do you have a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.