Exercising better down where it's wetter
December 28, 2018 2:39 PM   Subscribe

I know how to swim, but I don't really know how to swim laps. Please tell me everything you know about swimming for exercise!

I'm comfortable in the water, and can do a front crawl and float and tread water and so on. But I'd like to start swimming for exercise, not just for snorkelling or goofing around or because I fell in or whatever. I'm sure my form isn't great, and as I've never had any formal training, I don't know how to do some of the other strokes, like the butterfly. Adult swim lessons are rather pricey, and in my area they seem to be offered mostly for absolute beginners or for people doing Serious Triathlon Training, without much in between -- and no classes that currently fit with my work schedule. Are there good online resources or books for learning? Training guides for swimming in the style of those Couch-To-5K running plans? Any (relatively) cheap smartwatches that would track my movements and tell me what I'm doing wrong?

Even very basic things, like how long/far beginners tend to swim, whether to focus on one stroke or alternate between strokes, and what lane etiquette in public pools is like, would be most welcome!
posted by halation to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Lane etiquette will often be posted. At my Y, it’s max 5 per lane. If there are 2, you split. 3-5, you circle swim. But that really depends on how large the lanes are. My parents’ Y is completely different. Make eye contact before entering the lane, so there are no surprises.

I watch a lot of swimming videos on YouTube to learn form, but nothing beats an actual person standing above you, telling you where you’re being inefficient. May I suggest that every once in a while, you budget for a single private lesson to get feedback and correction? That may be all you need to improve.

Good luck!!
posted by greermahoney at 2:56 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some tips: get a swim cap if you have hair and you like it to not look like a fright wig. Chlorine is very damaging, especially if you end up swimming a lot. Get goggles. Good ones. It improves the experience immeasurably. Can you do an end flip? My biggest hurdle to efficient lap swimming was learning to flip around at the edge of the pool. Watch some youtube tutorials and practice out of lane until you've got it down.

Yes to at least a couple private lessons to make sure you're moving well and fix errors before they develop into bad habits. Also keep in mind if you're swimming for fitness, absolute efficiency and speed is not actually required -- in fact, non-efficient swimming will be harder and thus burn more calories! However, you want to make sure your movements are going to be ergonomic so you don't injure yourself.

Don't forget to work the opposite muscles -- swimmers tend to develop a 'hunch' because their should muscles are over-developed and they are not supporting that development with complimentary strengthening of the pectorals. A swim coach should be able to help you identify which out of pool exercises will be best for your level and preferred strokes.

Zero to 1 mile swimming in 6 weeks program
posted by ananci at 3:07 PM on December 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have been swimming laps regularly for about a year now, but still consider myself a noob, as it has been quite a while since I lap swam/ did swim team. Some things I have been working on: keeping my arm stroke straight (not arcing out my arms towards the wall as I pull - apparently going to the side in freestyle is really bad for your shoulders), and trying to keep my torso and legs up closer to the surface. When I get tired or worn out, my feet tend to slowly sink towards the floor as I swim and my torso sags.
It was a challenge for me to breathe bilaterally, and I think my shoulder and neck tension only made it worse. I slowly worked up to it, doing say, one length on my right side and three on my left. I'm more balanced now, but I can tell my form is still a bit wonky when I breathe on the right. I would say that improving your form is way more important than speed or # of strokes/ breath, or whether or not you can do butterfly (ugh, almost my least favorite).
I try to keep to a regular time, and take my pulse to get a sense of how hard I'm working. When I started, I think my goal was to do 50m in 1:30, so I would do the 50m and have maybe 20 seconds rest in between, then repeat. Once you get more comfortable, you can start lowering the time for x laps, or adding in other strokes.
I currently do 1 mile (72 laps, ymmv ha ha) several times a week and work on interval time and maintaining form. I do freestyle pretty much exclusively as there's still a lot of progress I want to make.
posted by queseyo at 3:30 PM on December 28, 2018

There's also a Zero to 1 Mile Facebook group, and it is wonderful! You will get so much help and support there. You can also do Zero to 700 if that might be a better fit for you at this point.

Once you get the hang of bilateral breathing you will love it. Now it feels awkward to be one side only. The biggest help for me in learning it was to breathe every 5 strokes -- it slowed me down and enabled concentration.

You can also benefit from Total Immersion (I think there's a Facebook group) and Swim Smooth videos. I cannot recommend the Zero to 1 Mile FB group enough!
posted by jgirl at 4:01 PM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Embrace your novice-hood. Doing strokes kinda incorrectly is so much harder, so you get double the workout. If you swim enough laps, your body starts figuring out how to move through the water more efficiently. For the strokes you don't know, you probably do need a lesson or two, but after that, you can kinda figure it out with practice, is my experience. Have fun!
posted by salvia at 6:25 PM on December 28, 2018

In freestyle, concentrate on swimming "downhill." Keep your head down low in the water and be sure the crown of your head is down between breaths. This rebalances your whole body and makes it much easier to stay straight, keep your legs afloat, and be efficient.
posted by Miko at 6:40 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Flip turns are much faster than touch turns, but if it’s crowded or the people sharing your lane are not properly paying attention to their surroundings, they can be really awkward and bad. It’s likely you will share lanes with people who stop and talk to their friend at the wall and completely block it, or who tailgate you, or who are bad at staying to the right when they push off. Flip turning around these people is actively dangerous. Also, the pool I’ve been in has been evacuated at least once a year because someone biffed their turn and hit their head/neck. It’s worth knowing how but it’s tricky to pull off, so please be careful.

Some people really like “Total Immersion Swimming” but I found it very advanced.

Jaws Quick Spit is the best product for defogging your goggles.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:42 PM on December 28, 2018

Total Immersion and Swim Smooth are systems that can teach you the drills you need for a good, balanced stroke.

Learn to breathe correctly. SS has some drills that help with this.

Even if you feel like you're doing too much drilling and not enough swimming, it's better to get rid of any weird phases of your stroke BEFORE they become bad habits.

Even if you start out doing one cack-handed length at a time, push off for the next one before you're completely relaxed and ready for it. You can do it.

Get good goggles, a swim cap, and a pull buoy.

Drink water every few laps, especially at the beginning.

Go at least three times a week, so you don't "lose" any insights from one session to the next.

Do your level best to spend at least a half hour in the pool. Yes, even the first time back, even if there's lots of resting. Work up to 50-60 minutes with little rest - this is an end-goal, not a short-term goal.
posted by notsnot at 7:03 PM on December 28, 2018

Honestly, I would recommend joining a tri group's swim sessions and then either heading for your local master's team or the USMS site.

Getting better is much easier when you have someone to watch and make suggestions. Even if you don't want to do a tri, most triathletes start off as inexperienced swimmers and their intro lessons will probably be the right speed. They will also probably teach some etiquette. Plus, doing a workout removes so much annoyance about sharing lanes with the general public.

Also, flip turns aren't dangerous and if someone turns *very close* to you, they are telling you that you are in the wrong place and you should move.
posted by dame at 7:34 PM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by kevinbelt at 9:22 PM on December 28, 2018

I struggled so much with lap swimming until I watched a few Total Immersion videos and read up on the technique. Never bothered with drills or anything, but once I took aboard some of the tips I pretty much tripled the total number of laps I could do in a session. For me, the big thing was to think of all the power coming from my hips -- something that would never have occurred to me. But it saves so much energy to not kick and flail, but to use the body as a source of propulsion (this video demonstrates the principle somewhat).

If you have options, I would shop around for a good beginner pool. Try to find a smaller one, or one that's less busy to start. I went to a gym that had the world's tiniest pool, which was quite useless for serious swimmers, but because it was so tiny they had a strict one swimmer per lane policy. This was GREAT for learning because I found lane sharing to be unbelievably stressful. But if you don't have options you can usually figure out (and avoid) the times that the power swimmers tend to frequent (you know, the aspiring Michael Phelpses who generate Queen-Mary-sized wakes from their butterfly drills).
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:42 AM on December 29, 2018

I have been swimming laps for years, and all these are great tips. But this year I got a swim Mp3 player and it is so much fun, it makes swimming laps a breeze because it can get boring.
posted by chocolatetiara at 12:03 PM on December 29, 2018

I could do a not very good or efficient front crawl and decided to get better, and used the Total Immersion book (there were very few videos of it online at the time). I really liked it, a series of exercises that start very basic and gradually changing until you're doing a smooth front crawl. I'm still swimming like that ten or so years later. I haven't worked out how to get faster - I'm kind of in the middle of my pool's speeds - but that's fine. Re-learning to swim like that worked for me.
posted by fabius at 1:36 PM on December 29, 2018

think of all the power coming from my hips

Yeah, that's the trick that changed swimming for me. That and eventually swimming sprints.

You know how when you're swinging a bat or punching a bag, you're weak if you do it from the arms but strong if you get your whole torso into it? Like that. You could try it on land. Just stand there with your legs together like you were standing normally, then start twisting your hips (nothing fancy, just rotate clockwise as far as possible then counterclockwise, back and forth in a nice slow rhythm) and then start getting your arms into it. When your right shoulder twists backwards, that's when your right elbow is bent and pulling out of the water behind you. When your right shoulder twists forward, that's when your right hand is arcing forward into the water.

Kicking kind of works the same way, but the other thing is that you have to think of the kicking power as coming from your thighs, rear, and almost lower stomach (I picture a hinge at the top of my pelvis). If you swim with a kickboard you'll see how it relates to your hips and upper body.

Probably someone who has read the books or done formal training can correct or improve in these descriptions, but that was what my body kinda figured out over a few years of swimming laps and it made a huge difference.

My basic workout was 5 round-trip laps of freestyle and then 1/2 lap apiece of butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, breaststroke. I started with like 3 of those units and worked up to 5-6 within about a month and stayed there for about a year. Getting workout sequences from online is a good idea, though, because I got kinda bored, and because my swimming got better once I started devoting more serious amounts of time to the kickboard, and having more variety was good for overall conditioning.

After about a year I started introducing a sprint day every week or so. Usually there are clocks with very visible second hands. Usually it took me, let's say, 45* seconds to swim a round trip lap if I was swimming very hard (*I can't remember but for example). I'd set a goal like swimming 30 laps at 60 seconds each. The idea was to get back from the lap panting at 45 seconds or so and sit there for 15 seconds recovering. By the end of the workout, I'd be getting back at 52, 55, 57 seconds and have to go right back out again. (If it was over 60 seconds, the lap didn't count, but I'd give myself 15 seconds or so to recover before starting again.) Doing that was really helpful for discovering ways to tighten up my form, like a certain way of keeping my midsection a bit stiff.

But as I said above, don't psyche yourself out with too much worry about doing things "right." I did things wrong and then accidentally did it right, and my body knew right away.
posted by salvia at 2:22 PM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

The way I refreshed my knowledge of my crawl stroke was to start swimming the crawl as I learned in childhood lessons. But I paid attention to the resistance of the water and how much it could slow me down. I experimented with a bunch of different actions until I was "streamlined" - using my muscles on the path to least resistance.

I didn't get as far with the other strokes, but watching YouTube videos or going to a few Master Classes could give you knowledge about how to do the strokes and then you could hone your streamlining on your own.

Waterproof Bluetooth earphones can also be a way to alleviate boredom. Good luck!
posted by bendy at 4:32 PM on December 29, 2018

« Older I would like to look at beauty   |   Best way to make this manuscript digital again? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.