Sadly, I'm swimming stupid.
July 8, 2008 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Tips for a novice swimmer.

I'm interested in adding swimming to my usual exercise routine, but I'm not really sure how to begin. (I'd say I haven't swum for any significant length of time since I was a young teenager.) How long should I be swimming laps for each day, and how best to build up to that goal? How many times a week do you go, especially if you're running, biking, and weight-lifting on other days? What swimming styles work best for muscle definition and losing fat? No advice too basic. Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
When I'm training for triathlon, I basically do 2 days in the pool, 2 running workouts, and 1 cycle in addition to 2 strength training workouts (upper body one day, lower the other).

How long your workout should be, and what it is, depends upon your goal. Are you looking for all-around fitness? Training for an event that includes a distance swim? Wanting to swim at a racing pace for short distances?

There are a lot of formulaic workouts that you can do to shake up your swimming (because yes, it can be monotonous). A typical pattern is to do a warm up lap or two (50 or 100), then work on technical skills and drills, then do a continuous swim for 10-20 minutes focusing on some aspect of swim which you're aiming to improve, (speed, technique, what have you), then another 50 or 100 to cool down.

The drills can vary quite a bit, and googling "swim drills" will get you plenty of them.

A recent technique class I took relied heavily on the "12 minute test" to measure speed improvements. We began with it and built our programs from there. IT's very simple: basically, you just swim laps for exactly 12 minutes, and see how much distance you covered. As you become more efficient in the water, the distance covered goes up. It seems like a rough measure but functioned as a good benchmark for whether I was improving. You might start with that. If you haven't been swimming at all and 12 minutes sounds exhausting, then you might want to work your way up to it by adding laps in a pyramid workout: swim 1 lap, rest until you feel ready to go again, swim 2 laps, rest, swim 3 laps, rest, swim 4, rest, then go back down the ladder swimming 3, 2, and 1 again with rests in between. You can increase the challenge of this workout by adding laps, starting with 2, 4, 6 laps or whatever, or reducing the rest time in between, or all of the you get better.

If you are thinking about triathlon (which I';m wondering, given your multisport routine), it's important to know that training for triathlon swimming has some important differences from training for pool/racing swimming.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

12 minute test.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a thread about combining weightlifting and swimming here. I voiced the opinion that in my experience it was difficult to combine the two, and I got overruled by everyone else. In the meantime my swimming style's gotten a lot better and now I have no problem swimming between lifting days. So I would still maintain that if your style is poor and you exhaust yourself with a couple of laps, you will have difficulty.

Nowadays everyone likes High Intensity Interval Training for losing weight and building muscle. Other people who know more about swimming will come in here and tell you about it.
posted by creasy boy at 10:54 AM on July 8, 2008

I'm a fitness swimmer. I swim a few times a week and swim somewhere between a half mile and a mile at a go, which takes about 20 minutes to an hour. I'm not a particularly fast swimmer. Last year I sort of overswam too much [was swimming 3-4 miles a week which was too much for me] and wound up with a shoulder injury so be cautious when you get started as you learn how your body works and adust to new stretches and directions. Get a good suit, googles and a swim cap if you want them, and I'd invest in some good swimmers shampoo and conditioner so your hair isn't a casualty of your new exercise routine.

I alternate between crawl/freestlye and backstroke and using a kickboard. I get a lot of good advice from the US Master's Swimming website and I think they have good sample workouts if I recall correctly. What worked for me was setting a goal that was a ways down the road [they have some excel spreadsheets you can download for this] and working towards that, swimming a little more each time, encouraging me to push myself but not go crazy.

As with any exercise routine, regularity is useful for getting into a groove. Depending on where/how you swim, you may need to learn to swim in lap lanes with other people (check local customs, at my pool if it's two people they split the lane but if there's three in a lane you circle swim and lanes split by swimmer speed more or less) so figure out how that works.

Also, as far as definition/weight loss, swimming isn't great for that. I did swimming as my main exercise for losing weight [because I'm asthmatic, it's a good way to get a cardiovascular workout without getting all wheezy] and it's not recommended. Swimming makes you incredibly hungry. I don't know if this is moreso than other exercise but people don't recommend it for weight loss. That said, I kept to a strict diet and it worked for me fine, going regularly, watching what I ate [something with PROTEIN before you get in the pool or you'll get trmbly and that's bad] and I have some definition in my upper arms, neck and chest that I'm happy with. Not real definition but "hey you look good for someone in your late 30's" so that's fine with me.

There are a lot of good threads with swimming advice on AskMe, I'd also suggest checking them out as well. Have fun!
posted by jessamyn at 11:11 AM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I found that when I first started swimming competitively, that very first day, I could barely do a lap. Swimming is HARD the first few days. Get your freestyle technique down and don't quit on yourself.
posted by taumeson at 11:34 AM on July 8, 2008

I started lap swimming about a year ago. At first, my problem was all aerobic -- I would get out of breath very easily. I just made sure I was taking long enough breaks and not pushing it too hard -- it sucks to get a cramp in the middle of a lap.

I swam with a friend who swam competitively in high school and had excellent technique -- she was a very good reference when I needed it. She also had a copy of The Waterproof Coach which is a binder of workouts separated into three sections -- warm up, workout, cool down. You can select one, two or three "goggle" workouts (levels of difficulty) and because the sections are separated, you can do a one goggle warmup, a two goggle workout, and a one goggle cool down, etc. Anyways, it is a neat tool to keep you motivated and have a checklist of sorts for your workout. I have also seen people print off swim workouts (from Tri sites or whatever) and just stick them to the side of the pool.

Also, bring water -- you won't really seem like you're sweating but you are still working out. Invest in decent goggles, about $20 should get you something good enough, although the silicone cups do tend to wear out over time. I have a pair of these and they are perfectly adequate. I'm a girl with a lot of hair, but I'm not a fan of swim caps, I think it really boils down to finding the right one. So try one if you are curious, for girls it definitely keeps the hair out of your eyes.
posted by sararah at 11:55 AM on July 8, 2008

I would also say that I had to work up to 1200-1500 meters. I would swim with my friend and she would pick a workout from the book and I would do about half that (since I seemed to swim about half as fast, heh) at first it was 700-800 meters, and I worked my way up from there, swimming about 40-60 minutes at a time (with breaks as needed).
posted by sararah at 12:00 PM on July 8, 2008

I swim pool races. My first advice, based on what you have said about your swimming and they way so many people look at lap swim is this: take a class or sign up with a Masters Team (if there is one near you that takes beginners--some don't; since you are anon, I can't make any recommendations). Getting someone who knows what they are doing to look at and refine your stoke will make swimming easier and more pleasurable, so you can do it longer and eventually work harder.

It will also help keep you from shoulder strain. Altogether that should also put you in a position to lose weight. The idea that you can't lose weight from swimming is very common, but it is also incorrect. There have been studies with college athletes that showed swimmers actually ate fewer calories than other athletes, and the higher body fat percentages swimmers displayed are probably a result the fact that people prone to higher body fat are less penalized for it in swimming, so they swim.

However, there are plenty of people will swim and not lose as much weight as when they run, for instance. Why? A lot of it has to do with not working hard enough--many folks don't have the technique, especially the breath work, to do a lot of quality work. Or they do but don't realize how much hard swimming hurts. Running is often expected to be hard, but swimming not as much.

Finally, for me, workouts like those Miko recommended are utter sucking boredom in a pool. If you look around for workouts, you will notice they are broken up into shorter, more variable sets. This is good. It keeps you from getting bored and it is that awesome HIIT you have heard of: in swimming we just call it training. You will probably work harder if you take more breaks. And lose weight.

So at this point I could explain more lap swim minutia, but really, go get some instruction. It is so worth it.
posted by dame at 12:07 PM on July 8, 2008

I used to swim competively, and it was great for weight loss. I had 9% body-fat during swim season, and a little bit higher during water polo season, despite eating constantly. Look at the swimmers in the Olympics. Not an ounce of body fat (for the men, anyway). If you're not losing weight, you're not pushing yourself.

I'd second dame's advice to join a swim clinic or join a Masters program before you develop bad habits that can lead to injury. Proper form is important in any exercise, and is much easier to correct when you're first starting out. A Masters coach will come up with varied and challenging interval workouts for you, critique your stroke, and introduce you to other swimmers of the same skill level as yourself that will also challenge you to improve.

I see lots of untrained swimmers who jump in the pool and swim the same stroke at a constant speed for their entire workout. This is a great way to get a repetitive motion injury. Use intervals, learn several strokes, and switch between them fairly frequently.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 2:50 PM on July 8, 2008

nth'ing the masters/lessons approach and not just because that's what I do for a living :).

It is a seriously good idea to get someone to look at your stroke on at least a semi regular basis. Shoulders where not meant to be weight bearing joints but can (nearly) become so in the pool. Jessamyn's advice about the USMS site is good and a decade ago I'd have recommended maybe not so much now. A few other tips:

-frequency is generally more important than volume when you're getting started. Go to the pool often even if you don't do much
-Swim slow, swim long, have patience. Sprinting or simply swimming out of your aerobic zone is _very_ easy when you haven't been at it long.
-intervals are your friend. Learn to use a clock or a watch. Swimming 10x50m on an interval that gives you 5-10sec rest will give you a much higher quality swim than dragging your way though a fading 500
-Use all your measurement tools at hand for judging your swim. Yardage, interval time, stroke counts, heart rate, stroke tempo, breath count, the number of times you can lap the blue haired granny who doesn't want to get her perm wet.... these can all be ways to find _something_ you did better today.
-Celebrate your successes, relish opportunities to redeem your failures. If you don't love this stuff you're doing it wrong. We can give you some tips but only you'll know what is, indeed, 'right'.
posted by mce at 6:20 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think everything above is great advice and I'd like to add a couple of quick suggestions:

There is a member on the MeFi group at WeEndure who suggested that I look into to mix up my workouts. I think it is a good resource for anyone looking for a workout targeted to their specific fitness and experience level. (thanks notsnot!)

My main attraction to swimming is that I am in love with water. Running is real work for me, but swimming is like flying and I absolutely love it. The pool is my church where I heal my hurts.

I would urge you to do everything you can to develop an affinity and passion for being in the water. If you're a little wary of water, don't worry. As you develop good technique in stroke and breathing you'll be more and more relaxed in the water. The better you breathe, the more you'll love to swim. You'll begin to be sensitive to the way the water flows around you and you'll develop a new awareness of what efficiency feels like. Be conscious of your position in the water. Watch and imitate people who swim gracefully - ask the best ones for tips. Get to know the regulars and make some good pool pals. But try to reserve the chat for the end of your sessions, not the end of a lap.

The first 400 to 900m is always more difficult for me than the rest of the swim. It always takes a bit of work to get to the state of zen. And some days are more difficult than others, no matter how long you've been at it. But our first environment was aquatic -- and I'm fortunate that almost every time I swim, my body remembers that warm, maternal, nourishing peace. It is good for the body, mind and soul.

Best of luck. If there is anything else I can do to help mefi-mail me.
posted by isopraxis at 7:05 PM on July 8, 2008

(former competitive swimmer) biggest issue with swimming is that swimming enough laps to see results can get really boring!

I like to change it up - I do kick-pull-sprints to keep it interesting:
- First lap, arms extended forward, kicking only. Kick hard, engage abs.
- Second lap, legs crossed, arms pulling. Again, engage abs to stay afloat.
- Third lap, sprint as hard as you can.

Ladders are great too - you can do them with time or technique:
- First lap - 20 seconds (if you get to the end of the pool before the 20 secs are up, you get to rest for the remainder of the 20 secs) / breathe every 2nd stroke / whatever goal you set.
- Second lap, 15 seconds / breathe every 3 strokes...
- Third lap, 10 secs / breathe every 4 strokes...
- and so on up the ladder, then stepping it back down again.

Basically, making the laps into mental games instead of back and forth, back and forth....

Bonus mental trick - start the swimming session with 2 suits on - make the bottom one tight, the top one loose. When you get all tired and need a perk-up, remove the top suit. The reduced drag will make you feel so much faster and sleeker in the water. Instant second wind!

...also, those little swimming radios/MP3 players that clip to your goggle straps are awesome.
posted by InfinateJane at 4:00 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Holy cow, infinateJane, that suit trick is awesome!

Seconding may have been the weendure recommender, too) - it's great to just plug in some parameters on difficulty and have it crank out something interesting.
posted by notsnot at 6:27 AM on July 11, 2008

(former competitive swimmer as well)

The suit trick is awesome but I had a coach that took it to a new level: the sweat pants.

If you got caught screwing around or trying to slack off or coach just felt you weren't putting your all in at a practice, out came the sweat pants. You had to put them on and finish the rest of practice with them which generally meant you'd finish a hell of a lot later than everyone else, and you'd be DEAD tired.

I never saw someone get punished with the sweat shirt as well, but coach was a former special ops guy and word on the street was that they made him swim in full sweats there, and that's where he got the idea in the first place.


I actually kind of enjoy the monotony of endless laps that everyone is talking about shying away from, up above. It kind of helps me get in a mental "zone," like when I run. Its great for my brain, I always feel really mentally refreshed afterwards. Have you ever been driving for a while and then all of a sudden you have that realization that you can't remember actually watching what you were doing, how fast you were going, what you passed, etc.? You kind of wake up and realize your brain was on auto-pilot? Distance swimming for me is like purposefully putting my brain in that mode for a set period of time.

I do however like to keep track of how far I'm swimming and its way too easy to lose count when you're in the zone, so I use a rubber band on my wrist and a water-bottle with different "levels" marked on it with a sharpie. Every 10 laps I complete I switch the rubber band wrist to wrist, so I only have to count to ten laps and then I have a kind of mental checkpoint that "I'm in my 20's now...ok now the 30's...etc." The water-bottle is essentially the same thing at a higher level - I can take a break and drink down to the next mark after each 50 laps (then start counting again from zero for the next 50). Once the bottle's empty I'm done working out and know exactly how many laps I swam.

Vary the distance / number of laps to fit your physical abilities / goals / etc. - but I'd encourage you to generally aim for the mental state of zen that isopraxis hints at, its incredibly refreshing.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:50 AM on July 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I actually kind of enjoy the monotony of endless laps that everyone is talking about shying away from, up above. It kind of helps me get in a mental "zone," like when I run.

Me too - don't let talk of boredom scare you too much. There's something mesmerizing about swimming that makes it less boring, and more like a mental vacation. Aside from structured workouts with their built-in variations and benchmarks, the other thing that makes swimming less boring for me is that I don't swim all the time. I also bike and run and lift weights - so there are usually no more than 2 pool workouts in a week for me. That helps me look forward to them and not feel any serious monotony. They're a nice break from running.
posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on July 14, 2008

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