Back in 2013, I started a section of my personal blog I called “The Advice Column.” I was still in the beginnings on my own fitness journey and I was getting a lot of questions from others who wanted to start. Those who’ve met me in the last five years might have a tough time picturing me as not athletic, but I was about as sedentary as they come for most of my life.
So I wrote a post for new runners, cyclists, triathletes, and yogis, but I didn’t write one for beginner swimmers. There are two reasons for this: 1) not many people were asking about it and 2) of all the sports I was doing, I felt least like a “swimmer” and certainly not a swimmer who could give anyone advice!
I’m still not a great swimmer, to be perfectly honest. But I’ve learned a ton in the last five years—enough that I was able to successfully coach my wife through her first two triathlon seasons. And more people have been asking for ideas about how to get started in this sport lately, especially those looking for exercise that’s kinder to their joints.
So here’s the list I thought I’d never be the one to write! In no particular order, here’s some of what I’ve learned in hopes that it might be helpful and encouraging to those who are new to your local pool or pond:
1. Good basic equipment helps.
I know you might not want to invest much money in a sport you’re not convinced you might stick with, but a few basic purchases could be the difference between looking forward to swimming and dreading it. Here are the essentials:
- A swim cap. Most pools require these and if you have any hair at all, you may actually find they make it easier to swim by cutting down on your drag. If you have a latex allergy, there are other options. If you think you might want to swim outside, buy one that’s brightly colored. Most important find one that fits you well—it should be snug but not so tight that you have a headache after 20 minutes.
- A swim suit. Unless you have access to a private pool somehow, you’ll need to wear something. You’ll want something simple that fits you well (ladies: this includes a fit that’s tight across the chest) and provides you the amount of coverage you need to feel comfortable. If you’re thinking about how much belly you’re showing or pulling the straps back up constantly, you’re not going to enjoy your swim. Note: chlorine will slowly break down the material of your suit, so you should think of this as you do running shoes—worth investing in good quality and in need of regular replacement. To make your swim suit last longer, rinse or wash it after every swim and always let them drip dry, instead of squeezing them or putting them through a suit spinner.
- Goggles. These will protect your eyes from whatever is in the water, especially chlorine. If you plan on just doing pool swims, clear ones will probably be best. If you plan on doing some open water swimming, you’ll probably want a second pair that’s shaded, mirrored, or polarized and has good peripheral vision. Most importantly, like the cap, you want a pair that fits you well, keeping the water out of your eyes without cutting into your face. To make the anti-fog coating last longer, be sure not to touch or wipe the lenses and rinse them after every swim.
- Ear plugs. These will keep water out of your ear canal, which is particularly important if you’re prone to swimmers ear or ear infections. I recommend getting brightly colored ones so that when you inevitably drop them in the water, you can easily spot them. Again, though, fit is the primary concern here!
2. Different strokes for different folks.
Just because the guy in the next lane is doing crawl stroke (aka free-style), doesn’t mean you have to! If you’re more comfortable doing breast stroke or back stroke or side stroke, do that instead. The point is to swim, so choose the stroke that works for you.
Variation is actually helpful too. So even if you have one stroke you prefer, mixing in some of the others will keep you from getting bored. Don’t know any others? Try taking a few adult swim lessons at your local YMCA—as a bonus, you’ll meet other newbies this way and have an expert to help you troubleshoot your technique.
Technique is more important in swimming than either running or cycling, in my experience. Tiny tweaks in how my body is positioned, how I breathe, how my arm enters or leaves the water can make it so much easier. If you’re looking to swim longer, the key to more yards is often in technique that will make your swimming more effortless, not in just slogging through more laps.
3. Swim with other people if you can.
This works for so many reasons, I feel like I can’t really overstate it. First, much like running or riding with a group, the company and mild social pressure can help get you to swim on the days you’re tempted to bail. Even just one person can be super helpful—my wife and I help encourage each other all the time! But a group also has the advantage of putting you into contact with better swimmers, hopefully in an unintimidating way. You’ll have people you grow to know and like that you can ask for help or advice from.
My first experience of this was with Team In Training (pictured above), but lately Beth and I have joined a Master’s Swim group to give us a place to learn and push a bit harder. As a side note, if you plan to open water swim, having at least one other person is a MUST. This is about safety. In a pool a lifeguard can keep an eye out for you, but in open water you don’t have that security. Having one other person to swim with means that if anything happens in the pond or the ocean, there’s someone who can help or go get help.
4. Expect to get anxious and have a plan.
Most people, at some point, have a scary experience with water as a kid. That little kid isn’t you anymore, but he/she/they are inside somewhere. The minute you’re in a situation that’s a lot like that scary experience, you’ll meet them in a hurry because they’ll start to scream bloody murder in your brain and/or chest. One of mine happened in the middle of a race, when someone accidentally (or on purpose?) pushed on the back of my head. Suddenly, I was a kid being held under water and that kid was sure we were going to drown.
In those moments when you feel like you can’t breathe, you’re going to have to have a plan. Mine was to flip over on my back where I could breathe freely. In fact for my first triathlon I did the whole race that way because I was so freaked out. You might find another way to help calm yourself in the water: a mantra, a visualization, a deep breathing technique, a moment of treading looking into the reassuring eyes of your swimming partner. You’ll figure it out, but know this: you’re not alone in that experience and it doesn’t have to mean you never swim again.
5. Learn to be okay spending time in your own head.
I tell people that I learned to meditate by swimming. Particularly in open water, you’re often deprived of two of your senses (sight and sound). Wherever you swim, you’ll be doing a fairly repetitive physical motion with your body and no tunes blaring in your ear buds for distraction.
This mental toughness is a muscle you can develop over time, along with the others. And it will probably feel awkward at first. Many swimmers solve this by focusing on their technique, since thinking about how you’re kicking will keep you from thinking about all the other things you could be doing. Many swimmers also solve this by counting, which sounds tedious, but if you’re making yourself say “one, two, three, breathe” you might drown out the voice that’s telling you this is boring and you’re bad at it and why are you even here. You might find another way of keeping your mind from undercutting your workout—sometimes I memorize poems or become my own playlist. Whatever it is, you’ll need to develop the ability to be with yourself for at least 20 minutes for starters and longer as your endurance increases.
6. Find a body of water your body likes to be in.
There are spin class people and people who can’t stand cycling inside. There are treadmill enthusiasts and people who only enjoy running outdoors. The same is true for swimmers. Some people are pool people. Some people are open water people. You might already know which you are or you might discover it as you go, but finding the right one for you will be key to your enjoyment of swimming.
Does the idea of plant matter and water critters make your skin crawl? You’re probably a pool person. A note for my pool swimmers: invest in some TriSwim. Their shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion will help your skin and hair recover from the regular exposure to chlorine.
Do you hate the chemicals, artificial light, and noise of the pool with a seething passion? You’re likely an open water swimmer at heart. A note for my open water swimmers: ponds, rivers, and oceans are all very different swimming environments, so you’ll probably develop a preference. Be sure you’re clear on the local laws and norms in the area of your favorite swimming spot—some towns and neighborhoods are more swimmer friendly, while others actively try to discourage it.
Have tip for new swimmers you’d like to share? Drop it in a comment below!