Swimming was important to me, at an age when maybe some of us are past learning these things, in discovering how much we are all capable of, if we just commit ourselves.
Ultimately, everything else I’ve learned and try to share is mechanics, or more easily comprehensible knowledge.
There are no secrets in swimming, no secret to being fitter, lighter or healthier. This article is based on the most common questions and concerns I’ve seen over the years. There are no secrets, no mystery.
1 Keep swimming
This is the most important lesson of any exercise or change program. There are no secrets in swimming, no secret to being fitter, lighter or healthier. You have to keep doing it consistently. Understand starting out that the initial motivation might not last, that there is no powerful will to drive you on. Understand that the real victory comes on the crappy Thursday evening after a long day at work, when you could give up, but instead you make yourself go for a swim instead. Sure, you can swim half what you usually do. I’ll bet you that once you actually go swimming though, you’ll start to feel better, and do more. A year of crappy Thursday nights though, when looked back on at the year-end, will wipe the memory of each and every one of them away.
Skill and talent at swimming are less essential than consistency. Those older swimmers who seem to swim so effortlessly. That’s not because of a talent or special training you didn’t get, it’s because they keep swimming.
2 Swim three times a week
At least. People ask me this question. I give them this answer. They don’t like the answer. They give up because it’s too much. Self-perpetuating problem.
Here’s the real story: Three times a week isn’t that much since swimming is technically difficult. I usually say the minimum required is four times a week. But if you are getting started, commit to three days a week, of at least 45 minutes per time.
Look, let’s be honest here. Swimming is technically difficult to become proficient at. If your only goal is some weight loss, eat less, go for a walk every day. That will work. If you would like to do those and develop a skill that will last you the test of your life, you need to start swimming regularly. Sure, you can take time off. But swimming needs to become part of your life, and for that to happen, you will have to fall a little in love with it, with the fluid expression of grace in the water, or the sound of your exhalation underwater, or the meditative aspect of developing skill and mastery.
Triathletes: This does no apply to you. You must be swimming at least four times a week. I’ve heard all your excuses, and that’s all they are.
3 Get a proper swimsuit and goggles
If you let something as simple as wearing a tight swimsuit be a constraint to keeping swimming, stop now, and let’s not waste any more time. Anything loose causes drag, which will make your swimming harder, and make you less likely to improve. Wearing baggy suits or board short is NOT like running with weights, it will not benefit endurance or strength. It will simply make your swimming worse.
I’ve seen more almost naked people of every shape that most people who aren’t a paid professional of some kind. No-one cares what I or you look like. I understand you might be a bit self-conscious or shy. That’s your first challenge. Over come that, fake it until you don’t care, and you are on your way.
And don’t even think about being a regular swimmer without goggles. They are the most important invention in the history of swimming, including any of the modern strokes.
4 Don’t eat before swimming
It’s an old wife’s tale about eating an hour before swimming will cause cramps. What it will do is start your body digesting food, and making you feel lethargic during your swim as less blood is available for exercise. Also, contrary to what almost everyone you know will tell you, you do not need to eat before exercise. if you have a normal diet, you are carrying two and half thousand calories in glycogen in your blood and liver. That’s enough for TWO HOURS of intensive exercise. Endurance swimmers like myself and other endurance athletes actually rely on this ability to perform at their sport.
5 Don’t eat after swimming
The single most important reason that swimming is often poor for weight control is that since water is colder (even a heated pool) than body temperature, it stimulates an increase in metabolism in an attempt to increase core temperature. This leads people eat too much after swimming. This drives an increase in appetite. You are not hungry from the exercise of swimming (for beginners), you are hungry from thermogenesis, the internal metabolic production of heat. Teach yourself to ignore it.
6 Breathe out underwater
If swimming has a secret, it’s this. You have no idea how many times I get asked about breathing difficulties. A common phrase I hear is “I’m a good swimmer, I just have difficulty with the breathing“, whereas those two are mutually exclusive. Exhale with your face underwater. Try and do it in a controlled fashion rather than a sudden explosive breath. Keep doing that.
Here’s an actual trick to help: Hum. If you hum while your face is underwater it will help control your breathing and exhalation.
7 Get some technique advice
You’ll notice how little of the above has to do with actually swimming. This bit is about swimming. If you are the kind of person who can stay at something because it’s difficult to master, swimming is perfect for you. I could say get lessons, but all you really need is someone who knows about swimming technique (a good swimmer, maybe a lifeguard, maybe not) to look at what you are doing, and then make changes according to what they tell you. You cannot figure this out for yourself. I am always happy to help someone who might ask. Other experienced swimmers are the same, because we all got here the same way, with the help of others watching us, telling us what we are doing wrong.Lessons or coaching are great, but I don’t like spending your money for you, and you can improve this way.
You improve by finding out what part most needs to get better, then doing drills to correct that. Beginners hate drills because they feel slow and often unproductive. So they don’t do drills. Which is why some people can actually swim for 10 (or in the case of one guy in my pool|) 20 years, and never improve.
Here are a couple of the best drills for front crawl (aka freestyle). I’m not involved in any of these videos, I simply did a YouTube search
1. Side drills. Slow, boring, but the most important drill of all. These help with balance, rotation and the all-important breathing. You start this with your arms by your side or one extended in front. Do a couple of lengths of each. Then start to add a rotation and one arm pull . Eventually move to doing a rotation and pull every 12 kick strokes
2. Raise your legs. Wall kicks are really good. Legs too low in the water are the second biggest problem after inability to breathe. The main causes are lifting your head too much, poor ankle flexibility and bicycle kicking from your knees instead of hips. I’m going to give you another easy tip: Clench your butt cheeks together. This will reduce your ability to kick your lower legs, and will start to raise your body to be more horizontal.
3. Fist drill. This is a stable of most experienced swimmers toolbox. It’s difficult, frustrating, slow, feels horrible …and immensely valuable. Swim some lengths of front crawl with your hands in fists instead of open, then go back to swimming normally. It will have all kinds of positive effects, mainly you will start to use your forearms for propulsion which will improve your position, and reduce drag.
There are hundred of drills covering all aspects of your stroke. Try to spend the first ten minutes of every swim doing these above, and add/substitute some more depending on what feedback you have on your stroke.
8 Understand lane etiquette
Following basic lane etiquette is the swimming equivalent of putting the weights backs on the rack, wiping down the bench, or putting the flag back in the hole. (I guess, I don’t do any of those sports, “I don’t even lift, bro“). Swimmers like swimmers. If you understand and follow etiquette, which lifeguards and pool management don’t in general understand, you can swim in a lane with people of differing speeds and do so comfortably for everyone.
9 Use the clock
A very common mistake for new swimmers is mixing up shortness of breath with exertion. People take rests that are far too long. The primary use of the pace clock in most pools is not purely to time fast swims but to ensure you are swimming on a consistent interval. So you can use it to time your rests. For most people for most swims, rest shouldn’t be longer than 30 seconds, and better to only take 20 seconds.
10 Warming up is more difficult than you realise
Unlike the way action films portray effort, humans require a period of increasing physical load to enable our hearts to beat faster and provide more oxygen to sustain more effort. The warming up phase has us feeling sluggish and unfit, until our hearts can provide the necessary oxygen. Once warmed up, you will swim harder, faster and better.
People not familiar with exercise are often actually put off by this phase. They sweat, (a weird tingling feeling in water when you experience it first) and can’t get enough air. It feels so horrible, that it’s actually dispiriting, and so uncomfortable for those unused to it, that it often cause them to not want to experience it again. Especially as you get older and it takes longer for your heart rate to rise (it typically takes me about one kilometer or twenty minutes to feel warmed up).
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that how you feel in the first first five or ten minutes is all you are capable of, that your body adjusting in the way it is evolved to, to be able to provide you the air for your muscles and hence
11 thoughts on “Ten Specific Tips for Successful Improvement in Swimming for Fitness, Health or Weight Management”
Thanks for that, really helpful.
Why do you say goggles are essential? I’ve been sea swimming since May and today tried no goggles. It felt liberating. No more leaking irritants and I see better.
Hi Bernard, Sorry for the delay responding. Goggles are not required for short dips. However for any time or distance swimming, especially in the sea, google are essential for both improved visibility, to reduce refraction effects as human eyes aren’t evolved to compensate, as the eyes of seals are, and more importantly, to eliminate salt irritation. Leaky goggles are just a sign that you may not have the type of goggle that suits you, as many people don’t investigate the different types to find what is best for them. I have a long article about this somewhere, as I think swimmers fixate on brands without understanding the basic different types and what works best for them. Of course, the goggle manufacturers never differentiate between types either. For example, LIDL have been doing googles that cost €4 for the last few years in July that are amongst my personal favourites.
Great post, a really good read. I am currently training to take on the Rottnest Channel crossing next year. A lot of tips you have mentioned in here is stuff I am currently working on to improve. You can check out my blog to and feel free to comment if there is any thoughts you have.
Great post and some very helpful tips! Swimming is a great form of exercise for every aged person. I agree with you saying that there are no rules when it comes to getting fitter and healthier. Each person has a unique body.
Great post, so many helpful tips. Must Admit that reading “Especially as you get older and it takes longer for your heart rate to rise & feel warmed up”
was most reassuring! Thank for posting,,,,
Great post, I’m quite active and only time I used to swim was while on holiday in the last few years, last time I was swimming in the sea across the bay which was 1.5km when I got back. A guy said to me he didn’t think I’d make it as I was using so much energy! I felt fine although I knew my technique was poor, head out of the water and splashing wildly, since then I have determined to swim more, and grasp this swimming business. At almost 48 I’m getting there slowly but surely!
Happy New Year Donal! Great post to start the new year and love the photo from behind the pier very cool!
Hi Donal, thank you for the insightful post to start 2018 and great ‘behind the pier photo’ love it! Happy New Year.
Tip 6 was my revelation a few years ago when I started swimming again. And not just breathing out underwater in one big puff (which means you are essentially holding your breath each time for a second or two once you’ve exhaled), but doing so slowly and continuously once your head is down in the water. Or put another way, doing what you normally do when your head isn’t face down in a pool. To do otherwise screws up your breathing, and your body simply can’t function like it’s supposed to. Then again, I guess it’s the only sport/activity that doesn’t allow you to breathe whenever you feel like it…
Also love the dig at triathletes. I know you can’t resist poking fun, and in fairness, why not? As a very average one myself in recent times, I’ve met enough of the ‘serious’ types to know they are often over-inflated and need a little air let out of their (usually expensive) tyres. It is no surprise the cycling community views us in the same way. In my defense, I think I’ll always be a runner first and foremost.
Happy New Year Donal, from a just-turned 50 year old. May you and your blog continue to be the rock of sense on which seekers of truths find refuge, and the scoundrels perish!
I so enjoy your writing on the process of learning this thing called swimming. I only started swimming two years ago at age 52. I plan to be in it for the duration, and I appreciate your ruminating on all things swimming as it is unlike any other sport I’ve undertaken. Happy New Year!
Thank you Jack. And to you and yours. We’re not far apart in age something I admit to struggling with, so long may we continue.