Swimming for fitness; looking for advice

I turned 30 this past week, and I think it’s caused me to do a little reflecting on the fact that I am not, as I once thought, immortal. So I’ve decided that I’ve been far too lazy lately, and I need to do something to get my fitness level back up. I’m into cycling, but here in Ohio, that’s not a easy thing to do consistently all year long. I’ll bike in the cold (10 °F is my lower limit) , but there are sometimes weeks at a time where the roads are covered in ice or slush, and so riding in the dead of winter is more of an occasional activity at best. I need another alternative for when I’m not on the bike because the weather is bad or because I’m bored. I thought about what those alternatives are, and decided swimming sounds like the best option. I can’t stand running at all, so that’s out. But swimming…that sounds like fun.

The problem is that I don’t really know how to swim. I don’t mean I can’t swim at all…I’m perfectly capable of making it a few lengths of the pool without drowning, though I’m going to look ugly doing it. More splashing than propelling. Swimming just isn’t something that I’ve spend much time trying to be good at. I’m not afraid of the water; in fact, I feel fairly comfortable in the pool. So my real problem is that I don’t know how to swim properly. I don’t know proper technique. I don’t know how to breathe efficiently and effectively. I don’t know how to turn. I don’t know what equipment I need besides a good pair of goggles (I wear contacts, and I don’t want to swim blind).

So what do Dopers recommend I do? I’m not interested in doing anything competitive. I’m not swimming for time…just fitness. Should I take some sort of lessons to improve my form? Or should I just jump in and start doing laps my way? Anyone have tips for what I should work on as I get started?

Are you interested in any kind of water workout, like water aerobics or Pilates? I started those last summer, and for me it’s a fun change from my regular routine. I get plenty of workout, too.

No, I don’t think I am. I don’t like working out in groups, and aerobics classes just aren’t my style, whether they are in or out of the water. Partly because it seems like a girl thing, and partly because I’m a stubborn, misanthropic sonofabitch.

Just swimming laps is what I’m interested in.

Depending on how much you value your hair, you will want to get a swim cap, but if your hair is short enough you won’t need one.

I would imagine that, after awhile, your endurance would improve and you will eventually be able to do way many more laps. On your own, however, I don’t think you will be able to train yourself into great technique.

Are there any Master’s programs near you? They are essentially swim teams for old(er) people, and by swimming with a master’s program you would get a coach to help give you good workouts, and help you with technique.

If that’s not your thing, maybe find a coach or a teacher or something to meet with every once and awhile, so s/he can watch you swim and offer suggestions for improvement.

Do you swim at a gym? You might try seeing if any of their swim instructors offer 1-on-1 instruction.

I swim for recreation/fitness and did this a few years ago with the goal of improving my crawl and learning how to do breaststroke…basically met with an instructor about 30 minutes a week for a few months. We did drills to break down the movements and she also did some sprints to build up endurance.

There’s a lot going on in terms of arm movement and body position that you can’t see while you’re actually doing it, so having someone demo it first and then critique your stroke will definitely be more effective than just jumping in and going it on your own.

Honestly, I also have to say you’ll be doing your fellow swimmers a courtesy if you take lessons. It’s no fun inhaling the huge splash that comes from the person in the next lane who doesn’t know how to kick properly!

You can probably get the basic idea down with one or two one-on-one lessons at the Y. Perfect form isn’t really necessary if your just exercising.

Take lessons. Seriously.

The movements for swimming aren’t all that hard for the most part, though the butterfly can be a bitch*. The important thing with swimming to to learn good technique. Once you get the technique down you will exercise effectively (no flailing arms/legs/etc) and you won’t piss off fellow swimmers.

They usually have classes that start out with simple stuff, floating and basic freestyle. The next class usually expands a bit on that and may get into backstroke or breaststroke. After that you get into fly, which I would be surprised if they teach, it is a racing stroke for the most part. The local YMCA will probably have some classes if your gym doesn’t.

I’ve taught a couple adults and usually it just took a lot of practice for them to get it down. They will never be all that speedy but they can get around ok and won’t sink :wink:


  • There is only one other person I know around my age who can still do the Fly. That is my brother. The Fly takes a bit of upper body strength and a good kick. Also, good form for the Fly can be hard.

Thanks for the replies so far. I plan on going to my city’s rec center, which has very reasonable rates that I can combine with my not-used-enough gym membership. I’m already subsidizing that membership with my tax money, so that’s why it’s a good deal. They also offer group and one-on-one lessons.

The local Y isn’t too far away, but it’s also a LOT more expensive. They don’t seem to have anything to offer that I can’t get at the rec center.

As for the swim cap, I don’t necessarily plan on needing one of those unless it’s a requirement. I’ve heard that some pools insist, but I don’t know what the case is for my gym. I’m not worried about my hair…it’s fairly short, so I’ve got about a three week turnover rate. None of my hair is sticking around long enough to get ravaged by chlorine.

You don’t “need” any equipment other than a suit and goggles. You will see people with lots of other stuff - kickboards, fins, gloves, waterproof Ipods, lap counters - gotta spend money on something, right? I’ve been swimming laps for decades and these days I carry a towel, bathing suit and goggles, plus a quarter for the locker at the local rec center.

I would say that the only thing you really need is to learn proper form. This could take only one or two lessons, if you just want to get the basics, or it could go on for a lifetime if you want to compete. For example, you don’t need to do flip-turns if you just want to swim laps. I train for open water swimming and never bother with flip-turns in the pool but starts and turns are very important for competitive swimmers.

So first, just jump in and start. However you propel yourself through the water it will be great exercise. Then get a few lessons to improve your crawl and, only if you are interested, learn to do a couple of other strokes properly. Then, once you have been doing it for a while, take a couple more lessons to refine your stroke. It is amazing how much difference minor changes in your stroke can make.


if there’s a clinic coming up, i would highly recommend it. Otherwise, get 1 or 2 lessons. You don’t need great form, but good form certainly helps. And, as another poster mention, it’s just respectful to the other swimmers.

There is one thing about learning to swim* and that is it is better to start off with lessons and learn how to do the strokes correctly rather than learn incorrectly and go back to try and fix your technique.

Unlearning bad habits can be really hard.


*It is the same with most things. Learn the wrong way and you double the work required. You have to unlearn what you know then learn the proper way. Been there and it sucks.

I used the earlier edition of this book Fitness Swimming and it very much improved my form.

In the earlier edition, there are a lot of drills working on body position and technique which makes swimming more efficient and then the swimming you do for fitness has better results… I assume that’s true of the new edition as well.

I also second the Master’s recommendation

Swimming is excellent for you especially if you’re very overweight or have back problems. It greatly reduces stress, however you actually have to SWIM to have benefit.

Floating isn’t swimming :slight_smile:

You need to measure your heart rate and keep it up. To do this take 220 which is an average person’s theoretical maximum heart rate. In other words in an average human if the pulse is over 220 bpm the heart is no longer capable of pumping blood correctly.

So you take 220 and subtract your age. For instance, I’m 45 so my theoretical maximum heart rate is 220-45 = 175. That means for me when I exercise, I should never go above 175bpm (beats per minute)

What you want to do is do between 65% and 85% of your maximum heart rate.

So in my case the max is 175

65% of 175 (.65 X 175) = 114
85% of 175 (.85 X 175) = 149

So this means whether it’s swimming or aerobics or running to have a benefit for your heart you must keep your heart rate between this range. My range is 114 - 149

Studies show you need to do this for 60 minutes, 5 days a week to have any benefit to your heart. Doing less has no added benefit to your heart though it may benefit you in other ways, such as lung function.

So if you’re very overweight or have back problems swimming will be an excellent way to improve your health with minimal stress. But remember to SWIM, keep that heart rate up and going between 65% and 85% of your personal maximum heart rate.

And since you’re starting, don’t worry if you can’t do it all at once. You most likely won’t be able to do this right away. It may take you a long time to build up to an hour. But keep going for it, even if it takes you a year to get that far, you’ll be glad you did and you will notice a marked improvement in your health.

Markxxx, thanks for the info, but I’m already very familiar with aerobic training principles, including heart rate monitoring. That doesn’t mean that I’ve been very disciplined in applying them lately, but I know what I should be doing. Until this past year, I’d be out there busting my ass on the bike for a couple intense hours at a time, several times a week.

I’ve only slacked off recently, mainly because I only have one preferred workout and therefore have gotten fairly bored. I think adding swimming as an option would keep enough variety in my workouts to keep me interested.

Yep, definitely take a class. I took a class a few years ago at my Y, and it was wonderful. I already knew how to swim - the strokes and such, I mean - but I didn’t feel like I knew enough to just get in there and go. Although the instructor was half my age, she was outstanding.

I was in a class with maybe 5 or 6 other adults; some of us knew how to swim, some were utter beginners. This format was good in that it allowed the instructor to give the more advanced of us just a few pointers, then work more closely with the beginners as we went off and practiced.

It was very low-key, and really nice. I think my classes were Tuesdays and Thursdays for 4-5 weeks. I’ve never regretted taking them.

The biggest lesson I learned? Slow down. Seriously - you won’t drown. Helped me a ton, just that tiny bit of advice.

What Cullian said - Total Immersion.

The problem I’ve found with taking lessons is that you have a good chance of being instructed by someone who learned how to swim via the Red Cross, which is likely a very different type of swimming than you’re looking for. My example I have is that a friend of mine took a lesson from someone at the Y, and was specifically told to keep his body square with the water. Not necessarily knowing any better, he did that for a while, and as a result did his ironman 2.4 mile swim in the relatively slow time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. Not that I could necessarily do much (or any) better - but he’s definately more athletic than I.
Fast forward a couple years, and when we were looking into improving swim form (both of us were interested, as we both do triathlons), I looked at total immersion. The concepts for streamlining were radically different than what he was told. He saw immediate improvement.

So, I’d say do a little research on your own into swim form to get a general idea of the concepts on how to reduce drag while swimming, and then sign up for some lessons, if you feel it is necessary. Then, when you meet up with an instructor, you can have some knowledge into whether they are teaching you how to swim effectively and efficiently for fitness sake, or whether they are teaching you the red cross method, which has a completely different goal in mind.