Cardio 101: How To Start Swimming

Let’s say you decide to take a swim. In the early morning light, armed with fresh new goggles and a cap, you hit the pool. Images of Michael Phelps and Dara Torres run through your head. But before you finish the first lap, you can hardly breathe.

Your upper body is what will power you during swimming, but excess lower body motion can cost you precious energy. (Image: Getty Images)

Don’t sweat it. “Swimming takes longer to adapt to than any other sport,” says Gerry Rodrigues, a Los Angeles-based swim instructor who’s been coaching for 30 years. Even if you’re a marathon runner or have logged hours on the stair-climber, you have to acclimate to the new breathing pattern swimming requires, as well as the weightlessness the activity causes.

“We’re used to moving our bodies on land,” says Rodrigues, “But we have very little practice moving in the water. So the learning curve increases.”

The good news? Swimming is worth the effort. This full-body workout improves both your cardiovascular fitness and your muscular strength – all while causing no impact shock to your body. (Where do injured runners go? The pool!) And if you swim regularly, you’ll see progress within a month. “Commit to a doing a block of 10 swims over the course of three weeks and you’ll be amazed at the body’s uncanny ability to adapt,” says Rodrigues.

Here are the essential steps for starting a swimming program.

Swimming takes longer to adapt to than any other sport. We’re used to moving our bodies on land, but we have very little practice moving in the water.

Gerry Rodrigues, a Los Angeles-based swim instructor with 30 years of coaching experience.

First Strokes

Sure, you could just jump in the pool and go for it. But swimming is a specialized skill, one where having good form can make a world of difference. Your best bet is to work with an instructor if your stroke feels rusty, (and lessons are essential if you’ve never learned to swim). Your local pool will likely offer adult group or private options. Find a program near you through U.S. Masters Swimming (, a national group that provides organized workouts and clinics for anyone age 18 or older.

If you do decide to go solo, start with the freestyle stroke (the one that looks like a front crawl). Swim for as long as you can, then rest for as much time as you need. Repeat for a minimum of 20 minutes. Everyone is different, says Rodrigues, so don’t get discouraged if the guy in the next lane over is cranking out laps two-at-a-time, and you’re winded after 30 seconds. Rest. Repeat. Stamina will come.

Pool tools can help you build endurance and improve your form. Kickboards let your upper body rest while you work your legs. Pull-buoys (a figure-8 shaped foam device that you place between your legs, above your knees) support your lower body so you can concentrate on your stroke.

Rodrigues’s favorite teaching tool is the swimming snorkel – which is like a regular snorkel except the tube sits in front of your face, instead of being mounted to the side. The device allows you to breathe continuously while keeping your body in the best possible swimming position. “Once you turn your head to breathe, it’s harder to stay aligned,” says Rodrigues. “Snorkels allow you experience what it feels like to have proper mechanics without having to worry about your breathing. It makes it easier for you to replicate on your own later.”

Form Matters

While swimming, you want your head, hips and feet to form one long line. If your middle sags or your feet ride low, you increase drag, which slows you down and wastes energy. Try pushing your head down a bit if your feet are dragging, or do core work when on land if your midsection is slumping.

“Relaxed” is the go-to word of nearly every coach in every sport for good reason—it keeps unnecessary tension from zapping energy you can use for exercise. But for swimming, Rodrigues modifies the phrase to “athletically relaxed.” “There must be a tautness to your body to keep it aligned,” he says.

As you swim, elongate the body with every stroke. Keep the arm in line with or slightly inside the shoulder on each stroke. When the hand and arm enter and move through the water, they should not cross the mid-line of your body. Even elite-level swimmers work on technique frequently, so give it time.

Making Progress

Consistency is the key to learning anything, so get in 10 sessions of easy, steady swimming over a three week period and you'll feel your body adapting to the activity. After these 10 sessions, you’ll be ready to tackle a workout.

Swim workouts typically consist of a warm up, then blocks of distance at varying paces with rest in between. Doing faster laps boosts your cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Pools are usually 25 or 50 yards (or meters) long. A lap is out and back, a length is one direction. So, a 100 means you swim two laps in a 25-meter pool or one in a 50-meter pool.

There are endless workout variations, but Rodrigues recommends the following routine for beginners:

• Warm up: Swim easy for 10 minutes. Then swim one or two lengths harder, rest for 10 to 15 seconds (most pools have big clocks at both ends). Repeat for 10 minutes.

• Intervals: 100 x 15 with 20 sec rest at 8 effort out of 10. Translation: Swim 100 meters/yard (that’s two laps) continuously at a speed that feels hard but manageable. Rest for 20 seconds. Repeat 15 times.

Aim to maintain three swims a week, but don’t drop below two if you want to advance.

Common Mistake

The upper body is the power mover in swimming, but don’t ignore the nuances of lower-body technique. “The biggest mistake new swimmers make is they kick too much,” Rodrigues says. The kick provides little propulsion but sucks up huge amounts of energy and sends your heart rate skyrocketing because you’re moving big muscle groups like the quads. You want to kick just enough to keep the legs ups. A light, gentle tapping should do the trick.

Essential Gear

A swimmer’s prize possession is their goggles. You’ll want a set of clear lenses for indoor swimming, and tinted ones for outdoors. An adjustable nosepiece will provide a better fit. The best options for most swimmers cost between $10 to $20. “Usually, the more expensive ones aren’t that much better,” Rodrigues says. “But if you spend less than 10 bucks, you’re likely risking quality.”

If you need a cap to keep your locks under control, go with a silicon version. It’ll run you between $8 and $20, and last much longer than latex.

Sticking With It

Rodrigues encourages his swimmers to set goals every 10 weeks. Signing up for an open water swim or sprint distance triathlon can give you a long-term target to strive after. And joining a swim club can turn workouts into social events, while also supplying motivation by surrounding you with people who’ll help keep you accountable.

After all, if you know a friend will be waiting for you at a race, you’re more likely to put in the work to get to the starting line.

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