Beginner swimming FAQs

Common swimming questions answered

Got questions about getting started in swimming? Here we answer some of the most common beginner swimming questions.

What swimming kit do I need? 

There are three main pieces of gear you need to buy before you start swimming - a swimsuit, a swimming cap, and a pair of decent. Style of swimsuit is mostly down to personal preference, but make sure you pick one that’s actually designed for swimming and not fashion. Look out for swimwear made with PBT (polybutylene) - a quick-drying, more elastic form of polyester. Goggles need to fit well to work correctly, and you’re aiming for a tight fit so that the rubber vacuum completely surrounds your eyes without any loose areas. Floats like pull buoys and kickboards are important pieces of kit for working on technique, but you’ll probably be able to borrow these from your local pool.

Do I need to warm up before swimming? 

You wouldn’t head out for a run without warming up first, and despite its low impact nature, swimming should be no different. The first part of your warm up will take place on land, before some very easy swimming prior to the main session. Start by performing slow, wide-stance squats to work your lower legs. After that, move onto your arms by performing front and back arm swings in the squat position. Finally, stretch your triceps and shoulders. Place a hand on your opposite shoulder with your elbow bent behind your head, pressing gently on your elbow with your other hand. Hold for 20 seconds then repeat on the other side. When you’re in the pool, do a couple of very easy lengths and you’ll be ready to start.

Which stroke should I work on first?

If you’ve already got the fundamentals of swimming down, the first stroke you should focus on improving is freestyle (front crawl). The principals of freestyle will act as the foundation for improving the other strokes, from your position in the water to the coordination required for efficient breathing. After that, you can move onto breaststroke which will develop the power in your legs, then backstroke to tighten up your core and work the muscles that freestyle doesn’t cover. Butterfly is by far the hardest stroke to develop, so save that until you’ve mastered the other three.

How can I improve my technique?

Before you worry about how many lengths you can swim, it’s important to first concentrate on nailing the correct technique for every stroke, starting with freestyle. The key to efficient swimming is to stay as horizontal as possible. At full stroke extension, you should be able to picture an imaginary straight line running from the tip of your fingers, through your body to your toes. This reduces drag and keeps you moving quickly through the water. The key to this position in freestyle is to keep your head facing downwards towards the bottom of the pool. If you try to tilt your face forward to see where you are going, your spine will bend and your whole body will be out of line. To master the correct technique, practice with a snorkel and swim a few lengths. Forget about breathing for now, and get used to keeping your eyes straight down and your body as horizontal as possible.

How do I avoid other swimmers in the pool?

Most pools will have lanes set into different speeds based on ability level (usually slow, medium and fast). Take a few minutes before your session to watch the swimmers in each lane and be honest about where you fit in. People won’t judge you for going in the slow lane when you’re starting out, but they certainly will if you jump straight into the fast lane and get in everyone’s way. Usually you’ll be doing a ‘circle swim pattern’ - the lane will be split into two smaller lanes, and you’ll swim in a counter-clockwise pattern by always staying on the right-hand side.

Do I need a swimming coach?

A coach isn’t strictly required to become a better swimmer. If you put in the hours in the pool with a good balance of endurance swimming and drills to hone your technique, you will undoubtedly improve over time. However, if you are self-taught then you are much more likely to reach a plateau than you are with a coach. A properly qualified coach will highlight issues with your technique that you aren’t even aware of, often with video analysis to highlight every aspect of your stroke. Many swimmers find that it’s a worthwhile investment to have one in-depth session with a coach to go through all aspects of your technique. The coach will be able to give you a tailored training programme which you can then work on in your own time, with the potential for periodical follow-up sessions to check your progress.

How can I practice breathing techniques?

You ideally need to get to the stage where breathing comes naturally to you in the water, otherwise it will impact on other aspects of your technique. The best way to practice breathing is to hold onto the side of the pool with both hands with your arms and body straight. Start kicking your legs in a stationary position with your head in the water, and practice breathing on either side. Rather than jerking your head out of the water and gasping for air, focus on smoothly rolling your head to the side and inhaling strongly. Exhale through your mouth or nose once your head is back in the water - most beginners find it easier to exhale through the mouth, as this gives far more control over the rate of exhale. Once you’ve mastered that, perform the same exercise while swimming with a kickboard held directly in front of you, before finally practicing with a full stroke.

Can I get injuries from swimming?

As a low impact sport, there’s often a misconception that it’s impossible to suffer an injury when swimming. However, as with any physical activity, swimming injuries are a real possibility if you overexert yourself or your technique is wrong. Most swimming injuries will be shoulder-based, but you can also injure your neck, lower back or knees if you don’t take the correct precautions. Warming up correctly is the best way to prevent injuries, so be sure to always perform a full warm up routine before you start a training session. Overdoing one stroke can also cause injuries, so always plan to perform a varied training session with multiple strokes and drills.

What is the best way to build endurance?

Swimmingly is a surprisingly demanding sport, so don’t be shocked if you find yourself struggling after a couple of lengths when you’re first starting out. The single most important factor in building endurance in the water is to improve your technique. When you perform a stroke correctly there will be far less resistance in the water, and less effort will be required to move you forward. One way of measuring this is to make note of your cadence by counting the amount of strokes it takes you to swim a length of the pool. Try to bring this number down by focussing on correct technique - think smooth, gliding strokes instead of frantic, erratic movements.

What should I do in the gym to improve my swimming?

Not all of your swimming progress will take place in the pool. Swimming requires explosive power from the arms and shoulders, so try exercises like barbell military presses and tricep cable presses to work your deltoids and triceps. For a stronger core, and therefore better positioning in the water, do bodyweight exercises such as crunches, the plank and Russian twists. Most of your cardio work will be covered in the pool if you are training often enough, but if you want to add to this, try more intense sessions like hill running or high intensity interval training.

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