If you learned to swim when you were a child, then the chances are that you’ll still be able to master the basics as an adult (although your technique may be a bit rusty). If you’re an adult beginner, that’s fine too. It’s very easy to pick up the fundamentals of swimming and after that it’s up to you how far you want to go.
Why learn swimming?
The first answer to this question is - because it can save your life. Even if you never have any intention of going out onto a boating pond, let alone out to sea, it can be very reassuring to know that if, somehow, you do wind up in the water, you can get yourself to land without having to rely on anyone else to assist you.
The second answer to this question is - because it’s great, all-round exercise, which can work both your heart and muscles without putting any strain on your joints. This is not only good news for people who have certain medical conditions, but also good news for people who really need to avoid injury, for example, if you’re a freelancer and don’t get sick pay, or if you’re a student with exams coming up.
What you need to start swimming
Really all you need to start swimming is somewhere safe to swim. For practical purposes this means a swimming pool (keep open-water or “wild” swimming for later). The UK has plenty of indoor pools, both in private gyms and in public facilities. The cost of accessing the former is, of course, variable, but the latter tend to be very affordable. Some parts of the UK have outdoor swimming pools, which are sometimes only open in summer but are often open all-year-round. These can be very affordable, or even free.
Other than that, all you really need to start swimming is a bathing costume of some sort. Depending on your taste this can be anything from tiny trunks/a bikini to full-length shorts/one-piece swimming suits. There are even bathing costumes which cover more of the body if that makes you feel more comfortable.
You might want a swimming cap, goggles and a nose clip. These are all optional and people vary widely in how they feel about them. For some people they’re essential, other people hate them. If you have hair which is long, curly, dyed or just generally dry, you might want to give it some extra protection under a swimming cap and/or use a really good conditioner.
You’ll also need to take a towel to dry yourself off afterwards, plus you may want to take along toiletries or cosmetics so you can have a proper shower rather than just a rinse off.
One last tip, swimming pools tend to have locker areas and you often need a coin or some kind of token to work them. It’s a good idea to check this in advance, many swimming pools will have this information on their website, if not, just check at the desk before you go in.
Getting started in swimming
If you’re completely new to swimming, then, for safety reasons, it’s strongly recommended to get some lessons with a proper swimming coach. This will allow you to learn the necessary techniques without putting yourself at risk. Most swimming pools will offer swimming classes for adult beginners.
If you’ve been swimming before then you might want to think about whether you want to have a quick refresher course or whether you want to ease yourself back into it. If the latter, then try to go at a time when the pool is likely to be quiet, stay in the shallow end and consider using buoyancy aids.
Swimming aids for adults
You’ve probably seen children kitted out with buoyancy aids like water wings, rubber rings and floats, well there are similar aids for adults too. If you just want a bit of help with staying afloat then your best bet is probably to go for swimming arm bands for adults (some of which will also work on your legs). These are very affordable and quite discrete.
There are a number of other aids you can use to improve your technique, some of which will also help you keep afloat. These include floats (or kickboards), pull buoys, pool noodles and fins (or flippers). The basic idea behind the first three is that they support one part of the body while you work the other part. Fins are all about learning and practicing correct leg technique.
Swimming for general fitness
Once you are comfortable that your general technique is solid, you’ll be able to visit any pool you like whenever you like. In other words, you won’t be restricted to class times. It will then be up to you to set your own goals and manage your own progress. In the old days, fitness fans would do this with notebooks (the paper sort), then Excel came along, now, to everyone’s relief, we have fitness trackers and apps.
Joking aside, if you’re serious about swimming for fitness, then getting a waterproof fitness tracker and/or waterproof smart watch is a great investment. Obviously the key word in that sentence is waterproof and please check this carefully before you buy. You need a device which is suitable for use in a swimming pool, not just splashproof.
There are also some great apps out there to help you improve or maintain your standards. Here are our two favourites.
This is essentially a journal for swimmers to record their goals and their sessions (you can also leave yourself motivational quotes). It’s basic (and looks to be intended for beginner swimmers) but very simple to use, which is why we like it.
This app is a journal and then some. It also allows you to follow specific workouts (handy if you need some motivation and/or inspiration) and to access videos to help you improve your technique.
Setting realistic goals
On the one hand you need to be honest about how much swimming you’re actually doing. In other words, you need to focus on recording the amount of time you actually spend swimming as opposed to the amount of time you spend in the pool. There’s probably going to be a difference and it can be a big one.
On the other hand, you need to keep aware that swimming can be harder work that you realize. You heart has to work harder than it would if you were exercising on land (and the deeper you go the harder it has to work). You may, however, not notice this because of the buoyancy and temperature of the water.
For most people the most sensible approach is to have a few sessions where you don’t really try to push yourself, just to work out what your “comfort zone” is and then use that as a baseline from which to develop one step (or stroke or kick) at a time. Alternatively, you may want to think about using a personal trainer who knows about swimming to help get you started (and maybe help monitor your progress).
When you carry out just about any form of exercise, you start with a warm up and end with a cool down. This holds true for swimming. Enter and leave at the shallow end so you acclimatize slowly to the change in both temperature and pressure. Start and end your workout with a few slow laps.
Counterintuitive though this may seem, you don’t actually want to hold your breath while exercising. If you watch competitive swimmers, you’ll see that they actually breath regularly, they need to at the speed they’re going. Even if you’re not going at that sort of speed, you want to follow that principle. Basically, keep yourself oxygenated.
Swimming and other exercise
It’s great if you can get to the pool every day, but many people have to make a special effort to get to a pool and so have to mix in swimming with other forms of exercise. If that sounds like you then two good options are running and/or yoga.
Running is another all-round workout and works your respiratory system in a very different way from swimming. It can also be very affordable, especially if you run outside. Running outside can, however, be quite tough on your joints, even if you have great footwear. If this is a problem for you, you could consider investing in a home treadmill, which will be nicely cushioned (plus use cushioned footwear).
Yoga is also a good all-round workout and, more specifically, stretches all your muscles in a very different way from swimming, plus it can be practiced indoors for effectively nothing.
Open-water (“wild”) swimming
Once you get good in the pool, you may want to head out to the open water and if you do, it’s strongly advisable to head to a relevant website like the Outdoor Swimming Society to get relevant information and find details of events you can attend. For safety reasons, it is strongly recommended that you only ever swim in open water as part of a group.
If you’re interested in open-water swimming, here are some key points you need to know.
You’re going to encounter wildlife
For some people, this is the single, biggest argument in favour of open-water swimming, just remember, while it will all be safe it will not necessarily be cute nor will it want to be petted (or picked). The basic rule of thumb is “look if you want to but leave well alone”.
You’re going to need a wetsuit
Technically, in summer you might be able to get away with a standard swimming costume but even then we wouldn’t chance it, at least not in the UK.
Front crawl is the stroke of choice
Basically it’s the easiest stroke to use when you need to see where you’re going, which is much more of an issue in open water than it is indoors.
Breast stroke is the “recovery” stroke
Essentially, breast stroke is used when you need to keep moving but want a bit of a breather.
You need to be able to breathe on both sides
If you like to swim with your head out of the water at all times or only breathe on one side, then you probably want to pass on open-water swimming. You need to swim as efficiently as possible to counterbalance the effect of the cold water and that means being able to breathe on both sides.
You are going to be out of your depth most of the time
Open-water events tend to be on the longer side, staring at about 500M, and you’re going to be out of your depth for almost all of that time, so make sure you can swim at least double that distance in the pool without putting your feet down.
This may seem like an exaggeration but as a minimum you’re going to be dealing with cold (even in summer) and you could also be dealing with choppy water and mild currents, so it’s better to be on the safe side.
Speaking of which, any organized open-water event worth its name is going to have safety boats, so you’re highly unlikely ever to be in any danger, but you probably want to avoid being the one to be hauled into the safety boat and taken back to shore.
You’ll need to be able to swim in a straight line and turn
Swimming in a genuinely straight line is actually harder than it sounds. Most people are slightly stronger in one arm and leg than the others and hence will naturally veer slightly to one side or the other. In a pool, this really doesn’t matter, at least not for general swimming, it does in races, but in open water, you want to get from A to B as directly as possible as the cold water will take a bite out of your energy levels.
You also need to be able to turn without putting your feet down or using the pool walls. This is fairly straightforward but again you want to practice in the pool first.
You could spend a lot of time treading water
Treading water itself is one of the easiest skills to learn, the bit that can take some practice (in the pool) is getting started again as you won’t be able to kick-off from the pool side.
Swimming is one of the UK’s most popular leisure activities and there’s all kinds of good reasons why. It can keep you safe. It can certainly keep you fit and it’s just really good fun (as well as very affordable). There are pools all over the UK and plenty of opportunities for both competitive swimming and open-water swimming (and even competitive open-water swimming) if these take your fancy.