Ella Foote is a swim teacher, open-water coach, open-water lifeguard and year-round outdoor swimmer. She is the founder and director of Dip Advisor, an outdoor swim guiding business, and editor of Outdoor Swimmer magazine.
There’s a strong case to be made for swimming being the ultimate physical activity. With correct technique, it provides a full-body workout and taxes your cardiovascular system, with a fraction of the injury risk of land-based sports.
Which begs the question: why don’t more of us do it?
Despite the endless list of benefits, for most men, heading to the pool is secondary to the gym or other exercise. Many hit the pool to cool-down or recover, rather than using swimming as the main event.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a leisurely swim, but doing the same thing week in, week out isn’t going to do anything for your general fitness.
But once you’re truly comfortable in the water – and know how to structure your sessions effectively – a whole new world of strength and cardio gains are at your fingertips.
Here’s my best advice for pushing progress in the pool…
1. Time it right
Generally, public leisure centres offer regular-lane swimming sessions throughout the day. Morning sessions between 7am and 9am and early evening before 7pm are usually the busiest.
It’s worth trying different session times to work out what type of swimmers are swimming and when. You don’t want to be heading to the pool during a family session; conversely, often the last lane session of the day is empty, so you can make the most of your time in the water. A 30-minute session can be enough.
2. Get good kit
One of the best things about swimming is that you don’t need masses of expensive gear. Which is why it always surprises me how little people invest in the few pieces of kit they do need.
One pair of decent goggles, that fit correctly, can completely transform your experience. Buy a pair you get on with, then look after them like your favourite pair of sunglasses.
A good pair of goggles should fit the size of your head, and frame of your face and eye sockets without leaving heavy marks around your eyes.
3. Warm up
Because swimming is low impact, it’s easy to overlook a warm-up before getting in the pool. But it’s still a good idea to wake up the muscles and raise your heartrate gently – your performance will benefit.
Start your warm-up before you get in the water, focusing on the shoulders, chest, head, neck, lower back and legs. Aim for five minutes out the water, before getting in and doing a mix of strokes at a gentle pace.
The shoulders are most prone to injury, so the following drill will warm up the delts and rotator cuffs
- Hold your hands up, with elbows at right angles (as if at the bottom of a shoulder press).
- Now bring your elbows together, to meet in front of your chest.
- Bring your elbows back to the start, then bring your hands behind your back, clasping your fingers and extending your arms.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat the sequence 6-8 times.
4. Remember to breathe
Breathing is the biggest obstacle for more first-time swimmers. Mastering it is also the quickest way to make real progress in a short space of time.
“Your swimming breathing should be the same as your land-based breathing,” advises Keri-Anne Payne, two-time ten-kilometre open-water world champion, and an Olympic silver medallist. “If it is different, you will struggle.”
Often people take large gulps of oxygen with big movement, then explosively breathe out. You wouldn’t do this with any other activity. Breathing should be calm and relaxed.
- Learn to breathe out through your nose when you’re face down in the water, before taking a small breath in, with a small movement, as your head comes up.
- A common mistake is to try to breathe both out and in during that short time between strokes.
5. Learn the strokes
Most people will switch between breaststroke and front crawl – these are the easiest and most common strokes people master. Butterfly is the most demanding, and will burn the most calories – if you have the space and skill, it’s a great workout.
That said, front crawl is equally beneficial if you push yourself, and you won’t upset your fellow pool users quite as much.
6. Break it down
Breaking your chosen stroke down to component parts and working on them individually is the best way to improve your overall performance.
When you learn to swim, a teacher will tend to look at your whole stroke, then each part, then whole again to see the improvement. This is an effective way for you to focus your solo sessions, too.
- Do a gentle warm-up, then break the stroke down into arms, legs, breathing and body.
- At the end, pull it altogether.
- Time yourself on your first whole stroke length, then at the end to see the progress – it can be really satisfying.
7. Focus on form
Like lifting weights at the gym, if your technique is sloppy, you’re going to be more prone to injury and you won’t get the maximum benefit from your swimming.
Experienced swim coach and teacher Paul Fowler runs 100% Swimming. He says:
“Choose good form over speed or distance. Always swim well, practice good technique and be the best that you can on any given day.
“Technique will support long distance or faster swimming speeds, so short sessions at the pool, focusing on your form, can be more beneficial overall. Build up correct form and speed, and the distance will follow.”
8. Be consistent
Swimming once a week is better than nothing, but you won’t see much benefit or progress. Frequent, short swimming sessions will see a more sustainable improvement over time.
If you can aim for three swim sessions a week, perhaps dedicate each session to either a different part of your stroke or a different stroke entirely. Working on just arms or legs isn’t reserved just for the gym.
Dedicate short sessions to arms, legs, body and breathing – paying attention to form. Look at your swim plan over a month, rather than by week, and you could see a huge difference.
9. Get help
Your local leisure centre will have a list of teaching staff who can help with the basics for each stroke, and help you identify areas to work on. If you can’t sustain front crawl for more than 25 meters, you need help.
Understanding where you’re going wrong and how to make changes will make swimming more enjoyable and comfortable. If you’re more advanced with your swimming, try using a coach who can help you set and reach more targeted goals.
10. Watch yourself
Get a waterproof case for your smartphone and take a mate swimming with you. Get them to film you swimming towards them, from the side, below and above.
Often our brains tell us we are doing one thing, but our bodies are doing something very different. Over crossing arms with front crawl is common and puts a strain on the shoulders – being able to clearly see it on camera can help you adjust.
Look at your catch and kick: are you swimming as efficiently as you can? If taking any camera to a pool area, seek permission from the lifeguard/pool manager, as there are safeguarding procedures in place at all pools – and only ever film yourself.
11. Use optional extras
There is a plethora of swim accessories you can take to the pool, though in my experience it is best not to take them all at once and the basic offer is often the best. Different toys do different things.
The most common equipment you will find at your local pool is a kickboard – simply a flat rectangular float. There are several drills you can do with one. They can help with a leg session, body positioning and breathing technique. If your pool doesn’t have one, they are inexpensive to buy and a worthy investment.
Other than that, there are pool buoys, paddles, gloves, fins – the options are endless. Seek advice and do your research to get the most out of your equipment.
12. Do more drills
Simply, drills are a way to work on your technique and fitness. They are a way of incorporating swim accessories into your swimming, and can help increase speed and power through the water. They’re a useful way to teach your body how it should feel during a certain technique.
Drills are great for creating habits, so your body moves naturally, rather than you having to think about the movement too much.
13. Fuel up
Swimming uses a lot of energy, so it’s common to leave the water feeling ravenous. Ensuring you have something in your body before you start swimming will enable you to perform better, but too much food and it can be uncomfortable.
Choose easy-to-digest foods: wholegrains, yogurt, nuts and fruits are all good. If you can’t face food before a swim, make sure your last meal had a good portion of slow-release carbohydrates.
14. Drink plenty
You don’t notice or feel the discomfort of sweating in the water, so can easily forget to hydrate. Thirst can also be supressed by water flushing in and out of the mouth.
It’s always surprising how few water bottles I see pool-side when I’m swimming, but you wouldn’t head out for a long run without water. If you suffer with cramp in your legs or feet while swimming, mixing in a hydration tablet or gel with electrolytes can help.
15. Set tests
You’ve mastered your technique and are maximising your swim sessions, but now find you’re getting bored, set yourself challenges to engage and motivate.
They could be as simple as being able to swim faster or further, but you could also look at pool and open-water events.
Swimathon takes place at over 450 venues across the UK, and offers distances from 400m to 30.9k. It’s a popular annual event and can be done individually or as a team.
Find out more at swimathon.org
16. Get strong
Improvement can be made outside the pool with strength training and exercises that enhance your time in the water. Personal trainer and open-water coach Viv Rickman encourages swimmers to reach a level of ‘zen’ in the water.
“For me,” she says, “it’s the moment when my breathing, arms and body are aligned. When my rotation feels perfect, when I have that cool abyss of nothingness below me, my rhythm just flows and my focus is in the here and now.”
Viv Rickman recommends strength training to aid swimming form, and the cable woodchop is the perfect core strengthener.
- Attach a handle to the top setting of an adjustable cable machine. Stand next to the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Extend your arms upward and grab the handle with both hands above one shoulder.
- With your arms fully extended, pull the handle down and across your body to your opposite side. Allow your hips and torso to rotate, and keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
17. Take it outside
Another brilliant way to challenge yourself and make swimming more interesting is to leave the confines of the pool. There’s a reason outdoor swimming is increasing in popularity and people get all evangelical about it. Beathing fresh air, exercising in natural daylight and immersing in nature boosts the physical and mental benefits of swimming.
Swimming in open-water also requires new skills and ability. Not being able to see the bottom or push off the end of a pool can feel totally different. There are plenty of open-water venues across the UK, offering safety, support and facilities, as well as marked distances to tackle.
Words: Ella Foote