I’ve been swimming since I can remember. According to the Talmud, a Jewish book of law and tradition, a parent has the responsibility to teach their children to swim. This can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Literally, knowing how to swim is essential for your own safety, it’s a key life skill to learn. Metaphorically, one needs to know how to swim in the waters of life, how to swim with the tide and when to swim against it.
I was taught to swim using two empty blue Stay Soft bottles and my father standing inches away from me, telling me to swim to him while slowly backing away until I was swimming the width of a pool without realising it. I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. But it wasn’t until the end of 2017 that I started swimming – swimming more than for fun or to cool off, but as a form of exercise. Consistently, multiple times a week, proper laps, training program and venturing into open water swimming races. My form still leaves a lot to work on and my times put me bam in the middle of the pack; but I’ve picked up on tips to make it enjoyable and a regular occurrence in my life, as well as the key equipment to make swimming easier.
From one novice to another here’s my top beginner swimming tips;
The Essential Gear
Having the right gear can make exercise all that easier and give you incentive to start. Like with any other activity I always start slow, getting only the essentials before figuring out what’s most worthwhile.
Out of all the recreational activities and exercise I’ve tried, swimming requires the least amount of equipment. Everyone says all you need to run is a good pair of shoes, but any regular runner will tell you, you need weather appropriate gear to run, which is more than a good pair of takkies. It’s different lengths of shorts, leggings, tees, tanks and tops to suit the weather. Buffs and gloves for extra cold days, caps for sunny and rainy days; and that’s just the essentials.
With swimming I have just 4 essentials – the things that make it easier to use swimming as exercise and not only a way to cool off. These items are based on pool swimming – and no matter the weather you’re not getting any less wet. In winter or when it rains, if you’re using a heated indoor pool, you’ll use the same stuff as when it’s sunny. If you’re using an outdoor unheated pool, you’re limited to weather suited for swimming; but you still need the same stuff.
Your swimsuit is most important, and for me was the most expensive purchase. But, it is literally the only thing you’re wearing which means it needs to be functional, comfortable and flattering. You want a swimsuit that wont slip and slide during swims or readjust as you exit the water; but you also want one that fits you well enough that you feel confident in it.
In my opinion, swimsuits need to be tried before purchasing which means going into a store. A little tip – if you don’t like the styles or colours, take note of what size in different brands you are. That way you can look online and order a size you know fits you. When looking at swimsuit fits, look at the colour and whether it is lined (a lightly coloured unlined swimsuit is a wet tee-shirt disaster waiting to happen); how supportive the top part is (you want it to act as a bra and not have to wear one under), how the straps cut you (if they’re too tight they’ll become a major irritant to your neck and shoulders) and the cut of the legs (some people look better with a higher leg cut while others a lower one).
Fit becomes especially important when you’re swimming open water races as the exit is awkward. You’re swimming and then as the “floor” goes higher you’re crawling and then awkwardly standing up while trying to walk out of water across a muddy floor, it’s not graceful. And there’s a group watching you exit which may include photographers and the last thing you need to worry about is a swimsuit that has moved from where it should be.
Goggles go before cap for me (because I swim mainly at home where it’s not a requirement); but in gym pools and races it’s caps that are required not goggles. Goggles are important for keeping your eyes from getting red and irritated from the chlorine. They’re also crucial if you swim with contact lenses. Goggles keep water out your eyes which means that they keep your lenses from falling out. And the only thing worse than losing a lense during swimming, is that feeling just before you lose your lens when your eye goes blurry and you can feel it scrunch up into the corner before disappearing forever, leaving you to feel your way out.
Goggles were the hardest purchase and it took almost a dozen before I found a pair that didn’t leak and wasn’t over R1000. I finally found this pair from Zone3 and they’ve been perfect for me – comfortable and don’t leak. They do fog a bit after a while but it’s not so bad I can’t see.
Caps are mandatory when swimming in gym pools and doing races. My preferred swimming cap is a lycra one that has the same material of a swimsuit as opposed to the plastic like ones which pulls at my hair. This one doesn’t pull, is more comfortable and easier to pull on and off.
Swim Seal Ear drops
I spoke about these here, but I’m mentioning them again because they have become my essentials. If you’re prone to swimming earaches and blocked ears, the Swim Seal Ear Drops are worth it. They’re made from tea tree oil (so expect that smell) and prevent water from getting trapped into your ear. I use a drop in each ear before I swim and they prevent my ears from getting uncomfortable.
Beyond the Gear
To swim you obviously need a pool to swim in, and if you want to use it as exercise it needs to a decent size. I would guess that 10m is the minimum to get in decent laps that feel like a workout and not like it’s two kicks and you’re at the end.
Gyms or swim centres are ideal as they have heated indoor pools which allow you to swim no matter the weather. The pools are also long which makes for better training. However, I have trained both using a standard gym pool of 25m and a smaller pool of 12m and have managed to get in decent training sessions and been able to have enough fitness to swim open water races comfortably.
Once you’ve got the gear and pool, it’s time for the hardest part – getting in and swimming. Here’s how I do it.
- Just get in and start swimming. The water doesn’t get warmer by standing there, it only gets warmer once you start swimming. Standing in a pool of water with goosebumps is no time for procrastination.
- Stay in your lane. Don’t focus on other people. Whether it’s worrying about people seeing you swim and looking good enough or fast enough; or watching another swimmer with a faster pace and better form and feeling inadequate. It’s going to take away from your own enjoyment. It’s unlikely you’re being judged (people tend to focus on themselves not others) and if someone is judging your swimming, let them. It’s really more of their problem than yours and not worth taking away from your own swimming time.
- Start slow – don’t equate running / cycling distances with swimming distances. 1000m in the pool is not like running one km. Don’t get in there determined to swim 3000m or even 1000m the first time. Start with doing as much as you’re comfortable with and slowly increase it. I’ve found that starting slow and gradually increasing works better for me and ensures that I don’t get overwhelmed and drop it. I try to get better as times goes on.
- Training programs – having a program to follow helps you, look for one online to follow. There are plenty beginner ones to try. I’m currently using the Midmar Mile training program to prep for Midmar Mile and I like that it gives you 3 levels so that you can choose how much you can handle. Likewise, if you want to improve your form there’s plenty YouTube videos you can watch to work out perfect form. But, as someone who’s been told my form needs work and who still swims just fine, don’t worry about it. As long as you’re moving forward, keeping afloat and don’t feel like you’re drowning, you’re swimming just fine.
- Enjoy it – swimming can be incredibly calming and peaceful. You’re can’t hear anything properly or talk while you swim and you can see only right in front of you. It lets you just focus on moving your body in the now – which can be a wonderful thing. It’s not a high impact sport, which makes it perfect for when you’re injured or on low intensity recovery days.
- Races – you don’t need to do a race, but if you want a goal to work towards races can give you that little bit of incentive. There’s not a lot of them; but there are some races (both open water and lapped in pools) to work towards and try out. Check out swimmer’s guide to find races near you. Otherwise just use swimming as a low intensity workout or time to zone out and just be.It doesn’t have to lead to a race.
Love swimming, hate swimming? Share your swimming tips!
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.