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How to Swim to Stay Fit

Among many benefits, swimming for fitness can improve your sleep patterns, lower your cholesterol levels, improve digestion and keep you well toned. Swimming can also build cardio-respiratory fitness and muscle mass, help those suffering from asthma or arthritis, help you to lose weight and be used for injury rehabilitation. And for those worn out by constant interruptions, you can't swim with iPods, cellphones or any other electronic gadget, leaving you to your own thoughts and improving your mental clarity. Swimming for fitness is something that's ideal for a wide group of people––water buoyancy is very forgiving of weight, injury and weakness in the human body, offering a low-impact exercise choice. If you have easy access to a suitable pool or swimming area, then staying fit by swimming might be an ideal choice for you.


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    Scout out the swimming location choices in your area before making your fitness plans. It's important to be comfortable with the swimming location. The place must be reasonably easy for you to get to regularly, the price needs to be affordable and the location itself should be one that feels comfortable to you personally. If you have a backyard pool, this might work although only for certain months of the year. Other choices to investigate include a community pool, a sports center pool, a lifeguard patrolled seaside pool or swimming area or a neighbor's pool. Each option will have advantages and disadvantages you'll need to weigh up when making your decision. Some major considerations include:
    • Is the place easy to get to, is there adequate parking or public transportation and do you feel okay getting there any time of the day or evening?
    • What fees or costs are involved? Are these compatible with what you expect to pay?
    • Do you like the pool facilities? Are they clean? Do the patrons seem like people you're happy to spend time around? Are there enough people looking out for the safety and cleanliness of the pool? Are there additional facilities that matter to you, such as a sauna or jacuzzi?
    • If the pool is privately owned, what particular issues are there to deal with? For example, will you have access whenever you like or only at certain times? Do you have your own key or do you need to ask someone else to let you in?
    • How seasonal is the location? Will you be able to swim there all year round (an indoor pool is certainly ideal for this) or will you need to shift between one pool for summer and one for the cooler months? Some people love the change of scenery of working out in different pools at different times of the year, while others might find it a hassle.
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    Purchase appropriate equipment. You shouldn't need to spend too much on swimming gear. You will need a good swimsuit––for women, this should be one piece. For men, choose swimming pants that cling, not board shorts or any other type of shorts. If you try to kick wearing flappy swimming gear, you'll find it tends to affect your kick and can lead to bad kicking habits that only make use of the lower part of the leg. Goggles are also essential for most pools if your eyes are affected badly by chlorine (few people can swim regularly in chlorinated water without goggles on). Other items you might like to buy, hire or borrow include:
    • Flippers/fins for increased speed (some swimming pools provide these free of charge)
    • Hand paddles for correcting alignment and providing propulsion (water gloves are another possibility)
    • Kickboard for holding onto when doing kicking-only laps (some swimming pools provide these free of charge)
    • Some people like to use nose and ear plugs to prevent water going in
    • Water dumbbells for adding resistance for strength training
    • Swimming noodle for tucking under your arms and increasing your buoyancy
    • A swimming cap––although not essential (unless the swimming pool management requires it), it helps to streamline you and can protect hair to a small extent
    • Swimmer's shampoo and conditioner––again not essential but regular swimmers find that such hair care products can prevent drying out and greening of hair due to the chlorine
    • Towel; while any towel will probably do, some swimmers prefer super-absorbent towels and perhaps a small wipe-down towel for when you jump out of the pool or take a quick bathroom break before hopping back in
    • A water bottle might be handy for fresh water to drink.
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    Plan to swim regularly. Fitness benefits will only come from regular swimming. While the most benefits will probably result from swimming two to three times a week,[1] even once weekly swims should help to improve your fitness levels. Choose a consistent schedule that you know you'll be able to meet each week and mark it in your calendar.
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    Decide on the type of swimming you'll do dependent on the fitness and strength needs you want to enhance. Choose your swimming strokes according to what you enjoy (an important motivation for staying fit), what you're able to do efficiently and what brings you the benefits you're after by way of fitness. For most fitness swimmers, a combination of strokes tends to be the most interesting and useful approach, but it's not unusual either for some fitness swimmers to prefer one type of stroke over all others. It really depends on your own comfort and needs, acknowledging that the best overall body workout will come from a combination of swimming strokes. Different swimming strokes convey different benefits for your body:
    • Freestyle or front crawl: This is the most popular competitive swimming stroke and if you're good at it, you can go quite fast. It's good for stretching your entire body, in particular your shoulders and back, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. But for those with weak arm muscles, it can feel like enormously hard work. Persist though, as this is a good all-round, efficient stroke and it just feels good to go through the water quickly once you've built up your speed.
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    • Breaststroke: While some say this stroke is the hardest to perform well, it can actually feel very relaxing and easy to do because you get to control the pace and still benefit from it as a workout. It's a good stroke for in between the faster swimming laps, when you want to keep going but at a slower pace. It's the ideal stroke for developing all-body strength and increasing your endurance and has the same benefits as freestyle, with the added extra of working out your thighs and pectorals. Be aware that breaststroke may exacerbate existing neck, back or knee pain/injuries––if this is an issue for you, avoid using this stroke until you feel stronger and have the all-clear from your health care specialist.
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    • Backstroke or back crawl: This stroke is good for extending your back and shoulder muscles (helping to improve your posture) and for those who like to breathe the whole time they swim, this stroke is perfect! You get to do a lot of staring at the ceiling, so hopefully it's an interesting one. When doing backstroke, be sure to choose markers above you that indicate you're nearing the end––it can be really painful banging into the edge of the pool at a fast pace.
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    • Sidestroke: This stroke is not very taxing, and is actually intended as a rescue stroke, enabling someone to be able to hold an injured person while swimming them back to shore. It's a good one to include in a mix of swim strokes, especially if you're aiming for distance in your swims.
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    • Other stroke styles: Butterfly is another possibility, as is "dog paddle". The former is hard to learn and to physically exhausting to maintain, while the latter is so simple it can soon bore you. However, as part of a mix of laps, these two swimming strokes can be a good way to vary the routine. And to endear you more toward the butterfly stroke, it's a real calorie burner, burning up about 800 calories an hour![2]
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    • Kickboard laps: These laps are to help strengthen your kick strokes. They can be a fairly restful break in between the harder, faster laps without a kickboard. They're also a very graceful way to get you started in fitness swimming, as you can do quite a few kickboard laps before feeling too worn out.
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    Get started. Push yourself to do a lap of your favorite stroke to begin with and see how it feels. If it's okay and you think you can do more, keep going until it's too difficult. If it proves too hard to complete even a single lap at the beginning, do what you can and take rest breaks as often as needed––in fact, deliberately build in some rest breaks, as well as allowing yourself unscheduled ones. This isn't a competition––building up your strength and endurance will take time but you will also find that with regular workouts, you'll improve quickly. The idea is to try to swim for 10 minutes the first few visits and to gradually build up to 30 minutes each visit. When you're comfortable at that level, 45 to 60 minute swims can then be considered, depending on what time you have available and how much you feel additional time is benefiting you.
    • If you're in really poor shape, swimming might not be the ideal way to begin. There is no harm in starting slowly and building up––simply walking or jogging in chest-high water can be a good way to begin your fitness in the water. Walk forward and backward, as well as from side to side. As you do so, swing your arms.
    • Don't be surprised if the first few laps feel really hard at first. Keep pushing yourself because soon enough they will seem easier, allowing you to push through to the next few laps and so on.
    • Use the kickboard to help you get started and remain motivated––you'll be buoyed up and you won't have to work as hard to begin with.
    • Regularly increase the amount you're doing each week––it's a good idea to push yourself just beyond what you think you can do each time.
    • Learn to keep a record in your mind as to how many laps you've done––good for your memory and vital to ensure you're not under- or over-doing the laps.
    • Consider water workout methods as a complementary to your swimming––see How to work out in the pool for more ideas.
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    Plan fitness workout routines. Initially, you'll want to get into a rhythm of turning up regularly and getting moving. However, within a short space of time, it's important to establish a routine. Rather than simply lapping up and down the pool without a focus, develop a workout plan that gives you something to work towards and beyond, focusing on the fitness and speed you're trying to achieve. There are many possible workout programs, and what you choose is dependent on which strokes you like and will be of benefit to you. Some pools will provide suggested workout programs––if you can't see any (often placed on laminated sheets or on the wall), ask at the counter for suggestions. Other sources of workout plans include reputable swimming sites online and swimming workout books which you can borrow from the library or purchase.
    • When selecting a fitness plan, focus on what it will do for you. Do you want to increase your speed, improve your endurance or simply unbend that permanently knotted shoulder area?
    • A very basic starter routine would be something like: 2 x laps freestyle; 2 x laps backstroke; 2 x laps breaststroke; 2 x laps with kickboard; 2 x laps freestyle; then do a swim-down. This would provide a complete body workout at an easy pace which can be doubled, tripled, etc., as you improve over time. It can also be easily varied to accommodate preferred strokes or strokes that are having a clear benefit for your fitness.
    • Change the workout routine when it becomes clear that the existing one has outlived its usefulness, namely when what you're doing feels "too easy."
    • Consider asking fellow swimmers what their approaches to fitness swim workouts are. They might have some great tips for you.
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    Consider joining a group or teaming up with a buddy. Rather than going it alone, getting a swim coach or joining a fitness swimming class may give you the motivation and fitness tips that you need. Many community pools organize such classes. If you like working out in a class and alone as well, consider combining both by doing one visit as a class and one by yourself each week. Or, consider swimming with a friend or family member. Both of you get fit together, as well as motivating each another.
    • Many pools offer lap swimming at varied rates of speed. The motivation offered by swimming laps with others can be beneficial for a fitness swimmer––just be sure to choose the right speed, remembering that this isn't a competition and that with consistent effort, you'll increase your speed with time.
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    At the end of each swim, do a swim warm-down (cool-down/swim-down/loosen-down). Do a few slow laps and then do some stretching when you get out of the pool. This helps your circulation and gives your body a chance to readjust to its pre-exercise state.
    • Treat yourself to a jacuzzi or a sauna if this is something you like to do. Some pools also have cafes with healthy food––a healthy treat or drink post-swim can sometimes be a nice treat to reward your effort with.


  • Knowing how to breathe properly for each stroke is important for maintaining your energy levels and for guaranteeing the effectiveness of the stroke. If you've developed some bad habits over the years, correct them by learning about proper breathing techniques. You can learn more from a swim coach, books or videos online.
  • Eat up. Carbs will give you energy and help you swim at your best. Some foods that contain carbs are rice, pasta, and cereal.
  • The expensive part of swimming can be the pool entry fees. If you swim regularly, ask about discounts for passes that cover a set period of time. This should save you a good deal of money.
  • If you're a strong swimmer, consider ocean swimming for fitness. Dealing with the added resistance of the waves can increase the effectiveness of building strength, stamina and endurance. Plus, you get the opportunity to enter summer ocean swim contests!


  • Sticking to one stroke only risks boredom; once you're bored with a fitness workout, you're much more likely to give up.
  • Don't overwork yourself or you could risk injury. Take everything at a pace that feels right for your current fitness levels.

Things You'll Need

  • Appropriate swimsuit
  • Goggles
  • Swim cap (optional unless pool requires it)
  • Towel, bag to carry your gear in, etc.
  • Swim workout chart or plan
  • Swim weights, flippers (fins), etc.
  • Kickboard
  • Water bottle
  • Hair care items to restore moisture, remove chlorine, etc.

Sources and Citations

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