Getting Into the Swim

by Elaine Howley 8

If you’ve always wanted to use swimming as a means of working out, but maybe haven’t felt comfortable swimming with other people or have been put off by the seemingly impenetrable or unwelcoming nature of adult swim groups, then this article is for you. Below are some of the basic steps to establishing a healthy swimming routine.


SwimSwimming is one of the best forms of exercise out there. It’s a total body workout that uses all the major muscle groups—and some minor ones you’re likely to discover the day after a tough pool session. As a non-weight-bearing exercise, swimming is gentle on the joints. This makes it a lifelong activity that is great for older adults who are looking to maintain fitness or build strength and stamina.


When starting out with a swimming fitness regimen, the first thing you should do is find a safe place to swim. Your local guarded pool or YMCA is a great place to start. You want to be sure a lifeguard is watching you at all times, especially when you’re first starting a swimming for fitness program. Save the open water adventures until you’ve built up a base or have found a reliable group to swim with near a lifeguard.


Swimming is a great sport in that it doesn’t require you to spend a lot of money for fancy gear upfront. You can find a decent bathing suit on the discount rack at any department store, and most sporting goods stores carry caps and goggles. For an initial investment of between $50 and $100, you can have all the gear you need for a great swim. As a minimum, you should gather the following items before your first pool session:

  • Bathing suit. I recommend wearing whatever is most comfortable for you. Find a suit you can move in and won’t be overly self-conscious wearing. For me, that’s a one-piece competition bathing suit. I prefer ones with a more modest cut (that covers more of my back and hips) and thin straps, as they tend to chafe less than thick straps.
  • Bathing cap. This is an especially useful item to have if you have long hair. A bathing cap keeps your hair out of your eyes and away from your mouth when you turn to breathe. I use latex caps in the pool and silicone when swimming in open water (silicone tends to hold in more heat), but again, whatever is most comfortable for you is the right way to go.
  • Goggles. Any kind of goggle will do. I prefer minimalist racing goggles, but find a pair that’s comfortable for your face. If you’re swimming indoors, clear or light colored lenses will work fine. If you’ll be swimming outdoors in bright sunlight, opt for shaded or mirrored goggles to cut the glare and help protect your eyes.
  • Sunblock. Again, if you’re going to be swimming outside, make sure to slather on the sunscreen, even if it’s overcast. The sun’s harmful UV rays can still sneak through cloud cover, and in the highly reflective pool environment, you’re bound to pick up some burn.
  • Water bottle. You may not realize it, but you’ll likely sweat during a pool workout, just like you would if you were running or taking a spinning class. Make sure to stay hydrated, especially if the water is warm.

Now what?

With gear in hand, head to the pool. When you get there, try the following:

  • Watch the dynamics. When you first step out onto the pool deck, observe how the other swimmers are moving. During recreational swimming hours, you’re likely to find a pool filled with a range of people and activities. A few lanes might be reserved for a Masters workout group. Swimming lessons or playtime might be happening in a few other lanes. The handful of lanes left over are likely for lap swimmers—that’s you—and there may already be people in all of them. Don’t let this dissuade you from getting in and swimming!

    Most lap swimmers will be following the circle swimming protocol. This is standard at most pools as a means of accommodating more swimmers per lane at busy times. Circle swimming is like driving a car: Stay to the right of the black line at all times. This means that as you travel up and back in the pool, you’ll be going in a counter-clockwise circle. If you need to pass a swimmer, gently tap her toe to let her know you’re there, and if it’s safe, pass along her left-hand side.

  • Pick a lane based on speed. Some pools will mark the speed for each lane; you may see signs at the end of each lane noting whether it’s a slow, medium, or fast-paced lane. If your pool doesn’t offer these helpful signs, just watch for a couple minutes. And then choose one. If you get in and find that the pace isn’t right, you can always switch to a different lane.
  • Time your entry. Make sure to watch carefully for other swimmers before getting into a lane where people are already swimming. One of the best ways to do this is to slip into the water at the shallow end and stand against the wall in the corner by one of the lane lines. Don’t block the center of the wall, as swimmers coming in for a flip turn might not see you and you don’t want them landing their feet on your stomach!
    It’s best to err on the side of caution here: when the other swimmers don’t know you’ve joined them, that can create the opportunity for a dangerous collision. Therefore, it’s best if you can wait for a natural break when the other swimmer or swimmers in the lane pause at the wall. When that happens, introduce yourself. Not only is this safer, it’s also a great way to make new friends.
  • Start swimming! Do what you can. Rest at the wall when you need to. Make sure to drink water in accordance with your thirst. And have a great time. You may just have found the best lifelong fitness routine ever.

Elaine Howley is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 on a dare; she hasn’t looked back since, and only trains in the pool when the New England weather turns really beastly. A recent convert to the roller coaster that is ice swimming... more »