From doing lengths at your local baths, splashing with the kids at a water park, to bobbing around in the balmy sea on holiday, there are as many different ways to enjoy swimming as there are places to do it. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that it’s our country’s top participation sport, with 11 million adults taking the plunge each week. Whether you’re a keen swimmer who wants to compete, a leisure swimmer who’d like fitness gains, or a novice in the shallows, here’s how to get more from your time in the water.
What is swimming good for?
Basically, everything! ‘This low-impact exercise works just about every muscle in your body,’ says Sam Hunt, instructor with UK-wide swim-training company Swimming Nature (swimmingnature.com). ‘As you are supported by the water, joints aren’t under stress, so it’s ideal for those who are overweight or recovering from injury – any age, size or ability can have a go. ‘With the right technique and effort, swimming is also good for your cardiovascular fitness and can help you to lose weight and tone-up,’ adds Sam. ‘Doing breaststroke for 30 minutes will burn around 367 calories, and butterfly or a fast front crawl burns as many as 404 calories.’ Regular swimming can also be a fantastic de-stresser, helping to improve your sleep patterns and ease or prevent depression and anxiety. Keen swimmers often describe how they experience a relaxed, meditative state in the water. ‘It’s a life skill, too,’ says Sam. ‘We should all be able to swim to keep ourselves safe near water.’
How do I get the benefits?
‘Aim to swim two or three times a week if you want to improve,’ says Sam. ‘Start with a 20-minute session, adding five to 10 minutes each week until you’re doing 45 minutes to an hour each time. Front crawl is the best stroke for fitness gains, but start with whichever stroke you’re most comfortable with. You can always mix it up – backstroke is a good recovery stroke after a more strenuous one,’ he says. Last year, over 100,000 adults and two million children learned to swim, so if you’re a beginner, lack confidence in the water or fancy a refresher course, sign up for a swimming lesson and join the ranks. ‘All Swimming Nature instructors are in the water with you, rather than shouting commands from the edge,’ says Sam. ‘We’ll start with getting your face and ears wet, then move on to floating and how to hold yourself in the water. At your own pace, we’ll progress to the leg kick, then the arms.’ A session at your local public swimming pool costs around £5, while gyms or leisure centres usually charge a monthly or yearly subscription. Lessons vary in cost: one-to-one instruction will be more expensive than a group lesson. Find your local pool, Swim England-approved lessons and more at swimming.org/poolfinder.
What equipment will I need?
The only essential kit is your cossie and a towel. You may also want to buy goggles, a swimming hat, ear plugs or a nose clip. If you have lessons, your instructor may use equipment such as floats or kickboards, pullbuoys, fins and noodles, all to help support you while you work on various points of technique. You might hold a float while working on your kick, say, or put a buoy between your legs as you work on your arm stroke. You can always buy your own if you wish to train by yourself. For open-water swimming (see How can I improve?, below), a brightly coloured swimming hat is a must, so you can be seen in the water. And you may want to invest in a wetsuit when it’s colder – these come in various styles and thicknesses, depending on when and where you’ll be taking a dip.
How can I improve?
‘Adding distance each time you swim will help your fitness and endurance,’ says Sam. ‘You can also do interval training, by alternating faster, harder efforts with periods of recovery. Everyone can benefit from working on their technique, as the more efficient you are in the water, the more effortless swimming will feel, so the more you can push yourself.’ This is where lessons come in: an instructor will observe your technique and break it down to work on each skill. Even if you just have one or two lessons, it can be enough to transform your stroke. Try Sam’s top three tips for a better front crawl technique:
> Breathe better
‘Trying to exhale, then inhale again with your head out of the water can lead to panicked breathing. Instead, exhale slowly when your face is in the water, blowing bubbles slowly out of your mouth or nose, or both. When you need to breathe again, rotate your arm and body and tilt your head out of the water to one side, then inhale.’
> Adjust your head position
‘If you raise your head and try to look in front of you as you swim, your body position in the water will drop, making you a less streamlined, less effective swimmer. Aim to keep your face down as much as possible.’
> Keep your legs straight
‘For crawl, kick from the hip – don’t bend at the knee. We don’t want to be seeing a whole lot of splashing from your legs!’
Join the club
As you progress as a swimmer, you may like to join a club and participate in competitions and events. ‘Adult swimming clubs are called Masters clubs, but don’t be intimidated by the name – anyone can join,’ says Masters swimmer and coach Steve Greenfield. ‘There’s no pressure to compete, either. Many groups just meet for a social session, working on things such as strokes, drills, speed or endurance, but having plenty of fun, too. All our groups are welcoming and inclusive.’ If you decide to join a swimming club, they’ll usually charge a yearly or monthly fee to cover coaching, competition plus membership of Swim England, swimming’s national governing body. Visit swimming.org/masters to find out more. Other progressions for your swimming include triathlons (multisport swim, bike, run races) and getting into open-water swimming – that’s anywhere outdoors, such as lidos, lakes, rivers and the sea. The Outdoor Swimming Society is a great resource if you want to find out more about why, where and how to try it out (outdoorswimmingsociety.com).
Keep kids safe at sea
This summer the RNLI and Swim England have joined forces to offer Swim Safe lessons for children at beaches and lakes around England. The free sessions aim to teach everything they need to know to swim safely and confidently outdoors – a must for peace of mind on holiday. Children need to be able to swim 25m (visit swimming.org/swimsafe).
Got the swimming bug?
Download the free Just Swim app and you can set distance or calorie-burn goals, log all your swims and try fun challenges. Visit swimming.org/justswim/just-swim-app.