How to Start Swim Training Without Embarrassing Yourself

When I tell my runner compatriots the dirty little secret that I’m actually a—gasp!—triathlete, I almost always get one of two responses:

  1. “You’re freaking crazy”; 0r
  2. “I wish I could do that. I just can’t swim, though. I need those arm-floaty thingies or I’ll drown.”

To the first group, I smile and laugh. (Okay, I admit it: In my head, I also silently agree. Just a little.)  To the second, I want to shake them violently and say one thing:


Start here.

Whether you’re looking to train for a triathlon or simply looking for a new cross-training activity, swimming should be a part of your workout plan.  I know swimming is frightening, NMA tri-noobs, but trust me when I say you should jump in to swim training.

Literally. Just get in the damn water already. You’re going to learn to swim, and when you do, you’ll look back and wonder why you were ever so scared of it.

If you don’t believe me, go to your local pool and watch the lap swimmers. You’ll see that there are tons of different swimmers: Young, old, large, small, you name it…it’s going to be in that pool. I guarantee it.

In my “home pool,” I see all sorts of different characters in the water. There’s one guy who listens to the radio on headphones while he swims…so he can do a modified version of the breastroke for hours without ever putting his head underwater. There’s also a woman who is easily 100 pounds heavier than I, but can swim three times as fast. There are folks from the senior club doing their water aerobics and children learning to swim for the first time. There are fit triathletes doing high-intensity workouts, and there are chumps like me whining and asking our swim coach if it’s time to get out of the pool and eat cupcakes.

No one is wearing “those arm-floaty thingies.”  And no one drowns.

I know this sounds way too logical and way too simplistic, but…umm…if they can do it, so can you.  Now quit making excuses and get in the pool.

How to Keep from Embarrassing Yourself at the Pool

The first step is to learn how to not drown.  If you must, sign up for beginner lessons with a certified swim instructor.  Alternatively, you can (in theory) teach yourself to swim.

Some suggest it’s as simple as a cap, some goggles, and a bowl of water, while others are much more involved.  If you’re going to go the route of teaching yourself, please study your materials carefully, and always, always, ALWAYS practice with a lifeguard or competent spotter watching you in the water.

Two other links to help you learn the basics:

If you already know how to swim, perhaps you’re a little intimidated by the pool because you’re not really sure what the general code of conduct is.  Here’s the low-down.

Be honest in your assessment of your abilities.

Some swimming pools have designated lap lanes, and within those lanes, designated speeds. Usually, they’re some variation  of “advanced,” “intermediate,” and “novice.” In one pool I used to frequent, they were called “shark,” “tadpole,” and “guppy.” I didn’t say they had to make sense, NMAs. I just said they were delineated, okay?

I know we all want to believe we’re advanced swimmers. In our minds, every one of us is Michael freakin’ Phelps. Admitting that we need to swim in the “novice” lane may make us feel inadequate, but trust me on this one: When you get plowed over in the “advanced” lane by someone who is actually, in fact, “advanced,” you’re going to get a big fat slice of humble pie. Go eat every last bite of it in the “novice” lane. Hone your skills there, and you’ll be in the faster lanes before you know it.

By default, circle swim.

Swim in a circle, always staying on the right-hand side of the lane. This allows for people to share the lane with you without the possibility of a collision. When you are sharing the lane with other swimmers, do not, I repeat, DO NOT cross the center line until you get to the wall at the end of the lane! Stay on the right hand side. The only exception to this rule is if you’re sharing the lane with one other person and both of you agree to each take a designated half of the lane.

Keep your knees together.

I used to work with a nun that said that all the time. But the context was something entirely different than what I’m discussing here (wink-wink). I just always wanted to be able to say that, too, and now, finally, here’s my chance! Keep your knees together!

When sharing a lane with another swimmer, stick to freestyle. Don’t start doing the breaststroke, as odds are very high that you’ll kick your lane partners at some point. That’s just not cool. Similarly, if you’re going to do the backstroke, that’s all good, so long as you are confident in your ability to backstroke in a straight line. If you’re going to zig-zag into the wrong side of your lane, you’ll collide with your lanemates, which would probably result in an aqua beat-down with a kickboard or water noodle. Not fun.

Respect the floaters, the kids, and the aqua-joggers.

Unless you are swimming in a time that is explicitly designated for lap swimming only, don’t get curt with the sunbathers, water-aerobics classes, or kids splashing around in the pool. They have just as much of a right to be there as you.

You might consider asking the lifeguard if you can cordon off one lane for lap swimming, but if they say no, then you’ll need to make the decision to either come back another time or to swim around the aqua-joggers and children playing Marco Polo.

I’d suggest the latter…it’ll give you good practice for maneuvering around your fellow triathletes in the mass start open-water swim of your next triathlon. In fact, ask the kids to give you the aqua beat-down with kickboards and water noodles. You get realistic training, and the kids get entertainment. Everybody wins!

Consider a Masters Swim Group.

When I was first invited to join a Masters Swim Group, my first thought was “Heh. I’m nowhere close to being a master swimmer.” Then I was told that Masters was just another way of saying “grown-up swim team.” So then I just felt old.

Now…I’ll never admit in a million years that I’m a grown-up, but I will say that it’s nice to be able to have a time in the pool, with a coach, with other swimmers over the age of 18. We’re given structured workouts customized to our abilities, and being matched with swimmers within your group who are at or slightly above your level will provide you with constant motivation to ramp up your performance just a teensy bit more.

The group also provides camaraderie and support: My Masters Group, comprised of every type of swimmer from Ironman triathletes to recreational swimmers, loves to get together after training for pizza, ice cream, or — you guessed it — cupcakes. We also go to races to cheer each other on or swap battle stories on Mondays after intense weekends of training or racing.

Only two types of people wear Speedos: European and badasses. You’re probably not European.

So squeeze into those Speedos, NMA studs and studettes. You’re making awesome progress in cementing your reputation as a bad-ass triathlete. See you in the pool!

This post is part of a six-part guide designed to help the beginning triathlete get started (without screwing up too badly).  Check out the entire series, or get your copy of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap today!



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  1. As a former swimmer (both high school and college), I think this is some really great advice for those looking to get into swimming – whether just to have their weakest leg of a triathlon manageable, or adding it in as some cross-training. It’s funny how similar running and swimming really are!

  2. This was much needed! Learning to swim is one of my top 5 goals right now but I’ve been making excuses (it’s scary, I don’t have time, I already do so much other fitnessy stuff).

    No more excuses! I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons in the fall. (I love the idea of doing a triathlon but I’ve always fallen back on the #2 response…)

  3. I’m definitely guilty of response #2 as well… in fact, I think I say that anytime someone so much as mentions triathlons.

    I actually got into swimming a little bit last year when I was injured. One thing I learned is that if your form is awful, all the practice in the world won’t make you much better.

    I got the Total Immersion book, and it seems like a really sound technique. My only problem with it was that so many of the drills required a partner to tell you how you looked, and I didn’t have one. Maybe I should hire a coach…

    • I’m going to go back to our discussions, Matt…you do a triathlon, and I’ll do an ultramarathon. In the name of science, I think we need to compare experiences for our amazing NMA readers. 🙂

  4. great post! i started swimming again a few months ago after not having been in the water for about 15 years. forcing myself back into the pool meant overcoming a HUGE fear. but once i did it, i found myself thinking “what the hell was i afraid of??”. my only regret is that it took me so long to get back into swimming. now i’m swimming 4 or 5 times a week and loving it. it’s helped my running big time, too. i’m faster both on land and in the water than i was when i started!

    • I found the same thing. After my first marathon, I got SO burned out. The only thing I felt like doing was swim 4 days a week. When I returned to running a month later, I was shocked to discover my running times were faster and easier. It was pretty darn cool.

  5. Karoliina says:

    Hey, us Europeans read this blog too! 😀

    That’s some good advice on sticking to freestyle when sharing a lane. The only style I can somehow do is the breaststroke, so I’ll have to learn freestyle before attempting to swim in a shared lane again… But I can recommend aquajogging for all runners looking for a new way to cross-train!

  6. Great stuff Susan, I must agree. When I first decided I was bad ass enough to be a triathlete I had not swam in 20 years (and I’m 30) and the last time I swam was in lessons but I never knew how to breath properly or even do the freestyle.

    I got some instruction from a friend who swam competitively, swam without water wings and did manage to finish my frist tri swim with flying colors.

    It’s entirely possible. Swimming is one now a close second behind running as my fav sport to train.

    You don’t get sweaty, it rules! And one day I’m going to swim faster than that 65 year old guy who does laps next to me!

  7. I swam when I was injured 1.5 years ago and I had access to a pool with lap lanes. Both thos things have changed now but I would incorporate swimming if I could. I found it made me a much stronger runner AND even a short swim is a really intense workout. So very efficient. I suck at freestyle but with my injury I was banned from my beloved breaststroke. My sis-in-law who is a swim instructor (anyone in Dallas?) suggested I take a kickboard and just do the kicking and breathing. Or one of those things for between the legs and just work the arms. Less coordination is much easier for me (why do you think I run?). Sure it won’t get you through a tri, but it is still a kick butt work out.

    • That is great advice…I hate kickboards, but I love the workout they give me. Shhh…don’t tell my swim coach. He’ll make me do extra kickboard workouts, and that would cause an extra-special bout of whining on my part.

  8. Hi, I found a great website thats free and gives a variety of swim workouts that you can tailor to your ability and preferences.
    Check out Hope it helps with training:)

  9. I think people that say they “just can’t swim” are actually more afraid of being seen in a swim suite. Well, at least that is my case. But after reading your post I feel like I probably could. But I probably still won’t since cycling, running, and climbing takes up enough of my time.

  10. i just found your blog through all the HLS recaps-i have enjoyed your posts

    I just learned to swim this past January and completed my second sprint triathlon this morning.

    • Hey Tami, nice to meet you. Glad you found my blog! I actually wasn’t at HLS; I’m wondering why I am mentioned in the recaps…maybe somebody was wearing a No Meat Athlete shirt there?

  11. Great post! I took swim lessons after I signed up for my first triathlon, ha ha! Ok, so of us triathletes ARE crazy… Anyways, I bought the cheap lessons — local university had something like 8 group lessons for newbie adult swimmers, 45-60 minutes each / once a week for $60. I also forced myself to hop in an additional time per week. It takes time to adjust to the breathing, but I have to say that I was fine after 4-5 weeks on consistent (2x week) of swimming. I could do a few hundred meters without stopping.

    Yeah, the technique is a whole other story. Getting good at swimming is not only a lot of work–and Matt’s right, reading a book won’t cut it for most of us, and neither will just doing the drills without having someone watch you and analyze the stroke. Sometimes local swim or tri clubs will do video analysis and have a coach give you the recordings with analysis for a modest fee ($25-60?) or you can hire someone to do that for you. After two coaches and several swim analyses I improved, sure, but I also hit a plateau I’ve never been able to get past because I learned as an adult.

    By the way, I really like what you said about adding swimming as cross-training for running. I’ve been trying to get my husband into lap swimming because he runs too much and occasionally pays for it with overuse injuries. Additionally, swimming is just terrific for the day(s) after races when the rest of your body is too sore to get in good runs. However, he brings up the fact that 1) it’s too boring and 2) it’s too expensive. I admit that #1 is definitely something we’ve all run into, but I actually like the fact that swimming adds variety to my workouts, even if staring at the bottom of the pool gets old after 45-60 minutes for me. (It’s so RELAXING though… great way to zone out after you get comfortable.) I think he’s right about #2 though. When you pay for single entrance fees or master’s, both have gone up in price in the areas I’ve lived over the past 8 years. My parents live in the Washington, D.C. area and there is literally nowhere I can swim for less than $9.15 anymore (it used to be $6-7 at the local university but they cut off outside visitors). In the U.S. I’m luckily affiliated with a university so it’s free or cheap with my ID, not the case for people I swim with in master’s who pay $600 a year for that pool.

    • Do y’all not have YMCAs or 24 hour fitness? Just Curious… There are tons of gyms (and neighborhood pools) with lap lanes in Austin

      • Well, both YMCAs and 24-hour fitness require membership (often signing a contract for at least a year). The only places that do not require a membership in the DC area that I could find were rec centers (which charge $9+ for non-residents) and some university pools, which often charge $6-8 per entry. In Santa Cruz, California a non-membership pool entry fee is closer to $5-6 (far more reasonable), but they’re having problems keeping the pools open decent hours or all day at those rates, so my guess is that price will go up soon (one pool has already closed entirely).

        Not sure how to fix this problem, but I sure do wish I could just walk into any pool, like I do in Western Europe, China, and Taiwan, and just pay a one-time fee that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to use the thing!

  12. Haha, awesome post! I am so going to send this to my friend who is just starting to get into triathlons; he’s hell bent on being a perfectionist about the swimming.

  13. This post remember me of my college life where take my swimming lesson. I missed that moment of my life.

  14. Have you been spying on me? LOL I just posted about my “secret” life swimming. Finally feeling comfortable in the water and not thinking I need floaties anymore.

  15. I always thought I was a terrible swimmer, but the boyfriend was impressed at how long I can tread water without tiring. Victory! That felt awesome.

    That being said, I’m not much of a water person. Or a running person. Or a biking person. I like them all well enough, but only as an occasional thing, and for pleasure rather than competition. I’ll leave the triathlons to you – and I think you rock for doing it.

  16. Your post made me smile…speedos..haha! They really ought to be outlawed for 70 yr olds with hairy bellies in the caribbean. I go on vacay every year and am skeeved right out of my enjoyable pina colada when I see that hot mess walking down the beach LOL

    Saw Gena’s crush post. Had to pop in. And also Evan’s comment re you. 🙂

  17. Katie Musser says:

    I was always a competitive swimmer as a child/teen and just stopped when I went to college, since falling in love with running my desire to swim again is huge. I had no idea there were adult swim teams I am going to have to check that out. We use to train for the rec team fully clothed pulling empty milk jugs behind us for drag, those were the days watching the sun come up from under water.

  18. I’m starting my first Iron Man in two days after a year of training and the important tip you didn’t give is:

    Don’t give up swimming too soon!

    It took me nearly half a year to learn to swim 50 – 75 meters, always getting exhausted by lack of breath. That in turn was caused by lack of stability. Once you get the hang of it, you can easily start upping the volume. Those first few lanes take some practice, but you’ll feel the star once you conquer them!

  19. My first tri will be in November2011, going straight to the deep end and kicking off with an olympic distance.
    My problem was exactly as described, I havent swam in near on 10 years and didnt know how to get started. Matt suggested I look into the Total Immersion swim books. I bought my copy as a xmas present to myself and started swimming 2 weeks ago (slow reader…) the Total immersion stuff is great – provides HEAPS of practical drills to get your technique in shape and all the basics to get you confident in the pool.
    Cheers for the tip Matt and I recommend everyone checking out their books or videos! I have entered a 2km ocean swim in August as my test swim for the Tri in November.

  20. Tim johnson says:

    The teachers at school tried to teach me to swim but failed miserably. And after that I never bothered to learn . I guess I found it easier to sick bright orange balloons round my arms when I go into the water rather than go to a adult swim class. However after reading this article I feel it’s time to man up and learn to swim. Its kind of anoying that at the age of 21 whenever I go to pool I have to water wings that just scream “look at me im a big baby that can’t swim”. That’s why this week I’ve enrolled myself in adult beginners class at my local pool. Hopefully in six weeks I can finally ditch the water wings and let my arms be free.

  21. I suppose I was kind of like you. As a kid I loved splashing and plying in the water I went to my local pool every weekend I had no drive or desire to learn to swim. I wore a pair of pink armbands they kept me afloat and I learnt to trust them. When I was approaching my 13 birthday I still hadn’t learnt to swim unlike everyone else in my class and so still wore the same pair of armbands. My dad thought this was un acceptable and tried to encourage me to learn to swim. He kept saying I was too dependent upon them. I wasnt having any of it if I could swim perfectly fine with my armbands. One night he called me into the front room I noticed my armbands on the sofa next to him. I asked him what he wanted to which he replied “just wait”. He inflated each of the armband,stood up and placed them on the floor in front of him. He said from now on your not allowed to use armbands to which I replied “I can’t swim” . You will learn without them “no i need them” The tone of his voice raised, There for babies, Your 13 years old. Theres know way your wearing them kiddy floaties any more. ” but I’m going swimming Saturday” the only place these stupid floatys will be going is in the bin and I’ll be certain of it! At that he started stamping on the armbands. I watched in horror as he burst my pretty pink floaties. With Each bang came the feeling of loosing a cherished posetion. I instantly burst into tears and ran to my room. The armbands had become a security blanket that I would not let go of. From then on my choices were to learn to swim or not swim at all. And i chose the first path. In a way I was lucky I was forced to learn at the point of no return. If he hadn’t done that I would probably be wearing those armbands know. Evanthough it crushed my heart it was a much needed rude awakening.

  22. Thanks for referring people over to my swim workout blog!
    Happy Training

  23. Mel Betts says:

    Hi there,
    Yesterday I swam laps for the first time ever (and didn’t drown!). I noticed that I have difficulty balancing increased heart rate with slow and steady breathing. Any tips? Is this just something that eases with improved fitness?

  24. Wow thank you! I hurt my foot running and have to rest for weeks and thought I should start swimming at the park pool during lap swim hours. I can swim but not a good swimmer or strong swimmer and am afraid to start alone and not know where to begin as far as learning to swim laps and add distance. Google brought me here and this is much appreciated!

  25. Thanks for a great article.

    I used to swim as a kid, but training got in the way of earning a living and getting into motorbikes!!!!

    I took up swimming again in my 30’s, only sprint stuff, but picked a really good Masters club to learn from… then I got married and gave it all up again.

    In 2008 I got back on it, in 2010 I was one of three in a Channel relay (uk to France) that were the fastest of the year and 4th fastest ever!… this Sunday I completed a 5km pool challenge in my second fastest time ever, I’m 51 tomorrow and I was competing against a couple of very capable 17 year old girls who got 4 lengths on me in 200, so I was pretty happy.

    It seems that there is no limit to the efficiency you can get in the water, the easier I make the stroke the faster I seem to go…. Front crawl is just “gliding with assistance” after all!

    Get in, Get on and get quicker…. one length at a time!

  26. Hey there! I feel like I’m showing up at the pool party way too late, but I’ve recently starting thinking about maybe someday trying a triathlon (I’m definitely one of those runners who can’t imagine enjoying cross-training) and I found this blog. Neither of the links in this post work anymore, though, and I would love to see some swimming technique videos and workout plans. Is there any chance you could direct me to a helpful spot?

  27. I hope this works! I am 13 years old and i haven’t swam for a year. I was one of the best swimmers on a very competetive swim team and then i took a break for a year so i could put more focus into cheerleading. I am starting again today on a new competetive swim team and there are kids who are best in the state on that team!!! i am very overwhelmed right now and afraid that i wont be very good anymore. hopefully i will be back to where i was before in a month or two.

  28. Awesome advice! I started participating in triathlons 2 years ago, with only my swimming skills from when I was a kid, no formal training. My swim was the most intimidating part of the tri. I joined an amazing Masters swim group and have come such a long way in only 6 months! I had the best races this year and am so excited to see what I can do next year! I was so intimidated when I first got into the pool, but I have the most awesome coaches and fellow swimmers who are so supportive and encouraging! It’s funny that you mentioned the delineation of the lanes too. I had an amazing opportunity to participate in a swim clinic led by Andy Potts (a super amazing Ironman and Olympian) about a month ago. At the start, I stated I needed to be in the slow lane. His response – there are no “slow” lanes. There’s fast, faster and fastest. It’s pretty incredible how such a small statement can make a big impact. I felt faster that day than ever before!
    Thanks for sharing so much of your personal experiences! It’s so encouraging to read your stories and have you as a source of my inspiration to keep working hard at being a vegan athlete!


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