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by Katy Bergen

January 18, 2020

Three Masters coaches break down how those new to the sport can improve

Maybe you're a cyclist or a runner and you want to improve the swimming leg of a triathlon. Maybe you're a former swimmer plotting a glorious return to the pool after a decades-long hiatus. Maybe you're ready to make swimming part of your fitness routine but can't seem to swim more than a few laps at a time.

Whether you have experience in the pool or are developing a swimming routine for the first time, if you’re looking to improve your performance in the pool you may find yourself asking a common question: How do I get started?

U.S. Masters Swimming asked three Masters coaches from across the country for their advice on how to develop a swimming routine.

Start With Private Lessons or Join a Club

North Carolina Masters Swimming Coach Megan Lassen typically recommends beginners seek out private lessons if they can afford it. One-on-one attention can ensure that flaws in form are spotted and corrected early.

But individuals with basic swimming skills can find that support on a Masters team if they are willing to work hard.

"Swim with a group that has a coach on deck on a team that is welcoming and open to having new swimmers," Lassen says. “Group swimming builds enthusiasm and camaraderie that can help maintain your commitment.”

Don't Be Intimidated

How are there five people swimming in a lane without crashing into each other? What does that workout on the board actually mean?

Although a Masters coach should be able to walk newcomers through Swim Etiquette 101, those swimming solo can find guidance in USMS’s Masters Swimming 101 series.

Beginners looking at joining Masters teams should also remember that the name isn't an indicator of prowess, says Michael Hamm, a USMS-certified Adult Learn to Swim instructor and head coach of Kroc Masters.

"Mastering swimming is a never-ending process," he says.

You Have to Slow Down Before You Can Speed Up

Colorado Masters Swimming coach Terry Heggy sees this dynamic all the time. Newcomers, particularly ones who come from an athletic background, start swimming laps at the pool by swimming as many laps as they can, as fast as they can.

"The first thing they do is get in and just crank," Heggy says. "And then they are puzzled as to why they are exhausted."

Focusing on speed over stamina as a developing swimmer is as silly as an individual sprinting the first 100 meters of a mile run, Heggy says.

Structure swimming workouts like any other sports by utilizing intervals and sets, distance and sprint days. Try finishing three 50s on an interval that you can make Heggy says, and work on breathing and body position.

"There's nothing different with swimming than any other sport in terms of how the body processes energy," Heggy said. "The only difference is you have to turn your head to breath."

Remember to Breathe

Failing to treat swimming like other sports can lead to another common user mistake: forgetting to inhale and exhale.

"Most people who get in the pool for the first time don't work on cycle breathing," Hamm says. "They hold their breath."

Hamm likens swimmers’ filling their lungs 100 percent with air to filling a premium-gas car with 100-rated octane. But when swimmers fail to exhale underwater, they’re progressively compromising the quality of their air intake, like a car running on inferior fuel.

Heggy illustrates this concept in another way. When he sees swimmers holding their breath underwater, he asks: "Do you hold your breath when you run?"

Explore or Revisit the Physics of Swimming

Part of slowing down means stopping to appreciate the mechanisms behind functional swimming.

"Your lungs are your fulcrum," Heggy says. "That's the part of your body that actually floats."

Swimmers should remember to keep their body as narrow and level as possible, and practice extending their arms. That means swimmers should not start their freestyle pull until their other arm is recovering over the water.

"You have these big, heavy, strong-muscled legs that don't float," Heggy will tell his swimmers. "How are you going to balance them out over the top?"

He points to swimmers Jono Van Hazel and Karlyn Pipes as swimmers to emulate when it comes to technique.

Don't Forget About Drills

Catch-up: For Lassen, nothing tops the catch-up drill to help new swimmers understand timing. "Until you catch up, you are going to have a really hard time getting vertical forearm and catching the water," she says."

Six kicks, side, front, back. Heggy relies on six kicks on each side with one arm by your side and one arm extended to help swimmers "hold the configuration where your body is parallel to the surface."

Be Consistent

"If you want to get better at swimming, you need to swim more," Lassen says. "If you are only swimming one or two days a week, it's not going to happen." That means swimming at least three times a week.

Most coaches agree that to truly see improvement, swimmers should be adding that fourth or fifth session.

And keep your development as a swimmer in perspective.

"Regardless of your athletic talent,” Heggy says, “you are not going to be Michael Phelps in a week."


  • Technique and Training


  • New Swimmers