Starting Out: Swimming

What you need to know before you take the plunge
Published July 11, 2016

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, especially in the summertime. It’s one of those sneaky fitness regimes that burn just as many calories as it provides many hours of enjoyment.

“Swimming isn’t just great for weight loss, but it’s also great for the mind and spirit, too,” says Mindy Barfield, the office manager of AquaMobile Swim School, which offers private swimming lessons across Canada and the U.S.

But if you’ve never swam before, or are re-entering the water after a long absence, swimming can seem daunting, particularly for adults.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind before starting your swimming program.

You’re never too old to learn
Generally, when we think of swimming lessons, we tend to think of them as something that only children do. We often assume – wrongly – that swimming is a skill that every adult already possesses, or, at least, should know. It’s usually this negative thought pattern that will deter adults from learning how to swim in the first place.

“When I talk to fearful swimmers who are adults, a lot of that fear comes from a childhood event,” says Barfield. “The lack of learning as a child makes them embarrassed. They think they shouldn’t talk about it because they believe they should have learned it when they were young, but that’s not the case.”

As Barfield succinctly points out, “You’re never too old to learn anything, ever.”

Wear the right gear
With any sport, it’s important to ensure that you’re wearing the right gear in order to get the most out of your time and body.

“You don’t want what you wear to impact you negatively,” says Shelley Dalke, Director of the Swimming and Water Safety Program for the Canadian Red Cross. "For example: men wearing big, baggy shorts or women who are wearing bathing suits with excessive material that floats up. You want to wear something that you’re comfortable in, and that you’re not adjusting all the time.”

Finding the right goggles is also crucial. “I recommend investing in a good quality pair of goggles,” says Barfield. “Then that is one last thing that adult swimmers don’t need to worry about and then they can open up their eyes comfortably in the water. [Opening eyes underwater] tends to be a large concern for adults, especially those who wear contact lenses.” Barfield recommends consulting with your instructor on what type of goggles you should invest in, and ensuring they are fitted correctly.

Fuel your body
Even though we've all heard the “wait an hour after eating before swimming” idiom, both Barfield and Dalke suggest that fueling your body before swimming is a good idea. 

“You have to ensure that your stomach isn’t working on digesting a heavy meal,” says Dalke, which probably explains the intention behind the common phrase. “But you want to ensure that you’ve eaten sufficiently to keep up your energy.”

Barfield recommends eating a high protein snack, as well as listening to your body. “If you’re the type who needs to eat before your workout, then do so. If not, don’t worry about it,” she says. “Just like any activity, you need to have endurance and you don’t want to lose your lunch, so to speak.”

Set achievable goals
Setting goals will help you feel accomplished, especially during those times when beginner swimmers might feel overwhelmed or frustrated with their progress.

“In Red Cross, we encourage you to identify the goals you want to accomplish in swimming, so the instructors can help you work on that goal,” says Dalke, who recommends being comfortable in shallow water, entering and exiting the pool safely and submerging your head underwater and returning to the surface, as three great places to start.

“It’s recognizing where you’re starting from and working with your instructor to nail down those achievable goals,” she says.

Enjoy the small successes
“I think that as adults, we forget what it’s like to be a learner,” says Dalke. “We get impatient with ourselves. We have expectations on how quickly we are going to acquire a skill, but we don’t reflect on how much time it takes to practice that skill.”

Just like any other new skill we learn, “There’s a learning curve,” says Dalke. “The more muscles involved, the more there will be a learning curve. Recognize and enjoy the small successes, as well as the big ones.”

Barfield agrees. “Don’t be fixated on what you can’t do,” she says. “Taking baby steps is totally okay. Don’t try to accelerate your progress too quickly. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced. Don’t focus too much on what you can’t do.”

She adds: “When you work on something so vulnerable like swimming, it’s a really big thing to let [adult swimmers] know that the small accomplishments are big accomplishments.”

Because the more you focus on your faults, the more reasons you’ll come up with for not getting back into the pool. Remembering that learning a new skill requires time and patience is the key to sticking with it.