How to take swimming from "leisure activity" to "serious exercise".

Image: iStock.

Not only has swimming been proven to increase flexibility, improve circulation and build a stronger, healthier heart but a 2008 study conducted by the University of South Carolina found that swimmers lived considerably longer than both runners and walkers.

If that doesn’t convince you, maybe the thought of exercising in a cool pool rather than sweating it out in a hot gym will do the trick. Here’s everything you need to know before you take the plunge.

What you need.

Aside from a swimming costume and access to a pool (or sea, or lake, whichever takes your fancy/is more geographically convenient), the equipment requirements are quite minimal.

“All you need is a good pair of goggles ($10-$20) and for those with hair, a good swimming cap. Go for a silicon version cap which, although a little more expensive, will last considerably longer than the cheaper latex model,” advises Olympic-level swimming coach Joanne Love.

Investing in flippers or a kickboard is also a great way to get the most out of your workout, and challenge your body that little bit more.

Warm Up.

Like any sport, warming up is essential, with MD Health Pilates‘ Senior Physiotherapist Michael Dermansky recommending a number of different exercises to activate the muscles you’ll need to swim.

1. Push up against the wall

“This is essential for great shoulder blade control which creates the base for your upper body movement and the power and speed phase of your swimming,” he says.


To do: Stand with one hand on the wall just below shoulder heights, holding your shoulder blade back and up a little bit to activate the major stabilisers of the shoulders. Lower yourself down the wall using only your elbows, hold for three seconds then rise back up again. Repeat eight to ten times.

2. Bridging

This helps activate the glutes which are used when you kick.

To do: Lie on your back, with both knees bent and lift one leg up in the air. Using the leg that remains on the ground, lift your bottom up and hold for three seconds, then lower the bottom down. Repeat 10 times on each leg.

3. Squats

Squats strengthen your quadriceps (the muscles at the front of the thighs) which are extremely important for walking, getting up and down off the ground and being able to walk up and down hill as well as for swimming,” says Dermansky.

Squat jump demonstration. Image via iStock.


To do: Stand with your back to the wall, with your feet out away from the wall about 30 centimetres. Lower your body down, until your knee are bend to about 45 degrees, keeping your back against the wall. Hold for five seconds and then return up.

Alternatively, for a quick dryland warm up, try doing the following:

Shoulder rotations: 10 forward each arm, 10 back each arm

Leg swings: 10 forward and back each leg, 10 side to side each leg

"As well as warming up your muscles, this will tell the brain that you are ready to go swimming and alert our nervous system for the impending use of all muscles throughout the body. This will help decrease in-water warm-up time and improve motor control quickly," explains Love.

Getting started.

Technique is particularly important, so if you feel a bit rusty don't be afraid to book in for a few lessons, which are available for all ages at most swim centres.


If you're new to swimming, Love recommends setting a time that you want to exercise for such as 20 or 30 minutes. Swim for as long as you can then rest until your breathing returns to normal, repeating until you reach your goal time.

It's important not to be discouraged if you find it difficult and certainly don't feel embarrassed - while Thorpey might've made it look easy, it's not.

Image: iStock


"It may surprise you, but no one in the pool is thinking about you, except for you. Don’t let your internal monologue which is often self-critical hinder you. By just swimming laps in a pool, you are becoming a better swimmer than a large percentage of Australian adults who cannot even swim cross the pool," says Love.

Beginners routine.

Swim workouts are usually made up of a warm up, some technical swimming such as drills or kicking, a small main set, and a cool down.

"The main set is where you swim various distances using different paces which helps boost your speed and improve your endurance - unfortunately, if you only swim slowly up and down, your speed will never improve," says Love.


1.Warm-up (as above)

2. Swim "easy" for five mins continuously or for 200 metres.

3. Drill set

Grab a kick board and alternate 25 metres (or 50 metres) kick followed by One Arm Freestyle Drill on the board to work technique.

A one arm freestyle drill is done by leaving the non-stroking arm extended in front of you, and holding the kickboard. The other arm strokes slowly to work on improving your catch of the water, its pull through and recovery, at all times holding your body controlled through the vertical axis.

"Remember, go slow on these drills. Master the technique and purpose of the drill, and don’t race to the other end of the pool," says Love.


4. Main Set

Do 10 laps of 50 metres with 30 seconds rest after each lap. With each lap, build up effort until you reach the fifth repetition then descend back down again.  If you struggle swimming 50 metres, try 25 metre repeats. (Post continues after gallery.)

5. Cool Down

Give five minutes (or 200 metres) of easy swimming or kicking a go. Putting your fins will also help bring you heart rate down. 

Be consistent.

Consistency is the key to learning and improving. Aim for three sessions a week, and after a month you should feel your body adapting to the exercise form.

"Resting is just as important as the activity itself. Allow your body and muscles to recover. A day or two of rest in between sessions would be most beneficial for long term enjoyment and better outcomes," advises Dermansky.

And if you're struggling with motivation, bring a friend or make it social.

"Sign up for an open water swim or join the local masters swim club which will help turn workouts into social events, while also supplying motivation by surrounding you with people who’ll help keep you accountable," says Love.

Do you swim for exercise? Why do you like it?