How to turn 30 minutes at the swimming pool into an effective workout

‘When it comes to swimming, it’s about consistency, so start from where you are’

Whatever your reason for taking to the water, swimming is one of the best exercises you can do for your health. It’s a total body workout, taxing your arms and legs, as well as your cardiovascular system, yet it puts less stress on your joints than most other exercises. And on a hot summer day, the cool water is a good place to get sweaty.

Hirofumi Tanaka, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin, says swimming provides similar cardiovascular benefits as running and other endurance sports. Research at his lab also suggests a regular swim programme can lower blood pressure and soften stiff arteries. “Swimming is really an under-appreciated, sneaky good form of exercise,” Tanaka says. “Exercise needs to involve large muscle groups, be rhythmical in nature and it should tax cardiovascular functions. Swimming fits perfectly.”

But where to begin?

Facing down a lap lane can be intimidating as a novice. Here are some tips from professional coaches on how to turn 30 minutes at the pool into an effective workout.


Start slow

“You wouldn’t go right out and say, ‘I’m going to run 10 miles,’” says Cokie Lepinski, a US masters swimming coach in Surprise, Arizona. “Same thing with swimming.”

Buy a good pair of goggles, and start by swimming one lap – down and back the length of the pool – without stopping. Typically, people swim freestyle when they exercise because it’s the most efficient stroke, but you can switch it up if you want some variety.

Many pools are 25m, so one lap is 50m, two laps is 100m and so on. Olympic pools are twice as long, while home pools vary, so make sure you know the length. Also, many serious swimmers count one lap as one length of the pool, so make sure to clarify if you’re working with a trainer.

If one lap feels easy, do two with a short break (10-20 seconds) in between. Gradually build up, increasing the number of laps and decreasing the frequency of breaks, but don’t overdo it on your first day – no more than 10 laps total.

“When it comes to swimming, it’s about consistency, so start from where you are,” says Cullen Jones, a four-time Olympic medallist who coaches youth swimming. “Make sure that what you’re doing is manageable. Have the mindset that you can do it again the next day or two days from now.”

Focus on form

If your last swim lesson was in primary school, here are a couple of tips to keep in mind. First, you want your body to be on top of the water as much as possible. The easiest way to do that is to keep your head down and look at the bottom of the pool. “If you lift your head up and you look at the wall,” says Fares Ksebati, a founder and chief executive of the app MySwimPro, “your legs are going to sink, and that’s going to create a lot of resistance.”

Your kick also helps you stay balanced on top of the water. In fact, unless you’re sprinting, kicking is more important for body position than for propulsion. Kick just enough to keep your hips and legs on top of the water so they don’t drag you down. “The biggest mistake beginner swimmers make is they kick too much,” Ksebati says. “The legs use the most blood, so if you kick a lot, you’re going to fatigue a lot more quickly.”

If you’re racing, then you can kick your legs into high gear, as Jones did in the 50m freestyle sprint at the 2012 Olympics. But when swimming for endurance or general fitness, imitate someone such as distance swimmer Katie Ledecky, whose legs barely make waves, to conserve energy and focus on balance and alignment.

Another beginner’s mistake is staying too flat in the water. Instead, you want to rock subtly from side to side. As your fingertips touch the surface, extend your arm as far as you can while rotating your hips and shoulders slightly. Try this on dry land: stand on your tiptoes with one arm stretched overhead. If you shift your hip and shoulder up and forward, you can probably reach a few inches higher. Now do that in the water.

Another way to increase your efficiency is to create more force with each stroke. As you pull your arm down through the water, try to get your forearm perpendicular to the bottom of the pool. Your fingertips should be separated slightly – less than a centimetre – to get the most power.

Don’t worry about breathing on alternating sides if one feels more comfortable than the other. The goal is to keep a rhythm. “Every time your face is in the water, you’re exhaling,” Lepinski says. “Every time you come up, you’re having a nice, measured inhale.”

Get into intervals

Once you can do eight laps easily, try some interval training. For serious swimmers, workouts are structured like weight training, broken into sets rather than going for 30 minutes straight.

To do this, you need to understand an interval formula used in almost all swim workouts. Intervals are usually described by two numbers: the number of repetitions and the distance in metres of each rep as a multiple of 25 (the length of the pool). Short rests are built in after every rep. For example, a 2x50 means swimming 50m (down and back), taking a 10-second break, and then swimming another lap. For a 4x25, swim the same distance, but rest every time you touch a side. A 1x100 means swimming two laps continuously and resting after. All three intervals are 100m total, but they’re swum at different rates.

Tailor your intervals to your goals. If you want a higher-intensity workout, swim shorter intervals at a faster pace. If you want to work on endurance, swim longer distances at a slower pace with fewer breaks. For example, a 4x25 would typically be swum at a sprint, while a 1x100 is usually at a slower, endurance-focused interval. “If you swim the same pace every day,” Lepinski says, “you won’t get as much benefit.” For one, she adds, interval training is more fun. “And two, it just challenges your heart a little bit better.”

Ksebati and Lepinski say a good beginner or intermediate workout is 1,000-1,500m, or 20-30 laps, which should take about half an hour. Begin with a short warm-up – maybe a 4x50 at an easy pace – to get your heart rate up. You can mix in different strokes, doing breast or backstroke instead of freestyle for a little variety. Next, do a 4x25 using a kickboard to get your legs activated.

Then comes the main set, or the bulk of your workout. If you’re working on speed, do 8x50 (eight laps with a break after each) at a fast pace. If you want to increase endurance, try a moderately paced ladder, ascending and then descending the length of your intervals: 1x50, 1x100, 1x200, 1x100, 1x50.

Last comes the cool-down, another 4x50 of swimming at a relaxed pace. You can take a longer break – 1 or 2 minutes – in between the warm-up, main set and cool-down.

Most of all, enjoy the process. For many swimmers, the water isn’t only a place to work out. It’s also a sanctuary. “It’s hard to be thinking about the stresses of the world when you’re thinking about when’s my next breath? Where’s the end of the pool? What set am I on?” Lepinski says. “When we slip under the water, the world goes away.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times