How to Start Lap Swimming for Exercise

Ready to get started with lap swimming? Here’s everything you need to know, including gear, terminology, training tips, and expert advice for success.

Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise out there. It is low impact, burns a ton of calories, more versatile than you may realize, and is excellent for building stronger lungs, muscles and improving cardiovascular health.

But it can be a little intimidating for beginners.

In this guide to starting a swimming exercise routine, we’ll cover all the basics to help you get started with confidence.

We’ll detail the gear you need to get started (plus some other gear for enhancing your swim training), swimming terminology, and some tips for success.

Let’s dive in.

How to Start Swimming for Exercise

In this article, we’ll examine the fundamentals for beginning lap swimming, including:

  • Swim gear for beginners
  • Basic swimming terminology
  • Tips for Success

Next, we will look at each in more detail, so that by the end, you will be able to head down to the swimming pool with confidence.

Swim Gear for Beginners

Swimming is a low-equipment activity and sport. The only real essentials for swimming laps are a swimsuit and goggles.

In this guide, we’ll stick to the basics and list some other “nice to haves” that can make swimming more enjoyable and help mix things up.


Find a swimsuit that is snug and doesn’t cause additional drag that slows you down while swimming.

Swimsuits for laps should provide a generous range of motion, particularly in the shoulders and hips. Training swimsuits come in a wide range of coverage, from a more minimal option in briefs for men and tankinis for women.

Swimmers looking for more coverage can opt for modest one-piece swimsuits for women and men can opt for training jammers.

The ideal swimsuit for laps and training is made mostly of polyester, which doesn’t fade or degrade from exposure to chlorine and UV rays.

Swimsuits with a small amount of Spandex or elastane can give the suit a little more flex and stretch, but keep in mind that this type of fabric degrades faster compared to nylon and polyester.

Swim goggles

Goggles enhance visibility when swimming in the water, allowing you to see oncoming walls, other swimmers in the lane, and protect your eyes from pool chemicals, irritation, and the sun.

Swim goggles with mirrored and polarized lenses protect the eyes from UV rays and eliminate glare when swimming laps outdoors or in open water.

Beginners Guide to Swimming Laps - Essential Gear

Swim goggles are an essential for enhancing visibility in the water.

More advanced goggles feature a slim gasket profile to reduce drag, and there are even a generation of smart swim goggles that display real-time workout metrics in the lens of the goggle.

The best swim goggles are comfortable, don’t leak, and enhance visibility in your pool of choice.

Other swim gear for enhancing your swim training include:

  • Swim caps – Caps for swimming are made of silicone or latex and protect your hair from chlorine, keep hair out of your face, and also reduce the amount of hair you leave behind in the pool.
  • Hand paddles – Swim paddles increase the surface area of your hands, building a stronger pull. Swim paddles are an excellent tool for developing more upper body power and strength in the water as you progress.
  • Swim fins – Fins build leg strength and can help learn better kicking technique by increasing resistance in the water. The right swim fins don’t blister your feet like crazy (tip: look for silicone, short-blade fins) and are made for swimming and not snorkeling.
  • Swim snorkelSnorkels made for swimming feature a front-mounted tube that allow swimmers to focus on technique without worrying about turning the head to breathe.
  • Kickboard – A kickboard is a flotation device and swim aid isolates the kicking portion of swimming, allowing new swimmers an opportunity to improve kick fitness and technique.
  • Pull buoy — Pull buoys are made of foam and placed between the legs. They keep swimmers afloat while they focus on isolating the pulling motion of their swim strokes.
  • Waterproof headphones – Listening to music when swimming is a great way to increase enjoyment and even help you swim faster (Tate et al., 2013). Headphones specifically made for swimming are waterproof and use either a standard earbud or a bone-conduction design to pipe music into your ears.
  • Swim watch – A swim watch is a great way to track your swimming workouts so that you can focus on progressing with distance and pace. The Apple Watch and multi-sport watches like Garmin have native swim apps for measuring and tracking your workouts.
  • Swim bag – As your gear inventory builds, you’ll need somewhere to store all your stuff! Swim bags are designed specifically for the soggy nature of sopping towels and wet swimsuits and have lots of pockets and compartments for storing gear.

The wide world of swim gear can make your swim training more fun and challenging, but for those first few days in the water, all you need is a swimsuit and goggles.

Basic Swim Terminology for Beginners

Like most sports and activities, swimming has it’s own vocabulary and lingo. Here are some of the key terms to know as you begin your journey of swimming for exercise.

Freestyle – Also known as front crawl, freestyle is the most common of the four main swimming strokes. Most of your swim workouts will be spent using freestyle. It’s also the fastest of the four strokes, which include backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke.

Drill – Swimming drills are an excellent way to improve your technique, learn how to better position the body, mix things up in your swimming workouts, and improve feel for the water. The types of drills are almost endless and can be used to target every phase of your swimming.

Kick – Kick is the umbrella term for the leg movements made during the four strokes. In this specific context, kick refers to using just your legs, whether with a kickboard or without.

How to Start Swimming for Beginners

The only thing better than a great swim workout is getting a lane to yourself!

Pull – When using just the upper body to move through the water, this is termed pull or pulling. Isolating the upper body is done with a pull buoy, which also gives your hips some buoyancy.

Main set – The main set is the meat and potatoes of your workout, where you get the primary benefit of the time spent in the water. It’s where the “gainz” are made, whether that’s doing a big aerobic set, sprinting for improving speed, or hitting a desired energy zone. The main set is bookended by the warm-up and warm-down.

Descend – Swim sets often feature a concept known as “descending.” This is where you descend the time required to complete each repetition or distance. For example, if you did 8×50 descend, the eighth repetition would be the fastest of them all.

Circle swimming – When sharing a lane with other swimmers, you will swim in a circle around the black line at the bottom of the pool to keep things orderly and avoid collisions.

Short and Long course – Swimming pools for laps are either short course, which include both 25-meter and 25-yard lengths, or long course, which is 50-meters. The latter is also considered an Olympic swim pool as this is the length of the pool for Olympic swim competition.

Tips for Success

Here are some time-tested tips for sustaining swimming laps as a form of exercise in the days and weeks ahead:

Start slowly.

Like any type of physical exercise, start slowly and focus on incremental progression as the meters or yards stack up.

While it’s tempting to hit the pool hard and heavy on day one, starting small and slowly increasing the distance and intensity is the smart and steady approach that will keep you coming back.

See also: 5 Swimming Workouts for Beginners

In the early stages, the goal should be simply showing up to the pool and getting in the water. You’d be surprised at how much you can get done with just a 30-minute swim workout.

Whether that means doing just 500m for your very first swim workout, or a handful of lengths to see if this is really for you, ease into swimming. The pool isn’t going anywhere.

Schedule your workouts.

Swimming is unique in the sense that there is much more time required to complete the workout. Unlike running, or lifting weights, where you can head out the door and hit the road or pick up a set of dumbbells, swimming is more of a time commitment.

There’s the drive back and forth to the pool, changing before and after your swims, and the several minutes of getting into the water.

Having a schedule for your swim training is crucial for making it second-nature. Create a schedule for your workouts to help you stick to the workouts even on days when you aren’t feeling as motivated.

Break up swims for improved performance.

Beginner swimmers (and experienced swimmers) benefit from a swim workout that is broken up into intervals. Doing so encourages better technique, faster swimming, and even gives you a better overall workout.

Swimming with proper technique is crucial for beginners and advanced swimmers alike. By breaking the swim workout up, and taking rest between repetitions, it gives you a chance to swim with better technique more often.

Instead of swimming 2,000m straight, for example, and seeing technique deteriorate over time, break the total distance into shorter intervals.

Take that 2,000m and turn it into 10×200, or 20×100, or 40×50.

Interval training has also been shown to be a better workout compared to steady-state workouts (Foster et al., 2015).

Intervals allow for better technique, a better workout, and faster average speeds.

Mix things up to stay engaged and motivated.

Swimming is one of the most versatile forms of exercise around. You can target every energy system, isolate the upper and lower body, or opt for a full-body workout from start to finish.

Interject your workouts with kicking, pulling, and introducing swim aids like fins and a swim snorkel to help improve swim technique and keep things fresh in the water.

Pre-workout dynamic stretches to reduce injury.

Even though swimming is a low-impact form of exercise, swimmers are by no means exempt from injuries.

A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine surveyed 100 Masters swimming teams and found that 48% of respondents had at one time or another experienced swimmer’s shoulder pain lasting longer than three weeks.

Before hopping into the water, perform dynamic stretches, including arm and leg swings, to increase range of motion and help ward off injuries.

Dynamic stretches are an essential type of stretch for swimmers as they also increase blood flow to target muscles and reduce muscle stiffness (Iwata et al., 2019) that can compromise swimming technique.

Use the same template for consistency.

Swim workouts are not much different from a gym workout. By using a frame workout that includes a warm-up, main set, and a warm-down, you can start getting creative with designing your own workouts.

In my own workouts, I use a 30% warm-up, 50% main set, and 20% warm-down. As a larger fella training in a colder pool, it takes a while to get warmed-up.

For you, it could be a 20/60/20 split. Or 25/50/25.

Whichever the case, by having a regular framework for your swim workouts it becomes easier to sink into the habit of showing up to the pool and performing an effective workout.

Wrapping Things Up

Getting started with a new form of exercise is always challenging. Learning new form and technique, building a new routine, getting through those difficult first few weeks when things are hard and struggle.

That said, the improvement you will see by swimming consistently and with a focus on form will yield a surprising amount of improvement in the early days.

Stick to it, concentrate on showing up consistently, and the results–whether you are looking to lose weight, get in shape, or become a faster overall swimmer–will happen fast.

Happy swimming!

Disclaimer: When starting a new form of exercise, check in with your healthcare professional to ensure that it’s right for you.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is an author and former national-level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month logbook for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, anecdotes, and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.


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1 month ago

Nice article – one thing I suggest. Before buying beyond the swimsuit and goggles, check with the pool/gym where you intend to swim and see if they have equipment that is available for use. The two pools I use have kickboards, fins, and buoys that can be used while at the facility.

1 month ago

I love lap swimming!
I enjoy it even more with friends!

1 month ago

I want to thank you for this WONDERFUL and comprehensive article. I’m 70 years old, and five years ago (because I recalled so much of my 13 yrs of competitive swimming as an age group-; high school-; and college- swimmer) I went back to swimming SUCCESSFULLY for exactly 30 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week. I dropped 15 kgs, lowered my BP by about 15 points, and have a lot less stress-related issues. Thank you for helping to keep ‘us ol’ guys’ HAPPY and HEALTHY – and encouraging ALL ages to get back to the pool!

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, swim coach, and best-selling author. His writing has been featured on USA Swimming, US Masters Swimming, NBC Sports Universal, the Olympic Channel, and much more. He has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 …

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