Ask Stew: How to Become a Better Swimmer

Navy Swimmer

Getting better in the pool or open water requires practice in water. Sure you can practice conditioning programs where you run, bike, or other forms of cardio to have some sort of base cardio conditioning, but to get into “swimming shape” requires swimming. If there is a way to become a better swimmer or learn how to swim without water, I am not aware of it. Here is a pretty general question on swimming that is dissected to better explain all the methods to improve swimming:


What are good ways to get better at swimming?  Thanks Kyle

Kyle – here is a list of ways to get better at swimming, whether or not these will specifically help you or not depends on many variables on your current abilities and future goals.

1. Take lessons.  Learning to swim as a beginner or getting specific help on stroke technique is the number one way to either learn how to swim or learn how to swim better. There is no substitute that is as good as immediate feedback on a technique issue that is preventing progress.

2. Watch Better Swimmers. One way that helped me personally was to watch a swim team practice from either underwater from my lane or from the bleachers. Then practice something to see that the swimmers are able to do from arm pulls, kicks, and streamlined gliding techniques. You can also do this with countless videos on for any competitive swimming stroke as well as more difficult to find Combat Swimmer Strokes used by many military special ops training programs.

3. Books.  Though it is difficult for some to learn how to swim from written word and still pictures, for some swimmers something may click for you when you see something spelled out for you a different way. In my experience, a picture is worth 1000 words. A video is worth 10,000 words.

4. Practice. There is nothing quite like getting in the pool as many days per week as possible. It is recommended that 4-6 days per week and swimming 20-30 minutes minimum will be enough practice to build the habits you need to master a technique or skill.

5. Master the Technique. After teaching and practicing the skills of swimming, the goal is to now master the technique. Have a buddy video tape you swimming 50m and see if your swim looks like an instructors or that of a swimmer you seek to emulate. For instance, the Combat Swimmer Stroke Three Part Breakdown is a video that dissects the stroke so you can practice each element one step at a time.

6. Get Real Swim Clothes. Now you do not need to get Speedo, but getting some streamlined shorts like biker shorts or Jammers will help especially if you are swimming in baggy board shorts. Of course, swimming with a mask or goggles will help you if you are just getting started.

7. Get Into Swimming Shape. Once you have mastered the swimming technique and can swim 50m at your goal pace for the distance of your timed swim (500m is an example). Now you have to get into the swimming shape that will allow for you to maintain that 50m goal pace for 9 more laps (500m). Here is a way to do that:

No matter what swim workout you do, if you have to pass a 500m swim test, you should warmup with a 500m swim workout. This will eventually and literally be a warmup to you but it takes practice.

Warmup with 500m swim

Repeat 10 times
50m-100m at goal pace (tested stroke)
30 second rest or 1 minute tread.
Warmup with 500m swim

Repeat 5 times
100m-200m swim at goal pace
- 1 min rest
Warmup with 500m swim

Repeat 5-10 times
50 sprint any stroke
100m at goal pace (testing stroke)

*These three swim workouts are just ideas for ways to get better at swimming for a specific test. Other ideas can be found here:  Swimming Options
Good luck – Let stated above, there is no substitute for improving your swimming than actually swimming especially if you are lacking technique on the proper stroke you will be tested.

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Stew Smith works as a presenter and editorial board member with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has also written hundreds of articles on's Fitness Center that focus on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

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