The First Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Hitting the Pool

Here’s how much I worry about looking like an idiot: My doctor recommended I switch from running to swimming to give an injury time to heal, but I was so unsure of what to wear, what to do, and how to act that I was afraid to even buy a swim cap. My gym has a fabulous competition pool which I had to walk past every day to get to the gym floor and I Would. Not. Go. I belonged to that gym for a year before I used the pool, and when I finally did, it was a big deal that turned out to not be that big of a deal at all.

Here are some tips to make your first pool swim a little less anxious.

Find your pool

If you already have a pool at your gym, brilliant! If not, here are some resources to help you find a pool near you:

When picking a pool, you’ll need to consider a few things. Is there a cost? Most pools allow a pay per visit fee, which is great when you’re still shopping around. Many have a membership base. Take a look at your local YMCA or community center- they may have a membership option that also allows you to use a gym facility or take classes. Is it close to your house or job? If you’re choosing a pool near your work, does it have showers and a place for you to get ready? What are the hours? If you’re a 5:30am swimmer (God bless you, you crazy nut) but the pool doesn’t open until 7, you’re out of luck. Is there a lifeguard on duty? What’s the pool’s clientel? Is it a casual lap pool or a competition lap pool? I have a gym at work which has access to an adjacent hotel’s pool. It’s a great place to snag a quick 30 minute swim at lunch, but it also has a bunch of tourists and their kids covered in sunscreen hanging on the lane lines. Not really conducive to a good workout. I also have access to my community center’s lap pool. However, a college level swim team practices there, and nothing makes me feel more like a bad swimmer than being in a lane next to one of those fishies. It’s a tradeoff, but having access to both facilities helps me make sure I get my swim workouts in.

You’ll also need to take a look at the length of your pool. 25 yard pools are most common, but occasionally you’ll come across a 25 meter length. Long course pools (also called “Olympic”) are 50 meters in length. What’s a length, you ask? Is that different from a lap? Good question! A length is just one end of the pool to the other. A lap is two lengths (or, down to one end and back to where you started). Think about it this way: If you’re doing a sprint triathlon with a 500 meter swim, then your swim in a 25 meter pool is 10 laps or 20 lengths (see, you can totally do that!).

Note: Some gyms will claim their pool is “Jr. Olympic sized.” But would you believe there’s no such thing?! Ask a fellow swimmer, front desk person, or master’s swim coach what the actual length is. Pool length is a personal preference -try a few out to decide what’s right for you.

Check the Lane Times

Many pool centers will post their lane availability times online so that you know when things are too cray cray at the pool to get a good workout in. You’re looking for “Open Swim Times.” Pick a time when there are lots of lane lines open to avoid needing to share a lane. And go when the swim team is not practicing. See point above…

Bonus to completing your first race: Free swim cap!

Bonus to completing your first race: Free swim cap!

The Gear

You’ll need a swimsuit, obviously. Try them on, or make sure you check the size chart online because swim suit sizes vary greatly and are not true to street clothing size. Pick something that is meant for athletic swimming. Don’t wear a cute bikini. You’re not lounging, you’re propelling your body through a body of water that is resisting your movement, which means wardrobe malfunctions happen. Trust me. I speak from experience.

You’ll also want a swim cap and goggles. Now, there are a gazillion options when it comes to swim caps and goggles, and some of them are pretty darn expensive. So let’s make this simple. Go down to your local Target or Walmart, head to the sports aisle, buy a latex swim cap and a pair of adult swim goggles. If you live in a sunny climate, then get a pair of goggles with a little tint to them, like sunglasses. Putting on a cap takes some hand coordination and can make you feel like an idiot, so practice putting on your cap and goggles before you leave the house. For ladies with long hair, getting your hair up into a cap can be a real art. My favorite solution is to do one french braid, then flip the tail up and use a couple of bobby pins to secure it to my scalp before putting the cap on. I like to put cap on first and then the goggles, but some swear that having their goggles on under their cap helps keep them from getting knocked off in a race. More on that another day. For now, try both ways and see what’s most comfortable for you.

Now, you may be saying, A.T., I understand the need for goggles, but do I REALLY need a cap? Yes. You do. Caps (mostly) protect your hair, keep your head insulated, and reduce drag. You’ll be required to wear one in a race, so you might as well get used to it now. Also, everyone else is doing it, and you don’t want to have the newbie sign on your back, do you?

Finally, don’t forget to bring your ID, water bottle (you do sweat while you swim!), flip flops and towel. As for where to put your stuff, again, lots of options. Some folks put it right next to their lane line to keep an eye on it, but this only really works with pools that have circulation systems which keep the water level way below the deck (otherwise your stuff gets all wet, and that’s not fun). If your facility has lockers, that’s always a good option. I like to keep all my stuff in a bag and stick it up on a chair in view of my lane. If you don’t have access to a locker, it’s best to leave valuables at home or in the car, including your wallet and cell phone. It makes taking a pool selfie impossible, but having your phone stolen is the quickest way to ruin your workout.

Sharing Lanes

When there are no lanes open at the pool, you’ve got to share a lane. Holy anxiety. I like to pick a swimmer that seems to be on my pace or slower so that I don’t feel like I’m in their way too much. Then I sidle up to the lane and start putting on my cap while I awkwardly attempt to make eye contact. Once I do, I smile and point and shrug in an apologetic “mind if I join you?” kind of way. I’ve never had someone say no. If you’re in the lane and someone needs to join you, do the karmic courtesy of waving them in with a smile. Sure, you may be thinking “please don’t pick me please don’t pick me” when you see them walk up, but don’t be the jerk who makes them feel like they’re imposing. We’re all just trying to get our swim on.

Once you’re in, look to the person in there before you to pick their side, then swim on the other side of the lane. If you have to share with more than one person, then the general etiquette is to swim in a circular pattern, staying to the right of the lane. Whenever I’m in this less than ideal situation, I like to remind myself that I will be up close and personal with lots of swimmers in the race, so this is an opportunity to experience that. I know that the more race-like conditions I can practice in, the more comfortable I will be on race day.


I took swimming lessons as a kid, but they were “don’t drown” lessons, not “how to be an Olympian” lessons. So the whole face in the water breathing to one side thing, that I had to figure out. I’ll cover basic technique another day, but now that you’re equipped with the gear and the confidence to not look like an idiot when you roll up to the pool, here’s the basic gist on the swimming part of your first pool excursion: focus on getting from one side of the pool to the other. Hold on to the wall and rest as necessary. Practice putting your face in the water. Switch up your stroke as needed. Just get used to being in the water and moving. And give yourself a goal. My first “practice” swim was 500 yards. Just 10 laps. I swam from one side of the pool to the other, then hung on the wall to catch my breath (and my courage) before heading back again. It took me well over 20 minutes, but I had the biggest grin on my face when I finished those 10 laps. This sport is about achieving individual goals, no matter how small. So go put on that Speedo and get in the water!

I hope these tips help you feel more confident heading to the pool for the first time. If there’s something I didn’t cover, please send me an email at and ask! If I don’t know the answer, I will find out. I’m happy to look like an idiot so that you don’t have to.

3 thoughts on “The First Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Hitting the Pool

  1. AlexandraRS says:

    I’ve often wanted to start swimming but I’m like 100% terrified of getting in the pool in some sort of shared lane situation and having NO. IDEA. what’s going on. Thanks for helping lay out the basics. Now to get over the “I’m going to look ridiculous” in a swim cap part.

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