Top Ten Timed Swim Tips...

If you're struggling to get your times in for the 400m beach lifeguard timed swim, here are our Top 10 Tips for improving your time with the least effort!

The following Top 10 is simple things which you can do to improve your time with very little effort, and without having to have someone to coach you.

They may help you to improve your time, but the simple fact is that it's your swimming stroke that has the biggest bearing on your speed. If you don't have a reasonable swimming stroke in the first place you can't expect to achieve the required time, so stroke improvement should always be your main focus in the first instance.

10. Follow the line.

Pools have lines along the bottom for a reason - it's the most direct route along the pool! Make sure you wear goggles and swim with your face in the water so you can follow the line and keep straight.

9. Swim slower.

Are you the type of swimmer who thrashes along the pool arms with arms flailing round at a hundred miles an hour?  Chances are your first 2 lengths are pretty fast, but by length 4 you're leaning against the side of the pool doing a Darth Vader impression?

If you're trying the distance for the first time, go for the distance - not the speed. Don't even think about trying to swim fast, as you will burn out after a few lengths. To complete the distance in the time you have first got to complete the distance.  Slow your arms down, lengthen your arm strokes and move through the water at a comfortable pace for YOU. You may think you are swimming slower, and possibly you are, but you should be able to complete the distance which is the first hurdle.

8. Find a friend.

If you can find a friend to swim with you then this will make your swimming much more enjoyable, and you are likely to swim more regularly. If your friend is a slightly faster swimmer than you, they can be used as a pace setter. Simply seeing your friend in front of you and having something to keep up with should improve your time.

7. Feel at one with the water.

If you're going to be a lifeguard you need to be at one with the water. This doesn't just mean swimming through it. Practice floating in different positions, diving down, doing handstands, rolling your body from front to back... It may seem silly, but doing these things will firstly break up your training sessions and secondly provide you with many fundamental skills which will not only be useful for other aspects of your lifeguard training, but also have a direct improvement on your swimming.

6. Practice in the pool your test will take place at.

Different pools have different characteristics which can either help or hinder your swimming:

  • Pool length: Longer pools may seem like harder work as you don't get as many rests for you arms which happens during each turn, push and glide. Shorter pools have more turns which might be good if you are good at turns, or could slow you down if not. The majority of pools are 25m which is 16 lengths but check your local pool to see what length it is and alter the number of lengths accordingly.
  • Water temperature is usually cooler in traditional swimming pools, compared to leisure pools and gym pools. This will make it easier to swim.
  • The depth of the pool will have an effect on your swimming - especially if you are a natural 'sinker'. The deeper the pool the more upthrust of the water and hence the more streamlined your body will be and the faster you will swim.
  • Chlorine v. UV-treated: Some pools now use UV treatment rather than chlorine. Although this shouldn't affect your times, it does affect the swimming atmosphere and UV-treated pools can be more pleasant to swim in.
  • Rails and gutters v. deck level: If you have not mastered the art of tumble turns, then you may rely on rails or gutters to help you with your turns. Practice turning quickly without grabbing onto the rail or gutter so that you aren't reliant on them (with practice this will also be more efficient and faster for you).

5. Choose the right lane.

If a pool has fast and slow lanes assigned then choose the lane that best matches your speed. This will not only give you other swimmers to pace yourself against, but also means you are less likely to annoy other swimmers by slowing them down. Check with your pool to see what time lane swimming is available - completing 400m without being stopped is unlikely if it is an open public session with no llanes.

4. Swim through the wall.

Many people who are not used to swimming any sort of distance will find that about 4 lengths into their swim they 'hit the wall' and their arms and legs feel like lead. There is a complex explanation for this, but I will try to explain it simply:

Your body has 3 different systems for producing energy, which can be imagined like starting a fire.

The first energy system is like paper - it lights really easily but burns quickly. It will provide a short burst of energy for only a few seconds (which you might use during a dive start for example).

The second energy system is like the kindling - it takes a little longer to light, but burns a bit longer. It will kick in after about 20 seconds and last for around 2 minutes, but lactic acid builds up in the muscles after about 50 seconds which inhibits performance.

The third energy system is like a big log on the fire - it takes a long time to light, but when it does it will burn for a long time. This type of energy will not kick in until around 2 minutes into the swim.

This means that there is a period of time between 50 seconds and 2 minutes into the swim where lactic acid is building up in the muscles, but the third energy system isn't working yet. Many people 'hit the wall' at this point and give up after about 4 lengths. Yet, if you take note of  Tip 9 and slow your stroke down this will give your body a chance for the third energy system would kick in. After this happens you can find your rhythm and continue swimming for long periods.

3. You can teach an old dog new tricks!

Many pools will have swimming lessons going on at the same time as public swims. If you get the chance, watch the swimming teacher and practice some of the drills the children are told to do. Just because you're an adult, it doesn't mean the fundamental skills of swimming are any different for you than they are for them!

2. Work on your turns.

You don't need to be able to tumble turn to be able to achieve a good time. But you do need to be able to do an efficient turn at the end of each length.

Your legs are your most powerful muscles and if you use them like a coiled spring to push off from the wall, it can be much faster than swimming.  If you get a long, streamlined body position and completely submerge your body under that water during your glide you can travel 5m or more.  Not only is it far faster than swimming, but it also means your arms can have a little rest while you stretch them out in front of your head! Bad turns can increase times by 1-2 seconds per length.

And at number 1...

The top way to improve your time without any effort is...

1. Proper swimming attire, please!

Swimming trunks may not be fashionable for men, but they were designed like that for a reason. Being tight means they create less drag through the water. Compared even to swimming shorts, they can save you up to 2 seconds EACH AND EVERY LENGTH. That's over 30 seconds over the 400m. Wear long board shorts and the effect is even worse.

If you really can't bring yourself to strut around poolside in trunks, then why not just wear them under your shorts and take your shorts off just for the swim?

It's the same for the women - your costumes don't come with an extra pair of shorts to wear on top, so why wear them? They only slow you down...

As well as proper swimming costumes, make sure you have a good pair of goggles that fits well.  This will not only help you to concentrate on your swimming, but is an important safety consideration so you can see where you are going!

Finally, a swimming cap can also help improve your times, especially for those with long hair.  It may only be a few seconds, but every little helps.


Remember - swimming in the sea is completely different from swimming in the pool. Sea water is much colder, more buoyant and you will be swimming with your head up. You may think: 'What's the point in doing a timed swim in the pool?' Well, it's a fitness test which shows that you have got good basic swimming ability and a level of endurance.

The current time limit of 400m in under 8 minutes (under 7.30 in some areas) is achievable by most people with a little practice. 

As I said at the start - no matter how many 'cheats' you use, you will need to have a reasonable swimming stroke in the first place to stand a chance of achieving the time. For some tips, videos and animated graphics to help you improve your swimming, try the BBC Sport Academy.

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