Learning to swim as an adult with the “Zero to 1650” program: from survival-swimming to racing 1.2 miles in open water

A quick summary/TL;DR before we begin: If you are looking to get into swimming for fitness, triathlon, etc, as an adult, I recommend that you start with the free & simple “Zero to 1650” program. In 6 short weeks, it took me from years of aspiring to swim for fitness to becoming a regular 3x/week swimmer and completing my first 1.2 mile (“Half Iron Man”/HIM) open water swim in 2016. That’s probably all you need to know!

Further… take a private lesson and/or go to a video swimming analysis service like SwimLabs if you have one nearby. This (in just a 30 minute private session!) will make a huge difference if you didn’t grow up swimming competitively. One of my high school track coaches would tell us “we live in glass houses.” He wasn’t talking about throwing stones, he was talking about being open to feedback from others. WE can see so little of ourselves that is obvious to the outside observer. Oh! A life lesson.

Happy swimming 🙂

Survival swimming & the simple joys of not drowning

I managed to survive the most basic childhood swimming lessons, but that’s about as far as I got until high school, when I took a state-required swim class. I could tread water and play in the pool without fear of drowning, but I had no aspirations for forward propulsion.

In the high school class, which I could have tested out of if I did have those elusive forward propulsion abilities, I managed to swim my first length or two… but no more. (Though we did learn how to use a pair of jeans as a life preserver by taking them off and inflating them!)

The true test of my abilities was one early summer evening when a bunch of friends swam out to a diving dock in a local neighborhood lake. It didn’t look so far from the beach, but as my friends were climbing aboard the dock I was left slowly doggy paddling the 50 or so yards, wondering if I would make it.

Beginning to move forward

In college, as a casual runner and bicycle enthusiast, I started to wonder about triathlons. I had run cross country and track in high school, and continued trail running around my college while my fellow students slept in.

Assuming that I lacked some higher-level swimming knowledge that only a coach or class could convey, I signed up for a swimming for fitness class. By sheer peer pressure and repetition, with no useful feedback from the professor, I eventually managed to complete the course’s final exam requirement: to swim a full mile without stopping.

For that final swim, we partnered up to help count laps. My partner swam first, with little issue. While I managed to complete the swim, it consisted largely of survival-style sidestroke combined with some desperate soldier-airplane-glide backstroke. I pulled my shaking body onto the pool deck after 30+ laps, nearly threw up on my partner, then attempted to hug him. It did not feel like a workout, but a great act of survival.

Several years later, I signed up for the school’s sprint distance triathlon on a whim (okay, peer pressure once again!). As my only preparation, I swam a 500 to see how long it would take, so I knew what to write on my race entry. After another, albeit shorter, survival experience, I knew my time was about 15 minutes.

The very surprising thing was that at 15 minutes, I was about mid-pack amongst the triathletes. There were some very fit people that took up to 30 minutes to thrash their way through 10 laps, 20 lengths, around the natatorium pool.

We shared lanes and circle-swam, but I managed to sidestroke my way through, once again. I was of the attitude that I just had to survive the swim, because 10 miles on the bike and a 5k trail run were no issue. Just survive! And that’s what I did, over about 15 minutes. Maybe 17? Reviewing the overall race results, I was very confused to see the swimming times under 10 minutes, under 8 minutes, maybe even under 7? Whatever those people were doing in the pool had nothing to do with my own awkward gyrations.

And that was it. My triathlon ambitions fulfilled, I accepted myself to be incapable of a continuous face-in-the-water crawl, and was perhaps even smug that I wasn’t amongst the day’s worst swimmers. Best to call it quits while I was squarely in the middle!

Adult aspirations and finding the “Zero to 1650” program

Fast forward ten non-swimming years. I was getting older, and as exercise ambitions often do, my thoughts of triathlon resurfaced. Plagued by almost immediate injuries whenever I tried to get back into running, I thought, perhaps if I balanced the running with swimming I could get into a new routine. If only I could actually swim laps.

For about 6 months I started swimming once or twice a week, attempting to swim a single full length of freestyle at first, then two… then in a high-energy rage one night I tried the pull-buoy and managed to swim six laps straight- wow! So I kept that up, but never really knew what I was doing, or what I should even be attempting to do. I lacked focus and structure… but felt hints of progress.


I read one simple, plain text website about the “Zero to 1650” program. Its basic tenet was this: the first thing to do is swim a lot. You can worry about form and technique later, but for now, just swim. And do it in a pretty precisely regulated manner, limiting breaths between laps and slowly increasing consecutive laps swam without resting.

That’s where my survival swimming chapter ends, and my very-slow actual swimming chapter begins.

I swam the program, and sticking strictly to the structure of lengths and limited breaths between intervals, I could feel my abilities improve rapidly with each swim.

It was as obvious as seeing that each swim I could get in an extra stroke or two before taking my first breath off the wall. I was getting radically better!

True to the program, I finished my first continuous mile swim with only 6 weeks of training. Afterwards, I was tired, and nearly fainted in the steam room, but it hadn’t been a matter of survival this time.

It was simply a matter of keeping track of laps and breathing every third stroke for about 45 minutes.

For the next year I kept up my long-slow swimming, pleased with my newfound ability, and wondering if I might be ready for an outdoor, open-water triathlon. I still had much to learn, and my next major boost of progress came via some nifty video-analyzed coaching from my local SwimLabs.

While Zero to 1650 told me not to worry about form during the initial program, the relative speediness of swimmers around me, even folks much older and seemingly less fit than myself, suggested I was doing something wrong. Also, I was often in pain. Neck and shoulder pain that would radiate down my left arm.

In only 15 minutes at SwimLabs, splitting a 30 minute private lesson with my wife, I learned what I can attempt to teach you here in 15 seconds:

  • In freestyle (front crawl stroke), you want to keep your body parallel with the surface of the water.
  • If you try to look forward as you swim, your head goes up and your legs go down. Your entire body begins to slow your progress.
  • Therefore, you need to look at the bottom of the pool as you swim, essentially keeping your head and neck inline as if you were standing straight up.
  • Even with this modification, some people’s legs tend to sink. While as a beginner you may not get much propulsion from your kicking, it serves the purpose of keeping you feet and legs near the surface of the water.
  • Regarding buoyancy and leg sinkage… men and women have very different fat distribution throughout their bodies. While this varies with body type, the extra fat around the hips and legs leaves some women floating effortlessly with little need to kick to maintain a streamlined position.

But really, I had probably read this somewhere before and not understood how it translated to my swimming. What really helped was getting the coaching in person.

When I returned to the pool to assimilate this new knowledge, it was surprisingly difficult to find my rhythm. I had been swimming inefficiently so long that my muscle memory tried to fight off my new knowledge! I had learned some bad habits (that were clearly leading to my pain) that were hard to get away from. But slowly it settled in and my swimming continued to get better.

The next chapter of this slow swimming epoch was getting outside into the OPEN WATER.

Again, SwimLabs was the key to making a great leap forward, with help from a coach who also began swimming as an adult before starting a late-in-life career as an ultra-distance swimmer.

I’ll save that story… for next time 🙂


General insights, new directions

The two bigs lessons I learned have to do with positive peer pressure, and getting help rather than figuring it out on your own.

For years I wanted to do these things, but the moments that really propelled me forward were when an acquaintance proposed a challenge that we’d do together, or when I found a good surrogate acquaintance in the form of a structured program I could stick to.

While this story was about swimming, it’s certainly emblematic of many of the ambitions I hold onto, whether regarding fitness or other personal aspirations.

Don’t go it alone. Find and follow a program. Set a big goal. Get feedback to get better.

And if all else fails…

Just keep swimming!

The real question is… what are the next big goals I want to move on? In swimming and otherwise.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see a tiny orange blip of the second swim buoy near the tree line. It looks far off, but you easily get there one stroke at a time. And it certainly feels nice to see someone swimming at your side each time you go up for air or to check your orientation!

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