Why Do We Swim?


Why Do We Swim?

By Zach Breeding, Swimming World College Intern.

“Why do humans do anything?” is a really big question. Some questions like this have biological answers such as: Why do humans eat? Well, because we need the chemical energy we get from the food in order to survive and continue to function. Others can be answered in the field of psychology such as: Why do people become attached to their mother? And we would know this is because of the nourishment and comfort provided by the mother. But some questions, like “Why do people join and continue in the sport of swimming?” have much more complex answers.

Some people, like Peter Drucker, a philosophic thinker in the field of business, say that everyone should be treated as a volunteer; this means that unless people are given a reason to stick around, they won’t.  This seems to be a reasonable assumption as in most human experience it’s hard to find an example of someone voluntarily staying in some form of a relationship– be it personal, public, or business if they are not getting something out of said relationship.

Skeptics may point to abusive relationships and ask what people or groups of people are getting out of relationships which are toxic for them. In response to this, I would say that in most voluntarily relationships, even if the negatives for one party are very present, there is always some positive. Things such as favors or a sense of worth is gained from these relationships and thus a person uses this justify the relationship.

So, what is this aspect in swimming that keeps us “volunteers” coming back and even enjoying ourselves?

Swimming is inherently difficult in many aspects. For one, staring at a black line for x number of hours each day, occasionally so early in the morning that most people would call you crazy for even being awake, is not the most favorable way to spend spare time.

Another fairly obvious one is how hard swimming is. Swimming is extremely difficult in many aspects, and this difficulty is amplified by the fact that you can’t breathe for a majority of the time you’re doing the actual workout.

The time-consuming nature of the sport also ups its level of difficulty. In the NCAA you’re allowed 20 hours of practice time per week and most teams take advantage of every single second of these allotted hours. The time issue is even more present in age group swimming.


Photo Courtesy: City of Fort Lauderdale

In answering this problem, I think it’d be best to answer each of the difficulties with their own specific answer first, considering how much they vary in content, and then going back and attempting to find a grand reason for swimming. This is in part to make the article easier to read but also in an attempt to answer each of the critiques with a better, more fit, rationale.

“Why do a sport that seems utterly mind numbing?”

This, on the surface seems to be an apt description and critique of swimming, but I would contend that on a deeper examination, not only is the statement false but there is a mental benefit to be had from the repetitiveness of this sport. To an outside observer swim practices likely appear to be the most boring thing imaginable. How could swimming back and forth for hours on end with minimal talking, and in some cases more yelling than preferred, possibly be entertaining enough to do throughout adolescence? Or even longer?

Well, as I’m sure most serious swimmers could attest, when you get into the zone and are absolutely killing a set (or being killed by the set), there is nothing more exhilarating. A day with a sprint set or a shorter aerobic set holding a quick pace on a disappointingly short interval can often make the rest of the day seem pretty dull in comparison.

This sensation cannot be found elsewhere. Be it a combination of the lack of oxygen, the feeling of camaraderie gained from enduring with your teammates that help you push through, or the endorphin rush gained afterwards, there’s no way this sport can be called boring. So, the statement does fall, as not all of swimming is boring.

“What about sets that are neither sprinting or exhilaratingly challenging?”

There are some challenging sets more affectionately known as “garbage yard” sets. But even these sets, sets that even some swimmers find no point in, can be justified.

The justification for these sets lies in the therapy provided by long moments of uninterrupted thought where one can truly seclude themselves from all things in the outside world. This provides a sort of isolation therapy, and by doing a continuous action — like a long set — one can avoid their thoughts wandering or from falling asleep. The next critique of swimming is very similar to this except that it lies in the realm of physical sensations.

Seneca the younger said, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult”. What he means is there are some things that are truly only difficult because people are either afraid of them or have been told that they are very hard to accomplish.

Seneca was obviously not a swimmer. Swimming is difficult. It pushes people to and beyond their limits on a daily basis and yet people continue to come back.

“Why does someone continuously do a sport that is absolutely physically grueling?”

To answer this, we must answer the question, “Why does anyone do anything that is difficult or painful?”. There are some biological reasons for this phenomenon. The most likely of these is what I refer to as the swimmer’s high, because it makes a runner’s high look like a sugar pill.

This is not to bash running in any way, but the endorphin rush after a hard set is among the best feelings ever. There is also a psychological reasons for the swimmers persistence that was touched on in rationalizing “boring practices”. That reason is the building of camaraderie from doing ridiculous sets with people you are close to. This is also a very motivating thing and helps quite a bit with justifying returning to practice day after day.

But on a more philosophic level, we come to the mad scientist of philosophers, Epicurus, who believed, like many others after him, that true pleasure and enjoyment in life is derived from abstaining from unnecessary pleasures and finding true tranquility in oneself. As has been made very clear in this piece so far, not too much explicit physical pleasure comes from swim practice. It is also very easy to slip into a state of tranquility while swimming– so, these could be the way that swimming is justified for dedicated swimmers in a more metaphysical sense.

Alicia Coutts collapses on pool deck after another hard set at training. University of Auburn Aquatic Centre, Alabama USA. Australian Olympic Swimming Team are in their final training staging Camp before heading over to the Rio2016 Olympic Games. July 30 2016. Photo by Delly Carr. Pic credit mandatory for complimentary exclusive editorial usage. Thank You.

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr / Swimming Australia Ltd.

“Why devote so much time to a sport?”

And finally, we come to what can cause the most stress to swimmers of all ages and commitment levels– the time required to excel or even participate in the sport. The 20 allotted hours allowed for practice by the NCAA are used to the max by every program that is able to and in some programs the definition of “t20” and “training” are likely stretched.

This is only for the collegiate level however, and on some club teams you can find athletes who train in high excess of 20 hours each week. What this effectively does for students is take almost an entire 24-hour day out of a week that is likely already overbooked due to social obligations and classes to attend.

Study after study show that NCAA athletes make excellent students, with swimmers often standing out of the already exceptional pack. The training is only part of the time management battle however. What often takes up entire weekends and for some of the bigger events, a few school days, are the actual swim meets.

Some upper level swim meets can last five days, and these days are spent almost entirely at the pool with very little time for anything non-swim related. But, even the smallest of meets can effectively take up an entire day that could otherwise have been spent accomplishing things for school, work, or even just catching up on sleep.

This is equally hard on parents as they often have to facilitate their children being at the swim meets. So why would anyone enroll their child or themselves in a program that takes up this much time? Part of the reason is stated above with the improved academic performance of athletes, particularly swimmers, but an even bigger reason is that swimming is a very effective builder of character and teacher of life lessons. A teenager that is able to learn how to manage time around a busy swim schedule and is able to get themselves up for a 5 a.m. practice everyday will be much more prepared for the real world than one who has not had these experiences.

All of these justifications for what would seem to make the sport absolutely miserable are fantastic, but what is the tying factor or grand reason that so many people sign up for and continue swimming for many years? Well that’s the easiest question to answer: Because it’s the greatest sport in the world.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. Alice☘

    @zachbreeding Great job Zach!!

  2. Frédérique Warren

    C’est long mais quand mm intéressant:’) Sara Hechache Elena Landaverde Élyse Le Quoc Asmae Loulidi Mayghane Joncas T Julie Rondeau Clémence Ménard Léonie Rocheleau Béatrice Robitaille

  3. avatar

    Why do so many moms take their diapered infant in the pool when they themselves don’t even swim?

    Most of us started pretty young and that may a little to do with a lifelong interest. I probably swam first at 8 or 9 years old. I was never good enough to join a team and I might better answer the questions: Why do we cycle? Why do we run? Swimming is much harder for me so I can relate to those that actually swim. The answers are complicated.

    A better question might be: Why do some people make cycling, running, and swimming, lifelong activities when even the large majority that were hardcore at one of these in their youth (or early part of life) graduated into becoming inactive, and even fat, adults?

  4. Brett Davies

    Very well written and I can honestly say that for me swimming today is also I kind of therapy. Nothing better than a good solid workout after a difficulty day at the office totally relaxed my mind .

  5. avatar

    I must agree with Brett…thinking of nothing except the next breath, is active relaxing to the mind. That is what more people need in today’s world. To give their minds a brake.

  6. avatar

    I started learning swimming when turning 42, two years ago…now swim 4-5 times a week, 2500+meters each time…I am not fast and not shooting for any competition…it IS SO hard that this experience has made me a much stronger person, mentally. The benefit has been reflected into every aspect of my daily life…especially in business. Now days, I wont easily give up facing a challenge and rather to push through, just like swimming HARD…only wish I could have started swimming in my early age…

  7. avatar
    Glenda Akin Nebgen

    A very interesting, well written article.

  8. avatar
    Pierre-Yves Martin

    Very interesting article, thank you! As swimming is both very physically demanding but also technically, such as slide sports. The search of the perfect feeling when combining sliding and power might become a kind of addiction which helps to spend so much time training. Our skin is full of sensory receptors which are stimulated by the water and might contribute to endorphins or others neurotransmitters to be released?