It may seem counterintuitive to a beginner, but the first thing a water newbie must do is relax.

“That’s one of the truths of swimming, whether you are a beginner or an Olympic swimmer,” says Joel Stager, one of North America’s top swim experts. “The reality is that you can’t beat the water. So what you have to do is use the water to work for you. Or, at least, don’t fight against it.”

While understanding the science behind swimming is important in racing, Stager says a firm grasp of the mechanics is also vital for beginners.

The two primary forces a swimmer faces are resistant forces, or drag, and propulsive forces, or thrust. Finding the right balance between the two can be tricky, Stager says, since the faster a person swims, the more water resistance they face. The swimmer must then, in turn, use more propulsive force to beat the increased resistive force, which creates an unremitting cycle.

The best way for a beginner to find balance between the forces is to focus on being streamlined. “They need to focus on increasing the length of their stroke, and not getting more strokes. Then, it’s increasing the distance between strokes, followed by taking fewer strokes.”