One year ago this week, I took the plunge back into the water. Sure, I’d taken the requisite swim lessons as a child and, twenty-five years later, I could stay afloat if my yacht capsized and hack together a stroke for a short distance if shark fin appeared on the horizon, but, despite my run fitness, one pathetic pool session was all I needed to tell me I was not ready to string together the laps necessary to train for even a sprint triathlon event.
For most folks, the swim is the weak link in triathlon and I am proving no exception. Those first breathless, draining laps (all two of them) told me I would need some serious work in the pool if I wanted to continue this new passion for triathlon.
One year later and I’m more comfortable and (semi)competent in the water. I still couldn’t out swim a shark, but I would definitely make him earn it.
Here are the six most helpful things I learned as an adult novice swimmer over the past year.
1. Take a lesson
Swimming reminds me of golf in a lot of ways. Sure, you can piece together a swing and through sheer, brute repetition, reach some level of repeatable competence, but to improve and get beyond Saturday morning hacker and to continue to improve you need to get some help and take some lessons. The swim stroke is just as technical as the golf swing and figuring it out yourself can be a road to frustration. Save yourself the wasted laps, they will probably do more harm than good. A quick Google or a check at your local YMCA or health club should turn up plenty of certified swim coaches in your area.
I ended up taking two, hour long lessons over the course of a couple months for $60 dollars each, including lane rental, and the teacher’s advice, coaching and takeaway workouts really jump-started my swimming.
There are a lot of different ways to teach swimming and what you learned as a child might not be the best way to learn as an adult. I found the Total Immersion technique really seemed to click for me and my goals. If you find TI appeals to you, I recommend getting a lesson even more. TI has lots of books and videos, but the small building blocks at the beginning are not that easy to pick up without an experienced person to show you.
This was the first thing we addressed in my lessons. You don’t run or bike holding your breath, so why are you holding it while you swim? This is likely the biggest drain on new swimmers. If you are holding your breathe, not breathing out, and breathing out pretty hard, underwater, then you are only speeding up your oxygen debt and will quickly find yourself fatigued and doggy paddling in the water.
When you are just starting out, there are a lot of things to remember and I still find myself sometimes holding my breath as I concentrate on some other part of the stroke, but it doesn’t take long for my body to remind me. Work on this, make a habit, make it muscle memory and your swimming and your enjoyment in the water will improve dramatically.
3. Learn to breathe to both sides
If you are just starting out or, like me, re-learning, take the time to breathe to both sides. By default, one side is going to feel more natural, don’t make it a crutch. Force yourself to make bi-lateral (technical term!) breathing a part of your stroke. It will help you be more efficient and also save you when you find your natural side is occupied by a thrashing maniac intent on splashing you any time you want to take a breath.
4. Go slow
Efficiency and both active and passive streamlining really matter in swimming. There’s a reason if you watch any swim meets or check out YouTube clips that the fastest swimmer often looks like they are just casually swimming practice laps. Moving faster or more frantically doesn’t translate in the water, it just increases drag. Don’t fight the water. Learn how to move through it.
5. Keep your head down
For a taller swimmer, like myself, letting my head hang, relaxed between my arms, really helped. Most folks tend to swim by looking forward, but by simply not using my neck muscles and letting the water support my head, I was able to do three things: not use up excess energy holding my neck up, be more streamlined in the water and consequently bring my legs up more horizontally, again aiding in streamlining. Not a bad return for a simple switch.
6. Kick less
Kicking legs are actually a poor form of forward propulsion in the water and often counteract your forward movement with an out of balance body position, drag and a drain on your energy. This is one of the things that resonated so well with total immersion. The TI has a small twitch kick timed with you arm stroke and weight shift that I found dramatically more comfortable. I found lessening my kick helped save my legs more for the bike and run where extra effort has more impact.
That’s it. All simple, and for many experienced swimmers, probably very obvious lessons, but for me they each made a big difference in both improving my swimming and enjoying my workouts.