How to stop being a rock?
February 12, 2010 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Should I keep trying to learn to swim?

I have never been able to swim more than 10 - 20 metres. I can't float unless my lungs are completely expanded. As soon as I exhale, my legs start to sink. In fact, if I breathe out, I can sit on the bottom the pool without moving. So floating for me tends to consist of holding my breath, then exhaling and inhaling very quickly before my mouth goes under the water (about 3-4 seconds). Obviously I can only do this quick breathing for a minute or two.

I had the usual swimming lessons at around the age of 7-8, but I never seemed to "get it". I'm 31 now and I had 10 weeks of adult lessons about a year ago. I understand what I'm supposed to do, and was doing the strokes fine, and I would breathe every fourth stroke, but I would always breathe in water on the third or fourth breath and cough and splutter and stop. I was turning my mouth to my armpit, but even in that position my mouth spent only a few seconds out of the water. I wasn't going fast enough to make a deep "trough" of air.

Lifting my head to get more time to breathe caused my legs to drop down in the water. Also learned to tread water with the "egg beater" motion with legs and arms, but I would inexorably sink down over my head no matter how hard I did it.

I don't have any issue with putting my head underwater per se. I just can't seem to keep my head above the surface long enough to breathe, no matter what I do. Is it worth continuing with more and more lessons? I would like to at least be able to learn to swim 50m or so in an emergency, but after 10 hours of lessons I still can't do it, and it doesn't seem to be improving.
posted by dave99 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if you need to build up your endurance?

I started having an asthma attack/panic attack under water the other day on one of my first attempts at lapswimming. After a while I gave up and did backstrokes instead, working similar mscles but planning my breathing as if I were underwater.

Other options - practice swimming with a very light kick board and focus only on the breathing and legs?

I am not a swim instructor and my history with swim lessons is about the same as you.
posted by tilde at 9:58 PM on February 12, 2010

I used to have similar problems. It's not clear from your post, but have you tried more than one style? Freestyle can be hard for some people to learn at first. Try the breast-stroke. It's easier and more symmetrical in terms of how your body moves. And loosen up a touch -- it sounds like maybe you're overthinking the whole swimming experience, and it's no fun when your brain is all, "Oh shit gotta breathe IMMEDIATELY AGH pool water FUCK what's my left arm supposed to do now?!".

I think you should keep trying. Swimming is very fun and relaxing, and it's totally easy on your joints and muscles, so you can basically do it until you're 100. Practice will improve your technique: you'll find that you just figure out economical and natural motions if you keep swimming.
posted by clockzero at 10:02 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you should definitely keep at it. Once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder what you found so hard about it.

As for the sinking thing... I've never been able to float. At 6'4" and 200 lbs, I don't have enough displacement. Don't let it concern you - I went to state for swim team in HS, anyway. You're close enough to neutrally buoyant that it won't make any difference.

Swimming quickly/efficiently, like treading water with the eggbeater method, requires that you have a good feel for the water and how you are directing it with your hands and feet. Think less about moving them around and more about how you are climbing or crawling along a surface maybe. That's what I think of anyway, to help visualize my stroke.

The trick to breathing is to half roll over when you do it. If you have to give a hard kick to get your head out, then do that, but again, once you get the hang of it, it'll be easy peasy. Personally, I found breathing every odd stroke (third, fifth, etc) much easier because otherwise one side would tire out faster.

I personally tend to think the breaststroke is the easiest to teach beginners because the breathe-kick-stroke rhythm is really easy. You might try doing that instead of the crawl and see how it goes.

Good luck.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:11 PM on February 12, 2010

I think it's worth continuing to try to get comfortable in the water, however, consider a change in your approach: stop fighting to stay at the surface.

Like you, I'm negatively buoyant. However, I swim like a seal. Literally: I swim underwater only breaking the surface with just enough of my head to breathe. Start exhaling on the way up, fast inhale at the surface and slide back down again. Personally, I swim most efficiently when I keep my arms in and only use them for direction changes, all my forward movement is powered by my legs much like a scuba diver. It's not as fast as someone chopping away at the surface but once you get the hang of it, you can swim steadily for a very long time.
posted by jamaro at 10:11 PM on February 12, 2010

I am an children's/adult swim instructor, and from reading your description, I wonder if you are having problems with your kick. When you do flutter kick (the front crawl/back crawl kick), your kicks should be relatively small, fast, starting at your hip and going all the way to your toes, and with some flexibility (think of your legs like "stiff seaweed" :) For front crawl, you want your knee to flex slightly on the "down" beat, and to fully extend/leg completely straighten on the "up" beat. If there is a problem with your kick (i.e. it is too stiff, too slow, too big, etc.), your arms are probably very "splashy", which would make you take in water when you turn to breathe.

If you are very muscular, it is going to be a challenge to stay afloat. Also, if you are really tense, you will tend to sink like a rock - I know it's tough, but try to relax into the water as much as you can. One other thought - make sure that your nose is pointing straight at the bottom of the pool unless you are taking a breath - if you are looking to the front at all, even with your face under water, your c-spine will extend, and your legs will tend to sink to the bottom.

So, to recap, my main suggestions would be to work on relaxing, small/fast/flexible kicks, and make sure to swim chin-down. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to discuss things further. Good luck!
posted by purlgurly at 10:11 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Regarding breast stroke, some people do find it easier - others find learning the whip kick to be a nightmare experience (I do personally prefer it to front crawl :).
posted by purlgurly at 10:13 PM on February 12, 2010

I agree with clockzero. Freestyle is a great way to wear yourself out if you're not in top physical condition. It sounds to me like you're approaching swimming as a series of instructions to be followed, and while that makes sense if you're trying to learn a particular stroke, I think that feeling comfortable enough in the water is just as important. Perhaps the adult-level lessons are assuming you're already at that comfort level and that's what's making the learning curve steeper than it needs to be. You're going to get water in your nose and mouth sometimes. It happens, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're failing at swimming. You can practice treading water, swimming and floating in the shallow end of the pool without the fear of sinking. If anything goes wrong, you can just stand up. Try that for a while and see if it helps.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:13 PM on February 12, 2010

It is all technique, believe me, and technique can be (has to be) developed. Having gone through this as a kid, summer after summer - one year you manage to keep your head up by kicking frantically for a few seconds. The next year you can do it for thirty seconds. The next year, a minute. When you go through the lessons, each level up the standard gets a little higher. By the time you've almost graduated, you can do it for five or ten minutes easy, and you're spreading your arms so easy it looks like you're doing nothing at all. (It's not how hard you do it that counts; in fact once you get it right, you do it oh so lightly).

The trick to swimming is maximizing the amount of water you push while minimizing effort. There could be a zillion reasons why you just can't keep your head up - your hands are tilted wrong, your toes are pointed wrong, you're slicing too quickly instead of pushing, and so on.

You pick up these economies of movement gradually, over time. As these improve, all aspects of swimming improve, including treading and all of the strokes. Lessons will sometimes try to teach this (cupped hands, pointed toes etc) but to a large degree the swimmer has to figure them out through experimentation. Private one-on-one lessons might help bring this out but so too would spending a lot of time in the water. It will take time to improve so be patient. Experienced swimmers are good swimmers and vice versa, generally.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:16 PM on February 12, 2010

I’m going to suggest something completely different. I’m basing this on my brief experience working with inner city kids and teaching them to be comfortable around water (beginning level swimmers/ canoeing).

Anyway, have you been able to master floating on your back? If not, can you try bits of this with a private swimming instructor or friend? The basic idea is to have float on your back and keep your head above your water. Your feet may begin to sink, but if you relax and lightly move your arms you can keep more of your legs and arms parallel to the water. Even if your legs and arms may still start sinking, that is fine – keep your head back and stay afloat. I’ve seen some kids panic, so if you have a friend that you trust nearby – in the beginning, he or she could put a hand lightly under back and slowly back away. Also, you could do this near the edge of the pool, but gradually go into deeper and deeper waters.

If you can master floating on your back (even if the legs partially sink) the next step is going across the pool floating on your back, but lightly kicking your legs and moving your your arms slightly to propel yourself. You can do this without expending a lot of energy and get from one end of the pool to another.

Please don’t find all of the above insulting, it is just that I have worked with kids who could not do this in the beginning because they panicked and had fear and once they acquired confidence they could do it. I don’t know if you would need lessons to do this – have you tried working with a friend who can swim well and have him or her work with you over an afternoon or two to show how to do this and you work with you? If this is too basic, please ignore.
posted by Wolfster at 10:44 PM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

maybe this is a stupid suggestion - but maybe it'd be better to just swim for fun (doggie paddle) until you get really comfortable with it - and then, later, learn to swim "properly". This is how most people who are swimming from early childhood progress, so maybe you're rushing things too much? (I don't know anything about the technique of swimming, but I've been swimming since I was a toddler, and only learned the head-turn-breathe proper-swimming thing in my early teens).
posted by moxiedoll at 10:44 PM on February 12, 2010

I taught swim lessons, including adult swim lessons, for several years. I also swam competitively, and it took me a long time to get the right technique. Technique is really important, and the coordination required to breathe on your side in freestyle is pretty hard to nail down.

When you breathe in freestyle, you want to practice turning your head so that your chin is back toward your shoulder, rather than your armpit. Your breathing should happen on the "pull" portion of the stroke on your breathing side. You want your face to be back in the water before you take your pulling arm back out of the water.
Maybe go back to trying to breathe every other stroke, and always on the same side - this is something that takes time to really get.

With regard to floating, pay a lot of attention to where your chin is. When you float on your back, lean your head back so that your chin is almost perpendicular to the plane of the water. Arch your back, too. When you float on your stomach, tuck your chin.

Whatever you decide to do, keep practicing. I give you tremendous kudos for making the effort to learn how to swim properly.
posted by honeybee413 at 10:48 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

like Pogo_Fuzzybutt, I too was high school swimmer at the state and regional championship level. I also taught swimming lessons for nearly a decade to people of all skill levels and ages: mommy & me infants, little kids who peed their pants afraid to get into the water, elementary, middle, high school students and all the way up to people like my grandma. everyone can be taught to swim, but the most important thing of all is to be comfortable in the water and know what to do if you find yourself not feeling that way. It seems like you have a cursory understanding of the strokes (freestyle, breaststroke and probably backstroke). This is good, but if you're ever going to be truly comfortable in the water, you may have to unlearn what you already know by going back to the basics.

I always started my students, regardless of skill level by doing a series of 'bobs':
hands on the wall/gutter, head above the water
take a full breath, slowly submerge entire head
while underwater, exhale all air through your nose slowly
once you're out of air, rise slowly, inhale slowly through the mouth

Bobs should be slow and really relaxing, and also help you become really comfortable with exhaling underwater through your nose. This will help you out a ton when you're eventually doing any stroke where your face is underwater. It's important to try to replicate your normal breathing from your 'dry' life while you're in the water as well. When we're at work we don't take a breath, the hold it for several beats, forcibly exhale and then gulp more air. It's a natural progression of inhale and exhale. we want to replicate that as much as possible in the water too.

purlgurly has great tips about flutter kick, and Pogo_Fuzzybutt touched on the way your hands/arms move through the water. both have great points! In flutter kick, kick from the hip with the 'shoe lace' part of your foot. As for hands, position is super important because they are working in a lot of ways like airplane wings, depending on how they are oriented (lift and drag etc).

I'm more than happy to talk with you more about it, drop me a memail if you'd like. don't give up hope, you're nearly the perfect student at this point!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 11:44 PM on February 12, 2010

When I swim what keeps me on the surface is my arm's motion, nothing else. It seems you have only tried a single swimming style. Where I live, the Breaststroke style swimming is the most common and IMHO requires very little training to stay on the surface. Your head pretty much stays over water 98% of the time. Have you tried it?
posted by oxit at 1:10 AM on February 13, 2010

I had the same problem but I now swim the crawl for 30 minutes daily. The things that helped me were:

- Swim instructor gave me a small float, shaped like a figure 8, that lodges between your legs up next to your butt. I used that for about 3 months to keep from sinking while I built confidence and stamina.

- Face mask that covers the nose. Prevents that awful water-up-the-nose feeling when you make a breathing mistake.
posted by eeyore at 1:39 AM on February 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for your answers, I appreciate your encouragement.

One specific thing I get blocked on is that if I breathe in water, I cough and have to stop, and when I stop moving forward, I sink rapidly. How do you "recover" from that situation where you've fully exhaled underwater, and then breathe in some water? Just keep going and breathe on the next stroke?
posted by dave99 at 5:10 AM on February 13, 2010

I can't float unless my lungs are completely expanded. As soon as I exhale, my legs start to sink.

Relax, the key to swimming and floating is relaxing. most people sink when floating, to stay afloat requires constant, but actually very little, movement of your arms and legs.

No one "floats" with their head sticking out of the water, that's called swimming in place.

How do you "recover" from that situation where you've fully exhaled underwater, and then breathe in some water? Just keep going and breathe on the next stroke?

Again RELAX, if you exhale underwater, you still have literally minutes until you're required to breath again. If you are swimming freestyle and exhale while your face is underwater, turn your head, at your convenience and inhale.

It sounds less like you need to learn to swim and more like you just need to gain confidence.

Spend more time in the deep end, just floating around, you will have to use leg and arm movement but so what. in these controlled situations you are not fighting for survival, you are just learning how to get along with the water.

Also try holding your breath and swimming across the width of the pool underwater. You have to understand that you CAN BREATH ANY TIME YOU WANT merely by surfacing for air.

You control the situation, it does not control you.
posted by Max Power at 5:37 AM on February 13, 2010

You only breathe every fourth stroke? Hmm, I think you should breathe more often than that, especially if you get anxiety about breathing.

Also, I apparently have terrible form swimming freestyle. I use a scissors kick instead of the flutter kick, which just has never felt natural. I attribute this to my perverse 8 year old self who swam a hundred laps a day and is why I'm not as fast as anyone who has ever been on a swim team and actually has good technique, However, I do go forward.

Yes, keep swimming. It could save your life. Teach your children too.
posted by mearls at 5:42 AM on February 13, 2010

(Disclaimer: I don't have any special qualifications, but I spend a lot of time at the pool.)

I found breaststroke really hard to learn when I was little and skinny and sank like a rock--freestyle was much easier for me at that point. Just my experience, breaststroke is much easier if you're not skinny.

On the breathing thing, I know I'm doing it wrong, but I use a nose clip and do all my breathing through my mouth. It's easier for me to maintain breathing out pressure through my mouth underwater, and if some water splashes it doesn't hurt like it does my nose. Your pool probably sells sucky plastic ones for a few bucks, you can buy one and give it a try and it you don't like it throw it away. (If you do like it, upgrade to the kind with metal across the nose.)

Also I watched part of "O2 in H2O: A Self-Help Course on Breathing in Swimming with Terry Laughlin". (Got it from Netflix.) I got bored watching it, but what I did see was interesting... for example, he started with exercises involving dipping your face in a pan of water and opening your mouth, to experience the (slight) pressure you use to keep your air under water.

Finally, if you're getting too overworked treading, try keeping less of your head out of water. All that really needs to be out is your face (head tilted all the way back, body hanging straight down). Most people can tread comfortably before that point, but a lot of people also try to tread too high. The more of your body is in the water, the lighter you are. Also try a flutter kick and variations for treading, may come more naturally than the eggbeater.
posted by anaelith at 6:00 AM on February 13, 2010

Throwing in a vote for dog paddling. I sink too. Despite years of being comfortable in the water and trying a million times I just cannot float. I can only barely keep my head above water using just my legs if I kick for all I'm worth. Using my arms keeps my head up. Dog paddling is a perfectly adequate way of getting from point A to point B in the water for distances that you are concerned about. It is not energy efficient for the long swim but it has the bonus of allowing you to keep your head up and looking around you while you move. You can also pretty much use it to keep yourself afloat with no forward movement all.
posted by stubborn at 8:09 AM on February 13, 2010

I was basically in your situation when I was eleven years old, learned a couple tricks to help me out, and completely gave up on improving at all beyond that. I'm not going to tell you that's the right thing to do, but if you're about to give up on improving, here's what I did:

I too am not at all buoyant, and always had trouble swimming. I abandoned any hopes at the classical "good form" freestyle crawl that is taught, and ended up settling into something between freestyle and a doggy paddle. I was able to keep moving forward, with my head above water most of the time, and when I desperately had to (like for swim tests at camp or college) I've been able to swim three or four lengths of an Olympic pool. I ended up moving very slowly, because my body was never parallel to the surface (if your head's above water, it's very hard to keep your kicking feet up). And it was tiring and my muscles burned. But it was never so tiring that I had to stop, and I never had to worry about inhaling a big gulp of water because my head spent so little time submerged.

I could not tread water, either, but I could float on my back. I just had to arch it as much as possible, stick my arms out, and take a deep breath every 5-10 seconds. Compared to any other method of staying afloat, it's much more relaxing. If I ever fall out of a boat, this is what I hope saves my ass.

I also learned the elementary backstroke, which is less intensive than a traditional backstroke. It's also very slow, but much more relaxing than my version of the freestyle crawl. I couldn't really tell where I was going while doing it, but I've done a few lengths of a pool using it without getting at all tired.
posted by aswego at 9:29 AM on February 13, 2010

Swimming is a really useful skill, esp. if you ever spend any time at all in boats. It's not you; find a better instructor who can help you over your barriers. Swimming is really, really fun, and great exercise.

I was late learning to swim, resisted all attempts to be taught and finally taught myself. I've had a couple close calls with water, and am very glad I can swim.
posted by theora55 at 10:50 AM on February 13, 2010

One specific thing I get blocked on is that if I breathe in water, I cough and have to stop, and when I stop moving forward, I sink rapidly. How do you "recover" from that situation where you've fully exhaled underwater, and then breathe in some water? Just keep going and breathe on the next stroke?

Pretty much. Like you, if I stop, I'll sink, so I try to keep moving and get some good breaths in along the way. The key is to not panic, no matter what happens - if you get a lungful of water, you have a lot of time to fix it.

Also, I found that if I cup my tongue a certain way during the inhale, I could avoid inhaling water.

Like I said above, if you roll over, so that the breathing side shoulder is out of the water, you'll be fine. If it takes you an extra half second or so on that stroke don't sweat it. Perfect form is far less important than being comfortable in the water.

I would encourage you to play in the water too. I like to see how many somersaults I can do in a minute, or how slowly I can move my hands and still keep my head above water. Those are really good practice for learning how to use the water to move you. But I'm a dork, and I love swimming. It's as close to natural flying as I'm ever going to get.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:06 AM on February 13, 2010

I liked swimming much better once I learned sidestroke. No need to be sticking your nose under the water. Sounds like you have been taught a stroke that is designed to be fast, but you don't need to be fast.

The problem with backstroke is that clonking your head on things replaces breathing in water as the main difficulty.

Learn survival floating instead of treading water.
posted by yohko at 11:20 AM on February 13, 2010

I understand. This is what you must do:

(1) Temporarily give up on the floating - you're a vertical floater and dense. (Some people just are; we all have our personal advantages and disadvantages.)

(2) DO THE SIDE STROKE. YOUR MOUTH STAYS OUT OF THE WATER. Solves the breathing problem. Start here. (or the Back Stroke is good too) You, you specifically, will probably be able to do these a lot better, and at a much lower energy level, than the other strokes. Save the freestyle for later. Don't give up.
posted by coffeefilter at 11:20 AM on February 13, 2010

Some people just don't float. I'm one of them. Learn to tread water and practice coughing while you're treading in water juuust deep enough that you can get a toe down if you need to. Being able to cough and tread will probably make you feel more comfortable. I find I need to use my arms to "push down" on the water sometimes to keep my head above water, so I don't swim properly or fast- I usually dog-paddle around, although I can also do some crappy front crawl and breaststroke. But I know I won't likely ever drown by way of not knowing to swim well enough to make whatever distance I need to make, and that's the important part.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:58 PM on February 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks again for all your advice, there are lots of options here for me to try. Looking forward to some productive pool sessions!
posted by dave99 at 2:27 AM on February 14, 2010

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