Learning how to swim! As an adult.
July 17, 2012 10:04 PM   Subscribe

I am 28 years old and never learned how to swim. I'm about to learn. Advice? Tips? Is it too late for me?

My parents are aquaphobes and can't swim themselves, so pools and the beach weren't a big part of our childhoods. We grew up in an urban area, so I successfully avoided swimming for a long time. I'm not too afraid of water. I'll go in a pool (but stay close to the wall) and go in the ocean (just up to my hips).

I finally feel ready to learn and a friend is going to teach me. I don't expect to be an amazing swimmer. I'd just like to know how to not drown. I am admittedly feeling nervous and afraid. I realize the barriers are more mental than physical. So, any advice? Pointers? Tips from people who also learned to swim as an adult?

posted by blackcatcuriouser to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
My best friend just turned 29 last week, and started taking swim lessons at the beginning of the summer. She was in your same boat: not really afraid of the water, just incapable of moving around in it.

She adores swimming! She took a second class after the first was over, to learn more strokes and get more practice. Now, she swims laps in the community pool for an hour three times a week.

So it's definitely not too late. If you can relax enough to focus on learning the moves of the different strokes, rather than on your nervousness, you should be fine.

A lot of learning to swim is getting used to breathing patterns. My friend has asthma, and freestyle is her least favorite stroke because she feels as though she doesn't have a long enough breathing window to get a lungful of air. The first class she did started with backstroke, which I initially thought was weird but makes sense from this perspective: you have the chance to learn how to kick and stay afloat and propel yourself through the water, without having to worry about the breathing aspect. Once you have the confidence of knowing you won't drown, you can focus on face-down strokes like breast and freestyle.
posted by Superplin at 10:18 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Congrats...remember that any and all skills that you learn will stay with you.
so if you need to interrupt your "studies" you will still be in a better place than you are now.

I found getting used to floating on my back was a great stress reliever.
At times I would find myself in the deep end, but if/when it got too much for me I could always just float on my back.

I know you say a friend is going to teach you, but consider an adult swim class at the ymca.
Or maybe later after you get some of the basics down.

and after preview...yes the backstroke is cool to learn first.
you can really get some speed going!

posted by calgirl at 10:24 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your friend might be a great teacher, or your friend might mess you up. I say start really slow. Get comfortable putting your head under. Learn to float (easier in salt than fresh water). Then learn the basic strokes. And go from there. Nervousness is definitely something you'll need to overcome, and something you will easily get past if you take it easy, stay in your depth, and learn that it's fine to have your head under water and just hold your breath - something that might be scary if you can't swim at all yet.

Hopefully one day you'll get to enjoy body surfing, which is amazing, and something you've got to be comfortable in the water to properly enjoy. Let alone snorkelling, etc (which is probably the easiest form of swimming, you can just lie there and do literally nothing and stay completely safe - but requires some confidence).
posted by The Monkey at 10:31 PM on July 17, 2012

First of all, this is a great idea! It's a skill everyone should have.

I agree that learning how to be comfortably floating on your back is a very helpful initial step. It's surprisingly easy if you can relax and float. When I was a child and learning to swim, flipping over to float on my back was my safety hatch if I got scared or overwhelmed. It's a great way to get comfortable in the water. The way I learned was to have a teacher hold me up gently as I practiced floating. Your body will be very light in the water, so don't worry about seeing heavy to someone holding you up. As you get more comfortable, your friend/teacher will be able to start letting go and you'll be able to float on your own. It's water training wheels.

Also, you don't have to start with learning all of the underwater breathing for the strokes. As a former swim team member and an exclusively recreational swimmer now, I spend 90% of my swimming time with my head out of the water. Now that I'm swimming purely for fun, I do a modified freestyle and breast stroke with my head staying above water and also love the side stroke.

IMO, the most important thing is to concentrate on being comfortable swimming first, and then, you can go on to take more formal classes to learn all of the fancy breathing and stroke fine-tuning.

Take it slow and keep in mind that a body floats more easily than you'd think. Have fun! Swimming is awesome.
posted by quince at 10:49 PM on July 17, 2012

A local radio personality where I live just undertook swimming lessons for the first time at 40, and it got written up in the paper.
posted by erikgrande at 11:01 PM on July 17, 2012

Yes. Do it. It is only too late to learn after you've drowned. Like one of my best friends did last summer after falling into a river while vacationing.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:05 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Monkey says that it's easier to float in salt water, which is true. It is also, however, a Very Bad Idea for a non-swimmer to learn to float in the ocean (or just go into the ocean, even if it's 'only' up to your hips).

I would highly recommend lessons from a professional. Good friends mean well, but a pro will get you confident in the water in no time. It's never too late to learn to swim!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 11:26 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Very Bad Idea for a non-swimmer to learn to float in the ocean (or just go into the ocean, even if it's 'only' up to your hips)

There's a salt water swimming pool near where I live - very safe place to learn. Assume the same is probably true in some other parts of the world. Also near where I live: beaches where it's sometimes dangerous to even be ankle deep in the water. So your point is definitely worth repeating.
posted by The Monkey at 11:34 PM on July 17, 2012

Its never too late to learn. My background was just like yours...not afraid of water but certainly not comfortable enough to trust myself in the deep end. So I took lessons at 39!(this was two years ago) I took it from a professional swim teacher and its been the one of the best decisions I ever made in my life and its fun! I swim laps 3x a week now.

One thing I took away is you have to learn this on your own timetable. Don't rush it, practice alot even if its just blowing bubbles and bobbing up and down, getting a feel of balance in the water and getting comfortable in the water. The skills of strokes and coordinating breathing comes easier when you are comfortable and calm in the water.

Get goggles. Its instinctive for humans to NOT want to open our eyes under water and especially so with the slightly irritating qualities of chlorinated water. Wearing goggles makes being in/under the water easier.

Heres another link about someone who learned to swim late in life.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 11:38 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's easy. It's a big deal for kids but much simpler as an adult. I taught a friend in an afternoon.

Lie facedown in the water and turn your head to the side repeatedly so you can breathe through your mouth. At the same time, kick your legs to propel you forward. At the same time, windmill your arms alternately into the water to help your legs along.

That's it. That's all there is.
posted by tel3path at 12:55 AM on July 18, 2012

My wife's dad learnt to swim at 40 one holiday when a lady who was sharing the pool at their holiday complex offered to teach them. Just like that. You're definitely not that old.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:14 AM on July 18, 2012

Two goals I didn't see yet:
- Get comfortable putting your head underwater. A swimming-teacher-friend of mine got another adult friend (your age) started with letting her put her face underwater and hold her breath, and to put her face underwater and blow bubbles. It doesn't feel immediately natural, and is a big stumbling point even for people who eventually learn basic strokes.
- Be okay with playing, and invite your swimming friends. Anytime I've been with an adult learner, it's been a lot of fun to revisit things that aren't serious strokes. It teaches you what your body can do in the water and what your personal limits are: can you do a handstand? Can you do a length of the pool underwater? How mahy somersaults did you do?
Another goal I did see here and thoroughly second: Get comfortable floating! It's calming, fun, and a useful general principle in swimming.

You're definitely not too old, and you can be amazing at it if you want to!!
posted by whatzit at 3:28 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learnt to swim when I was 24 and it was surprisingly easy. I could do the basic breast stroke by my 3rd lesson or so. It helped that the year prior to that, my friends helped teach me to float in a very calm, shallow sea (it was Phuket a week before the tsunami, incidentally). That gave me the confidence to start the lessons. During my formal lessons, the instructor taught us how to do the frog-leg kick for the first two lessons or so and we had floats (the foam types that you hug). We learnt the arm strokes by the third lesson or so and slowly began to rely less on the float. I only took 12 lessons. By then I could do the freestyle. I never mastered treading water even though we concentrated on it in the last few lessons.
posted by bie81 at 4:46 AM on July 18, 2012

A lot of community centers and Ys have adult swim classes for people in your situation, and unless your friend is an experienced swimmer, I'd be cautious in having a friend teach you more than the doggy paddle.

If you happen to be in NYC proper, Aquaskills might just be what you are looking for, or something like it.

And no, it's definitely not too late! I happen to think swimming is an important life skill everyone should learn.
posted by zizzle at 6:38 AM on July 18, 2012

I took a stroke improvement class a couple of years ago that was immediately after the adult learn-to-swim class. It was full of people quite a lot older than you who were learning to swim for the first time, so I wouldn't worry about age much.

Maybe if you were 80 it wouldn't be worth it, but at 28, you have a lifetime of beach vacations ahead of you yet.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:48 AM on July 18, 2012

Congratulations, I hope you love it.

I know you said you're not trying to be an awesome swimmer or anything but you should still really, really read this book: Total Immersion. It turns a lot of advice on its head and it might just inspire you to keep improving your swimming skills; which is never a bad thing.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:36 AM on July 18, 2012

My kids learned elementary backstroke first (after the bubble blowing and floating drills). Chicken, airplane rocket. It allows you to propel yourself through the water without worrying about how to breathe.
posted by CathyG at 7:48 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned to swim at the Y when I was 32. Unlike you, I was somewhat scared of water, and totally out of shape. It went well, but I wish I'd done the following:

1. Found a more casual class. The classes I took were more about swimming as exercise, and required equipment (swim cap, goggles), which actually made it harder to swim casually, because I don't carry goggles around everywhere, and I really wasn't used to swimming without them.

2. Spent more time on treading water. Again, for social swimming, being able to "hang out" in the pool was more important than perfecting the breaststroke.

Have fun! You can totally learn to swim as an adult, and it's such a useful skill.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:06 AM on July 18, 2012

Seconding the head-under-water.

I used to manage a pool, and when we taught little kids how to swim, the first thing we did was have them with a pan or water, on a bench, so they could practice submerging their faces and blowing bubbles, holding their breath, etc. We got the water out of the pool, and when we were done, we had them pour the water back into the pool, to reinforce that it is the same water and if you do it in pan, you can do it in the pool.

As an adult, you know this, but being comfortable with holding your breath, knowing that your face will get back up in the air whenever you want it to, is central to enjoying the experience.
posted by Danf at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2012

Lie facedown in the water and turn your head to the side repeatedly so you can breathe through your mouth. At the same time, kick your legs to propel you forward. At the same time, windmill your arms alternately into the water to help your legs along. That's it. That's all there is.

Horrible advice from Tel3path.

As a beginner, you will feel extremely uncomfortable lying face down in the water as the lack of footing will cause you to scramble in the water, which cycles into fear and more thrashing.

Learn to tread water first - this will give you comfort in the water when you are not moving around. It will help with your breathing and avoid a panic mode that will cause you to rush towards "shore." Once you've mastered this, learn the strokes and propelling one's self through the water.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2012

Former swimming instructor here- I've had students from 6 months to 80 years. It is never too late to learn, and you are doing a great thing from the perspective of both personal safety and a fun recreational activity.

Seconding whatzit, my main piece of advice for a beginner is to relax. Take your time. Just get used to moving in the water, getting your face wet, and, when you feel comfortable, putting your face and or head in the water. One of the key things to work on while you do this is exhaling under water. It won't feel right at first, and you should go at your own pace, but the more you practice this skill, the more it will pay off when you start to develop actual strokes. Once you have exhaling down, work on submerging your whole body and head, and opening your eyes under water. This may sting a bit (depending on chlorine or salt content of the water), but you get used to it. Submerge, exhale, open your eyes and look around. Get used to the sensation. Try crouch-walking around a bit in shallow water with your head submerged. I don't recommend goggles until you are comfortable opening your eyes under water- goggles leak, and can come off, and you want to be comfortable without that.

Once you've mastered these things, you can move on to lifting your feet off the bottom, floating, and stroke development.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:58 PM on July 18, 2012

I failed at swimming lessons every summer from the age of six until the age of eleven. It was one of the most humiliating aspects of my childhood. The first five teachers were incompetent but thanks be to the universe for the sixth.

The tricks for me:

#1 Breaststroke first!

#2 In freestyle it can be really tricky to have your inhalations and your strokes at a rhythm which makes for comfortable breathing. Be patient and experiment with different count patterns. Also, what is a workable pattern for you at the beginning will quickly become tiresome as you acquire more skill. (I didn't know anything about this at the time, but I think some breath-centered meditation practice might be helpful.)

Good luck. Being able to swim is totally worth it even if you rarely get a chance to do it.
posted by bukvich at 4:19 PM on July 18, 2012

« Older How do I find a job in IT/Web with lots of...   |   Here fishy, fishy, fishy Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.