How to swim? Rather, how to exist comfortably in water?
October 6, 2012 1:20 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn how to swim. No, scratch that; help me learn how to learn how to swim.

I am a male in my early 20s. I run daily and would hazard the opinion that I am reasonably fit. However, I cannot swim.

There's something odd about that statement: when most people hear it, they think that what I mean is, "I cannot swim very well", and they respond by saying, "Oh, but you can doggy-paddle, right?" or "So you can only swim with a noodle?" or similar. No. I mean that I cannot swim. I mean that if I was dropped into ten feet of calm water, fifty feet from shore, I do not know whether I would survive.

The full extent of my abilities are these: I can float on my stomach for as long as I can hold m breath, and if I have a life jacket on, I can slowly propel myself around with my arms and legs. I feel that calling these feats "swimming" would be excessively generous.

I'm not looking for advice on technique, because I think I have enough of that on hand: my wife and all of my family are good swimmers. I have a book and a DVD on the subject. I've taken basic swimming classes three times (admittedly, many years ago).

What I need is advice on simply being in the water in the first place - advice so basic that nearly everyone I ask has difficulty discerning and articulating it. I also need guidance on how to overcome or get rid of the many counterproductive instincts of a body which does not consider the water a natural or safe environment.

Let me outline the basic difficulties I face in the water:

1. While attempting to practice swimming, I frequently do something which my body finds unnatural and provokes a brief panic response, including gasping and trying to regain balance. The gasping in particular is troublesome. I am reluctant to try certain techniques because experience tells me that the probability of hitting a panic response, gasping, and inhaling water, is very high.

(I want to note that the panic response I'm talking about is muscular, not emotional - I am not afraid of the water.)

2. I do not know what to do with my breath. When my face is underwater, should I be exhaling through my mouth, exhaling through my nose, holding my breath, or some combination? When above water, should I inhale through my mouth or nose? If through my mouth, should I use the muscle in the back of my mouth to block up my nasal passageway? I've tried every strategy I can think of, but none strike me as obviously the most natural. If I try to keep my nasal passageway closed, it seems that eventually water pressure forces water through it anyway; and if I don't, for instance if I'm exhaling through my nose, at some point I'll slip up or hit a panic response and, again, inhale water.

3. If I attempt to float on my back (the first part of many techniques), my ears dip under the water, water enters them, and they hurt (once again, triggering a panic response). I have tried to overcome this by attempting the back float many times in succession, until my ears seem to accept the feeling of water in them - but then when I change position, I find that my head feels odd (strangely hot or cold) and my balance is negatively impacted for a minute or more. This does not seem like something I ought to encourage.

(Note that water does not bother my ears if I am underwater with my head pointed straight forward or down. It is when I look up, or turn my head to one side, that I have this problem.)

4. Water hurts my eyes. Even a small amount of water in my eye makes it almost impossible for me to open it. This applies to pool water, lake water, even the shower - I have to close my eyes when I wash my head, and keep them closed until I dry my eyes. I have tried to overcome this by repeatedly putting small amounts of lukewarm clean water in my open eyes, to improve my endurance, but I have not noticed any success.

(Note that this is the least important of my difficulties, as I can generally obviate it by simply wearing goggles. I include it mostly to illustrate how negatively my body reacts to water. I am also curious whether anyone else shares my experience.)

I have gone so much of my life not being able to swim that I have come to see it as very much a part of my identity. However, I cannot ignore how gross an oversight it is in terms of physical fitness and disaster preparedness. As a father, I would like to have the ability to pull my child from the water, if I ever had to.

Also, this swimming business - it does look rather fun.
posted by CustooFintel to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't seen this recent question (it isn't tagged very well), you may find some of the comments helpful. Though the question's perspective is opposite (a teacher, not a student), many of the comments describe some of the 'a-ha' moments of learning to swim.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:38 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Too lazy to link, but a day or two there was a question by a swim instructor asking for advice in teaching adult learners... There is probably some advice of value to you in that thread.

A few points I can think of: you should exhale through your nose when underwater, generally, when you come up, inhale through your mouth. Try earplugs, I can't tolerate water in my ears either. Start with some exercises to become comfortable with how your body moves in water to get past the panic response. Learn to tread water before tackling the basic swimming strokes. Then try starting with side stroke, it is very gentle and keeps your head up. An adult swim class would probably be quite helpful..
posted by catatethebird at 1:38 AM on October 6, 2012

posted by windykites at 1:41 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting over reactions like this is what the shallow end is for. I found I had to be comfy cruising around the shallow end, with my feet on the bottom (ducking under, etc) and experimenting like this, in order to get better.

I'm still not a great swimmer, but this first step helps. If you could maybe find a private pool to do this in?
posted by titanium_geek at 1:47 AM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I did see the recent question by the swim instructor. Unfortunately, it was not as helpful to me as I initially hoped. There was only about one response that was talking about the same super-basic things I'm talking about (a opposed to technique or body image), and it was more a recollection of difficulties than a guide to overcoming them.
posted by CustooFintel at 1:50 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: I've taught lots of kids and some grown ups how to swim. Here's what I know:

You should start with "bobs." Stand in shallow water. Take a big breath in, then dunk under water and exhale through your nose and mouth. Blow out ALL your air. Come back up and inhale through your mouth. Do this 10 times, 20 times, etc. it will help you get used to feeling water pressure on your head, and it will help with proper breathing when/if you learn competitive strokes (freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke). One breath in, one breath out. Do it until it stops feeling weird.

You already float on your front, which is great. To float on your back, drop your head down and jam your hips/belly button up. Relax the arms and legs. I used to tell my students to imagine they had a fishing hook in their belly button that was pulling them toward the ceiling. If water in your ears drives you crazy, wear ear plugs. When I swam competitively I was prone to ear infections, so I had a custom pair from an ENT, and they were awesome. You can also try silicone ones from the drug store. When you are starting out, put a noodle under your hips. Once you stabilize, pull it out. It's better if someone can do this for you. Get used to only your nose and mouth being out of the water. Relax, as long as your lungs are filled with air you will float. Breathe in small sips, exhale small sips.

Get some great goggles! I like speedo vanquishers, which are about $20/pair--and that's on the high end. Go to a sporting goods store and try several pairs until you're comfortable. You may need to experiment a bit. Great goggles make a HUGE difference.

Bobbing and floating are the building blocks of swimming because they teach you how to control your body in the water. From there, you can move on to treading (google egg beater kick) and next thing you know you'll be addicted to the pool...maybe. (:

Best of luck! You can do it!
posted by justjess at 1:51 AM on October 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think swimming lessons might actually work for you - I just think you may have a more narrow idea of swimming lessons than you should. Most pools that run lessons will have a very basic class that starts not with strokes, but just getting you comfortable and calm in the water. Have a look at what's available to you locally.
Good luck with all of this - It's a great step to take and it's admirable that you're facing this head-on.
posted by ominous_paws at 2:39 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mom is (or was -- her certification may have expired) a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor, and helped run a city pool when I was a kid, so I grew up taking and hearing about swimming lessons all the time.

2. In the beginning level lessons, one of the first things they'd practice was to hang on the side of the pool with both hands, put your face in the water, open your eyes and blow bubbles. Obviously when you're out of air you'll need pick your head up and get more, at which point you may be inclined to hyperventilate and maybe have a good cry, but try to get your face back in the water, open your eyes and blow some more bubbles. This exercise is soon expanded to include kicking your feet out behind you while still holding onto the wall, so that your body is parallel to the water's surface, and kicking vigorously while putting your face in, opening your eyes and blowing bubbles, taking breaths rhythmically to the side as if you were doing the front crawl. This makes a lot of noise and splashiness, which is distracting and can be fun, and is sustained for a couple of minutes at a time. Imagine the instructor cheering everyone on, like a movie drill sergeant alongside a muddy obstacle course, yelling "GO GO GO!" In another session, a kickboard would be substituted for the pool wall, so you can practice kicking around the pool, putting your face in and breathing without needing to worry about your arms.

4. You do realize that your eyes are covered in water all the time, right? Chlorine can be irritating, but lakes aren't chlorinated. I suspect this is at least partly psychological (which is not to say it's not genuinely troubling).

When my mom was running the pool, there would periodically be an adult in your situation that would join the beginner-level swim classes and be right there putting his face in and blowing bubbles along with the very young kids. Most swim classes targeted at people your age are going to be too advanced, but if you ask around you may be able to find a kid's class that will work with you.
posted by jon1270 at 2:46 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here.

One exercise I remember from my swimming lessons as a kid was holding onto the side, extending the body, and kicking.

This was *very* much an advanced technique, after mastering the holding-on-and-blowing-bubbles exercises that jon1270 describes.

Once you're comfortable with all this water around your face, you mix that with kicking your legs.

The next step from there is grabbing one of those boyant lap boards, and kicking yourself back and forth across the shallow end.
posted by colin_l at 2:49 AM on October 6, 2012

3 of your 4 problems have mechanical solutions. By which I mean, you don't have to find complicated ways to overcome your body's basic, automatic responses. Instead, you can just buy some goggles, some ear plugs, and stay out of any water that is deeper than your armpits when you're standing. I have been swimming since I was a little kid, and I still hate opening my eyes underwater without goggles because I don't like the way it feels, and my ears totally freak out on me if I swim without ear plugs. So please know that just because those parts of your body don't like swimming, that doesn't mean that you're destined to never be a swimmer. It just means that you're built a lot like the rest of us.

As for using the shallow end, a lot of pools will have a lane-swimming section and also a wide-open section, where you can swim in any direction you please. This will allow you to stay in the shallow end, which should help your panic/gasping problem, because any time you, or your body, starts to freak out, you can just put your feet down.

And finally, I think you should try not to set an exact timeline for yourself, or expect yourself to go at a certain pace. Try spending a lot of time just floating until you get pretty good at it. It doesn't matter what everyone else is doing. You don't have to go any faster than you are comfortable with. I know you've got kids who you'd like to be able to save if necessary, but for now, probably the best thing you can do for them--if you haven't already--is put them in swimming lessons when they're old enough and let them get comfortable in the water themselves. Then you can worry less and get comfortable in the water strictly on your own timeline.
posted by colfax at 2:51 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: I learnt how to swim as a child, but my coach was really great and explained a lot of the basics to me (maybe you should try to get a better coach?)

1. Can't help you there, sorry - maybe practice?

2. Breathe out through your nose. Keep your mouth closed, exhale slowly, and when you are nearly out of breath (not completely!) surface and take another breath. Key is to take it slow ... try to always exhaling through your nose while underwater (this also prevent water from going up your nose, as you mentioned).

3. Can you buy swim earplugs? I never had a problem with water in my ears, but my cousin did, and earplugs helped.

4. It sounds like you're either not using goggles or your goggles don't fit. Get awesome swim goggles, maybe with the aid of the shop person for fitting.
posted by Xany at 3:01 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

your eyes are covered in water all the time

No, they're not. They're covered in salty mucous. That's why even non-chlorinated water up your nose or in your eyes is painful. This is not purely psychological on the OP's part. Actually, OP, you might find swimming in a saltwater pool more comfortable than a chlorinated pool- it is still clean, but it mimics the body's fluids and so might be less invasive/ painful for you.
posted by windykites at 3:25 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned to swim by watching videos on Youtube. Really.

I can only do the breast stroke, but learning how to breathe at the right time was a real accomplishment for me.

But, start with the bobs and practice exhaling under water.

And, get some goggles. Goggles make a big differenc.e
posted by thylacine at 3:47 AM on October 6, 2012

I taught myself to swim as an adult -- I was in my mid-twenties when I finally managed it. And I'm still a terrible swimmer, so anything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. But here's what I did: I hate getting water in my eyes and I never could get the breathing rhythms right, so -- I just didn't put my face in the goddamned water. I taught myself to basically do a breaststroke while keeping my eyes above the surface. No, this isn't proper -- just a few pegs above a doggy paddle -- and I'm slow as the dickens. But I'm good enough to enjoy being in the water, and I had no trouble (well, a little trouble, but not much) kayaking out to the Captain Cook Monument and snorkeling last year (goggles are wonderful, as is breathing through a tube).

So, basically, I just ignored the rules, didn't overcome any of my fears, and did it my way. On the one hand, I'm now comfortable enough in the water that I feel like relearning it "properly" wouldn't be a huge issue. On the other hand, I'm perfectly comfortable with my crappy style, so I don't really feel a great need to fix anything.
posted by ariel_caliban at 5:42 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There's a lot of good stuff here. I'd like to reiterate one of my original questions, though:
When above water, should I inhale through my mouth or nose? If through my mouth, should I use the muscle in the back of my mouth to block up my nasal passageway?
posted by CustooFintel at 5:47 AM on October 6, 2012

As far as breathing goes, I think a lot of people just do whatever feels comfortable for them. I know you're supposed to exhale through your nose underwater and inhale through your mouth above water, and that is the most efficient way if you're racing or something, but I usually just hold my breath under the water and breathe through my mouth when my head is above the water. Or you can easily just not put your face under the water. I think it's easier to do whatever feels natural than to over think the breathing and get flustered or overwhelmed with too many details at once.
posted by Weeping_angel at 5:52 AM on October 6, 2012

Like xany said: My mom and her dad were long-time swim instructors, and they had me practice a lot just standing on the bottom of the pool, bent over so my face was in the water, breathing out through my nose, turning my head, breathing in through my mouth, back down, out through my nose.

Until you get over that first drowning reaction, you never want to be holding your breath under water, just continuously breathing out slowly through your nose.

I don't know how long it'll take you to internalize that as an adult, but I remember it being hours at many sessions as a kid. Which probably means 5 minutes 3 times, but you know...

Once you get that, move on to bobbing. Then try (carefully), floating on your back, letting your head sink under water while breathing out through your nose, surfacing, breathing in through your mouth.

I say "first drowning reaction" 'cause I found two levels: What's necessary to learn how to swim, and then what's necessary in emergency situations. I was a whitewater guide for many years, and learning how to not try to take a breath immediately when I got knocked into the rapids took me on the order of a year and a half, going paddling almost every weekend, to learn. So I totally sympathize: teaching your body to not try to kill you is hard.
posted by straw at 6:37 AM on October 6, 2012

As far as breathing goes, I think a lot of people just do whatever feels comfortable for them.

This. I exhale through my mouth under water and inhale through my mouth above the water. I never get water up my nose doing this so it works for me. I have never done any competitive swimming and I am not a very fast swimmer but I can swim a fair distance and for a long time (>1hr doing lengths with minimal breaks) doing this and I am a lot faster than any of the people who keep their head over water...

The thing is that you are learning new motor skills as an adult. As an adult you are no longer in the habit of constantly learning new motor skills so at this point nothing new is ever going to feel comfortable or normal for you including the various processes that go into swimming.

Get goggles and ear plugs and take care of pt 3 & 4 on the list.

Then try all kinds of different breathing in and under and around water to identify what kind of breathing feels least alien to you and practice that until it feels normal. That may well take care of most of your panic symptoms.

Once you're happy with breathing you can start to worry about floating in different ways and only once you're happy floating different ways, with and without supports, you start to integrate different kinds of motions into the process.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:52 AM on October 6, 2012

Can you try learning to doggy paddle or water treading first? That way you always have something to default to if you panic. While learning to swim, I'd often accidentally breathe in water (through the mouth) and start treading water while I sort myself out.
posted by ethidda at 7:52 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: I'd like to reiterate one of my original questions, though:
When above water, should I inhale through my mouth or nose? If through my mouth, should I use the muscle in the back of my mouth to block up my nasal passageway?

Either. When casually swimming, I'll generally breath through my nose. When swimming-as-exercise, I'll breath through both, to maximize intake.

I don't use my soft palate to stop my nasal passages. It took me a few go-rounds to figure out what you were describing, I don't know of anyone else who does that. They do make nose-plugs. If I'm really exerting myself in the water, I'll sometimes exhale slowly through my nose constantly, to prevent any flow of water in. But not often, unless I'm flipping or spinning.

Are you actually able to exhale under water, in any fashion? This is one of the first steps in learning how to swim, and it can be really disconcerting, the first few times.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:23 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: You need lessons. It's cool. Find one for beginner adults and call and ask them how it works for someone who does not know how to swim at all. You might ask at the same time ask for info on private lessons. Even 2 or 3 private lessons before going in to a beginners group would be good for you if you can find it. Do a google search for your area and private lessons. You might find an instructor with their own pool.

Get goggles. Get a swim cap to try out and experiment with a nose plug and ear plugs. You breathe with your mouth -- in above water, out below. I blow out through my nose when doing flip turns or when turning over to go into back stroke off the wall.

Stay in the shallows. You will get water in your mouth. You'll be okay. When you've been swimming awhile, you'll get really comfortable with water getting in your mouth and you won't cough on it.

Learn to float on your back and kick with one arm stretch out above your head to feel for obstacles. Floating on your back will be the thing that saves you when panicking and/or tired.

You can do it! And I agree with the poster above -- get your kids in swim lessons at the same time. Great for bonding and they need the skills.
posted by amanda at 9:25 AM on October 6, 2012

inhale with your mouth above water because you can do it quicker and you can be more certain that you won't inhale water.

i'd really suggest swimming lessons. i'm thinking 1/2 hour with someone every 1/2 weeks for a month or two. they can show you how to tred water and basics of paddling around. once you have that you just need to practice. swimming uses muscle groups you rarely use for other things, so you need to build them up to be able to tred water for, say, 15 minutes.

practice in water that is deep enough so that you can stand on your toes but still have your head above water. it's deep enough that you can pretend you can't touch the bottom, but if you need to you'll have that safety net.

don't worry about technique of actual strokes like you might see in the Olympics.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:28 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: I found this book to be helpful, "Conquer Your Fear of Water:An Innovative Self Discovery Course in Swimming" and it simply covers exactly that of getting comfortable in water. Not much on strokes and swim technique. Its a short read but insightful and I think the author really explains what those panic moments are and how to deal with them.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 9:30 AM on October 6, 2012

I took a beginners class with Melon Dash, the author of Conquer Your Fear of Water. It got me from nothing to jumping in the deep end and swimming across it in a week. I highly recommend this class for any adult with fear issues.
posted by monotreme at 10:25 AM on October 6, 2012

Best answer: One of my sisters had the same difficulties that you have, except for the water-in-eyes sensitivity. (I assume you'd wear goggles.) What helped her was to forget about actual swimming, and just try to get more comfortable in the water. She would get into a depth that wasn't scary, maybe waist high. She'd draw in breath through her mouth, duck her head below the surface, and slowly let the air out via mouth. There was no issue with becoming out of breath, and she could have one or two hands on the edge of the pool the whole time. When she relaxed a bit about that exercise, she did the same but with nose breathing. It doesn't matter at all which opening you breath through; eventually you'll automatically do one or the other, but right now you just want to feel safe with breath-holding and breathing. Since you're wondering which is better, to close the back of the throat or not, I suggest you try it each way until you really know which you prefer. My sister started out holding her nose for the elementary practice; if you do that, you can concentrate on holding and releasing breath and forget about the throat till you want to try the throat-closing.

The next step was to just hold her breath under the water. So she dropped a few coins in the pool, and put her head under the water to pick them up, holding her breath while she was under. If she felt overwhelmed, she could easily surface and breath. The breath-holding was scarier for her than exhaling, for some reason.

These weren't long sessions of intensive practice. She would just bob around in the shallow-ish water with her head always above the surface, or just get out of the pool and read for a while, returning for another practice a while later.

Don't get ahead of yourself and start thinking, "Yeah, but when I'm kicking and moving my arms, my muscles are going to rebel." Your goal is to enjoy the water however you can, at whatever level. When you're done with the basic breathing, you can float on your stomach, hold onto the side of the pool, and practice lifting or turning your head to inhale. Just proceed little by little.
posted by wryly at 2:31 PM on October 6, 2012

I am 54 and I just learned how to swim (Australian crawl). I can now swim!! I use a snorkel and facemask. As for water in your ears, I know some folks use wax ear plugs to keep the water out and/or a swim cap that covers your ears.

It took me a long time to learn to swim because of panic responses. Odd thing is I used to scuba dive, but that is not swimming. When I first started diving, I had a panic response. I practiced sitting in the water with a snorkel and mask on, mastering my response and overcoming my panic. It took a few hours, but the panic went away.

When I decided to learn to swim, i would panic when I tried to turn to get a breath. The facemask and snorkel took this panic away.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 3:56 PM on October 6, 2012

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