Swimming for stress and displeasure
October 17, 2017 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm terrible at the crawl stroke and can't seem to get better. Can my swim workout consist of the sidestroke and breaststroke instead (or anything but the crawl)? Details further on.

My retirement gift to myself was a membership at the college athletic center, mainly to use their pool to swim. I run and bike already and used to swim when I was younger but hurt my neck then doing the crawl (terrible then too). After I started working full time after college I quit swimming (no pool access) so I just forgot about it. Well now I'm back to swimming and I can't get the hang of breathing when doing the crawl (raising neck way out of water).

I signed up for solo lessons but the instructor's only advice is "swim slower" which sounds good but I can't manage. I've read about TI and other methods and watched 1,000 or so Youtube videos but still just don't do well and end up hating my swim time instead of enjoying it.

Can I get by with doing the sidestroke (which I love doing) for a workout to supplement my running and biking? My hopes for a tri are of course out the window but at this point I don't care.

posted by bellastarr to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry your lessons suck... Maybe try another instructor. You probably know this, but you shouldn't be lifting your head out of the water at all while breathing doing front crawl, just turning it to one side.

That said, of course you can do other strokes. I'd try backstroke in addition to breast. Side crawl is fine but I'd worry about its unevenness. But there's nothing inherent about front crawl that makes it the only stroke worth doing.
posted by brainmouse at 7:17 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

It bothers my neck too. I mostly do breast stroke and occasionally backstroke and it think it's still great exercise, whatever stroke you do.
posted by mareli at 7:20 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Swim however you want that is fun for you, or you will probably stop. With that out of the way, a few things may help improve your crawl. First, as others have mentioned, head placement is crucial. The angle of your head often determines the angle of your hips and entire body in the water-- you want it to be as flat as possible. If you have problems breathing, it is totally OK turning your head to breathe as often as you want. I have been so out of shape that I end up breathing with every stroke after only a few minutes. When you get more comfortable with the form and your muscles are used to the motion, you can start to breathe less often. Don't push it-- it will come if you want it to. One piece of advice I got from a swimming coach years ago was to try and lift my arms out of the water as little as possible during the crawl. He told me to imagine my fingertips brushing the top of the water during the time my arm was in the air, and that helped me quite a lot. Another thing-- if like me your eyes went out of their warranty period after the age of 40, then prescription swimming goggles are available easily online (and without a prescription, ironically) and at the same price as regular swimming goggles. Being able to see clearly really helps with my situational awareness and sense of ease and comfort in the pool. Finally, some people who have trouble with the crawl but enjoy sidestroke find that an intermediate form-- the military sidestroke-- helps them to transition better. You can see plenty of videos online where it is often sensationally misnamed as the "combat sidestroke" (ugh). Here is one example, try to ignore the annoying Navy SEAL references. Just have fun-- access to water is awesome, and eventually led me to swim more in our abundant lakes and ponds where I live, which is way better than a chlorinated pool. Good luck with your swimming!
posted by seasparrow at 7:55 PM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Please, try another instructor! They should have a wide array of drills and mind hacks available to deploy depending on exactly what's wrong with your stroke and what instructions click for you.

Maybe you could look for somebody who specializes in teaching children or adults just starting to learn? I'd be tempted to try saying "I can technically swim, but my front crawl/freestyle isn't working at all for me because my breathing is wonky. Can you help me re-learn this stroke, starting from scratch?" Then, prepare your ego for standing in the shallow end, blowing bubbles while holding on the wall, and practicing breathing to the side =)

Also, I just recalled a few drills that might help you. Or might not! This is from my somewhat-hazy memories of swim team, and I never ever taught, so take them with a boulder of salt, and try to get an instructor to show you good form:

1) Try doing the crawl with a kickboard. Don't let go with one hand until the next one touches. Focus on stretching out your stroke, moving slowly & smoothly, and just turn your head to the side to breathe when your hands are at 12-oclock and 6-oclock. You can even pause for a second there and glide. It's expected (and necessary!) for your shoulders to rotate. I think this might help because the kickboard means you won't be urgently stroking trying to stay afloat =)

2) Similar to #1, but minus the kickboard. Instead, in the middle of your stroke when your hands are at 12 and 6, kick 4 (or 6 or 8) times before continuing the stroke. While kicking, you'll be rolled onto your side with your ear pressed into your shoulder. I'm thinking that that might help you find the correct position for breathing. (Warning - I hated this drill! It forces you to kick a lot and swim excruciatingly slowly!)

(Both drills suck less if you can do them with fins, but they're by no means required)

3) How is your stroke when using a pull buoy? I always found that they made it easier to rotate in the water (which might help you breathe better) since my hips were floating higher. There's a bit of a learning curve to using them, but your pool is more likely to have them than to stock fins in your size. (Put between your thighs, cross your legs at the ankles, and enjoy not having to kick!! Nobody will care if the buoy escapes you a few times while you're working out how to hold it ...)
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:03 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

People like the front crawl because it's generally the fastest stroke. You don't have to do it if you're just swimming for exercise.
posted by noxperpetua at 8:04 PM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you are on Facebook, you might want to join the wonderful ZeroTo1Mile group. You will get great advice on any stroke, whether you aspire to swim a mile, or 700 yards, or not.

I can't do sidestroke! Can't get my arms around it, heh.

FWIW, with freestyle if you breathe with your chin down like you are holding an apple under it and turn your body as if it were on a barbecue spit, that might help. But just tell the group that you're working on breaststroke or whatever other stroke, and you will get fantastic advice and support.
posted by jgirl at 8:09 PM on October 17, 2017


To answer the stated question, breaststroke rocks, and there's no need to add the crawl just to get a workout.

If you were dreaming about being competitive in triathlons, then yeah, you'd need to learn the front crawl. However, if you just want to participate and are OK hanging out at the back of the pack (if it's an open-water event) in the swim so you don't kick anybody, I see no reason you can't just swim breaststroke.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:12 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

For cardiovascular fitness, your heart doesn't care why it's beating faster, just that some muscles need more oxygen. I'm an absolutely horrible swimmer; that inefficiency means I get a better cardio workout for a given distance. It also means I'm really slow, but as long as I'm not being chased by a shark, that doesn't bother me.

In terms of muscular fitness, I don't know what the relative demands of different strokes are, but swimming always puts some demands on your upper body, and I certainly feel my chest muscles when I do the breaststroke (again, which I do completely incorrectly). Your running and biking are entirely lower body, so if you want your swimming to be even more focused on your upper body, you could use your legs less, or even not at all (which would be easier if you used a flotation device that you hold between your feet).

In short: do whatever you enjoy and doesn't injure you.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:40 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am still learning to swim as an adult. I do somewhere between 400-800 meters of freestyle for a workout, and I try to get out about three times a week. It's taken me probably two years to get this point and probably a year of lessons. FWIW, I'm still not sure I wouldn't panic and drown if you threw me off a boat.

What worked for me to build confidence in the water and my body position was to sometimes use short swim fins (not those super long snorkeling ones) and/or hand paddles. The extra surface area really gives you a lot of margin for error. In the beginning that can mean the difference between simply not swimming to kinda/sorta swimming, maybe.

Your head really should just be floating in the water, no real tension in your neck. Getting air is simply turning your whole body over to the side much more than you think you need, with no additional turn from your neck muscles. The waterline should be going across the top or even back of your head. The intuitive thing would be to try and crane your neck out of the water, but doing that during freestyle makes the water flow directly into your mouth like you were a baleen whale or something. Use the top/back of your head to break a wave instead of your mouth/nose, and your airway will have tons of room to breathe. I had to think about this a lot because this was exactly my problem for quite some time.

I sucked at swimming for literally decades. At no point in my history did I ever believe swimming would be a regular part of my life. Now I'm a regular at my local pool. If I can do it, I assure you that you can, too. And a bunch of regulars at my pool do all sorts of strokes, sidestroke included.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 8:43 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I usually swim the breaststroke because it's good for my hip, owing to an old injury and surgeries. Anyway, it's fine to just do that if you prefer. It's a pretty decent workout.

That being said, the crawl used to hurt my neck, too, but my coach pointed out that I should be turning my shoulders, not my neck, to breathe. Also, breathe on odd numbered strokes for symmetry.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:24 PM on October 17, 2017

Everyone else has provided good answers. I'm just glad to I happened to see this because I learned something. How did I not know you can buy inexpensive corrected vision goggles?! !

(Anyway, great to see a post about swimming. I swam some as a kid, then gradually took it up again decades later. It's my favorite sport to do, especially as aging makes hiking, cycling, etc., harder.)
posted by NorthernLite at 9:25 PM on October 17, 2017

If you're having problems breathing I suggest going back to square one and just practice the breathing by holding on to the side of the pool. It helped me stop gulping air.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:54 PM on October 17, 2017

The thing that helped me figure out the crawl finally was doing a lot of backstroke. The general movement is similar enough, but you don't have to worry about getting enough air, so it makes it less anxiety-inducing. Backstroke helped me figure out how to rotate my body to make a more efficient stroke, how to breathe in rhythm with my stroke, and how to keep my torso floating high in the water. Those 3 things make the crawl so much simpler. If you don't mind backstroke, you could try it.
posted by colfax at 1:07 AM on October 18, 2017

With crawl, it may sound obvious but have you tried breathing on alternate sides? If you only breathe on one side you will definitely hurt your neck. Also it sounds like your instructor isnt very good. I wouldnt give up on the crawl just yet especially if your original goal was triathlons which is awesome. I also think crawl is the best exercise as it burns more calories than breastroke and sidestroke. Backstroke might not make you too popular in a crowded pool. I guess you could throw in a bit of butterfly to get your heart pumping, though.
posted by hazyjane at 1:19 AM on October 18, 2017

I am a Swimmer. Not an especially fast one, fairly slow in fact, but I love it, swim regularly and have done some fairly long distance swims. I only swim breaststroke. I can swim crawl but I don't enjoy it so I don't do it.

If swimming fast matters to you then it probably would be worthwhile trying another instructor to get front working for you but if you just want to swim I think you should keep doing breaststroke. I find if I push myself I can get out of breath doing breastroke so but even if you don't I imagine you'll be getting aerobic exercise from the biking & running.
posted by *becca* at 2:34 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always found the flutter kick of the crawl to be tiring and inefficient. Back in the day, the Boy Scouts taught the Trudgen (see Wikipedia) which combines the arm stroke of the crawl with the scissor kick of sidestepped. Sounds odd, works great.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:45 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I swim regularly, and I have really cranky lungs, so I can't do long stretches of crawl.

I alternate two lengths (up and back) with a kickboard with something else: two lengths of crawl, breaststroke, sidestroke, or backstroke, depending on how my lungs are doing, how crowded the pool is, what bits of me want more stretching that day. Side stoke is great for stretching out things in my lower back and hips in the rotation of the kick.

When I do crawl, I breathe every stroke with the same arm (one way, I breathe to the left every time I take a stroke, on the way back, I breathe to the right), but I need to switch sides every length or I start seeing signs of weird tension things. I had issues for a long time with a weird bobble and tension when breathing right: I don't do it on my left, and working on the comparison helped me learn how to avoid it on the right, too.

The thing that makes the biggest difference for me in making this work is avoiding circle swimming (I swim before work, and most of the time I get a lane to myself, but sometimes it gets crowded) since my rate of speed is so variable between the different things I do, and that's hard to balance with other people.

One of the things I love about swimming is that moving in water is decent exercise to start with, but I can mediate how much exertion on a stroke by stroke basis if I really want to - if I want to push myself, I can do whatever stroke I'm doing faster, or more energetically, and if I need a break, I do it slower, or with smaller movements.
posted by modernhypatia at 5:40 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I tuck my chin and breathe in the space my body makes by moving through the water - I visualize breathing through the space under my shoulder instead of the space under my elbow. It lessens the amount the head needs to turn.
posted by ElGuapo at 9:29 AM on October 18, 2017

I am a triathlete (ask me anything!). USAT rules allow any swim stroke, so don't let your inability to crawl take away your tri dream. As long as you can swim the distance, enter a race. When the horn sounds, count to 10, and everyone will be gone, and you can swim at your own pace. I've swam past more than a few people doing breaststroke, and I'll take a few pulls myself if I'm having trouble sighting. (For that matter, at my first tri, I spent a good 10 minutes doing sidestroke because I went out way too hard, couldn't catch my breath, and almost panicked every time I put my face in the water.)

Breathing during crawl is a tough thing to learn. The Platonic ideal is your head doesn't turn or tilt, you just turn your whole body so that it's mostly vertical and somehow the wake from your head makes a pocket for your nose and mouth and it's magic! It's also bullshit, you need to be swimming pretty fast in order for that to work, and in the real world us real people have to move our heads around a bit. It took me at least 3 people trying to teach me how to do it before it finally clicked for me, so if this one person isn't working for you, maybe it's not your fault.

But however your crawl is or isn't working, if you can swim a half mile with breaststroke or backstroke, you can swim a half mile, and that's what you need for a sprint.
posted by disconnect at 11:20 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

just turning it to one side.

Or both sides. I had trouble getting the hang of one sided breathing and it would make my neck feel bad. Now I alternate and breathe out of an alternate side each time. And I intersperse crawl laps with backstroke and kickboard laps. Any workout is better than the one you don't do and the exercise is so good for you!! And also suggesting maybe another instructor. I always act like I'm trying to breathe out of some sort of airbag nestled deep in my armpit and that seems to help me get the motion right.
posted by jessamyn at 1:29 PM on October 18, 2017

Cheers everyone, great replies and I feel better about it all. I will do my workout with sidestroke and breaststroke while trying again with the crawl in the morning. I'm so glad I'm not the only one that has (or had for those who "got it") trouble with this.

As for finding another instructor, the college uses students in recreation science or lifeguards for their adult solo (fee) lessons. I don't get to pick. Not sure how I'd go about finding someone else...CL?
posted by bellastarr at 3:21 PM on October 18, 2017

While I could always move in the water, I taught myself lap swimming in my twenties and had the same reaction as you when I breathe during the crawl. What finally stopped me from lifting up was when a fellow swimmer explained that if you turn to the right to breathe, your right arm is simultaneously moving through the water and creating a depression/valley in the water, which creates the room to breathe without the need to lift my head. Picturing that slows me to realize that I had breathing room and helped me to quickly adjust my style...with less neck pain!
posted by icaicaer at 11:28 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Creative sources for pencil-width, clear, rigid...   |   The truth is out there, but where? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.