Help me explore the briny deep.
August 17, 2006 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I cannot swim.

But I'd like to learn. To begin with: I am not afraid of the water, but I (naturally) find placing my head underwater to be uncomfortable.

The obvious answer would be swimming lessons but this could be lethal to my pride. While I do not find the very concept of not being able to swim embarrassing, I think several 8 year olds performing a synchronized aquatic version of Swan Lake around me as I hysterically gasp for air would be. The same would be true, to a lesser extent, of learning from friends.

I have access to a shallow (four foot) pool anytime I want, but I'd usually be alone. Would it be possible for me to learn by myself? Is this a foolish risk? If not, is there something I should read to prepare?

Summary: Can I realistically do this by myself or do I need the lessons? Are there other options?
posted by spaltavian to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
/me throws spaltavian a rope.

I would suggest that a non-swimmer not attempt to learn how to swim without at least some company, if not an instructor.

I don't know how to swim either, which boggles people sometimes after 26 years living in Florida.
posted by baylink at 8:50 PM on August 17, 2006

I love swimming. I think it's great you're willing to learn.
But I think you should get someone to teach you the correct way of moving your arms and legs first. The practicing part you could do by yourself, but probably not in a four-foot deep pool.
And if I were a friend of yours being asked for instructions, I wouldn't think that it would be an embarrassing thing for you to be doing, really. I'd be delighted to teach you.
posted by misozaki at 8:55 PM on August 17, 2006

Your local YMCA should have adult swim lessons for beginners. No children will be present to mock you (unless you have your own to bring).

Take lessons from an instructor, either privately or in a group. You'll be safer, you'll learn better technique, and you'll learn faster.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 8:57 PM on August 17, 2006

They have swim lessons that are just for adults, so you don't have to learn with 8-year-olds. Also, it's pretty simple, and you're going to be less scared than some kids might be, so I doubt that you'd be flailing around for too long. Check with your local Y and see if they have an adult class you could get into.
posted by willnot at 8:58 PM on August 17, 2006

On second thought, I guess you could practice the kicking part in your pool, as long as it's wide (long?) enough for you to stretch out fully. But yes, get someone to teach you first.
posted by misozaki at 9:00 PM on August 17, 2006

One of my coworkers learned how to swim as an adult just a few years ago. She called around and found a class for adult beginning swimmers. I think it was at the local YMCA. So I think the child-free classes and/or instructors are out there.
posted by cabingirl at 9:03 PM on August 17, 2006

Learning to swim (that is, to stay afloat and keep your head above water) is easy. There is no reason for you not to practice being in water in the 4 foot pool. As long as you don't dive or do anything stupid you are not going to drown in 4 feet of water (oh I know someone will decry this "irresponsible" advice but come on. If you get scared just, you know. Stand up). Lie on your back and float. Put your head under water. Try the old dog-paddle (dog paddling is basically innate to mammals). Try swimming under the water with your eyes open. It is all really quite easy. Becoming comfortable with these few things would probably do a lot to allay your embarassment of your "deficiency."

Swimming well (learning strokes that are an effecient means of locomotion in the water, techniques that would allow you to survive if you had to be in the water for a long period) is not easy. You can't manage it in 4 feet of water for one. For this lessons and supervised environments are probably necessary.
posted by nanojath at 9:13 PM on August 17, 2006

1. Go to the local pool, find a cute lifeguard*, ask her to give you a couple of lessons whenever the pool is open to staff.

2. Pay better than lifeguarding per hour.

3. Swim.

4. As soon as you can do enough laps to get a workout, try learning the total immersion method.

* Seem to recall you hate going to the instructor. Cute is optional.
posted by Phred182 at 9:14 PM on August 17, 2006

My mom didn't learn to swim until she went back to college when I was five. I knew how to swim before she did, but she got college credit, and all I got was a stinkin' tadpole certificate.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:17 PM on August 17, 2006

People have taught themselves to swim, throughout history. Of course, many more people have drowned, throughout the same history, trying. That's kind of the problem with the self-teaching method of learning to swim; it's just very hard to know in advance without experiment if you're a natural swimmer or a drowning savant. In fact, the first thing you learning in swimming class is simply to never go swimming alone; that's a wonderful technique to avoid drowning.

Still, if you are stubbornly fool hardy, you could see, in 4 feet of water, whether you have the natural buoyancy to float effortlessly. Of course, you can drown in a few tablespoons of misplaced water, so the experiment done solo is not without its dangers, as I've already noted. Most people can float and breathe without expending effort, simply by rolling gently onto their backs, arching slightly, and waiting patiently for floating equilibrium to be established with their nostrils above the surface, and their face looking straight up to the sky; but some people are slightly negatively buoyant, to their aquatic detriment. If you can't float without expending effort, learning to swim is both vital, and frustrating, as you will constantly expend energy staying in range of breathing air you must have. But efficient swimming is the only way for the non-buoyant to survive at all in water deeper than their height. If you can't float, make a point of learning to swim, soon. But resolve to do so only with lessons from a competent instructor who understands you cannot float.
posted by paulsc at 9:18 PM on August 17, 2006

I didn't learn how to swim until college; although I'd taken lessons a few times as a kid, I never really caught on until I was required to pass a swim test for graduation. The one thing that the swim coach told me that really helped was, when doing the crawl, to breathe at the moment when your hands are farthest apart. All of a sudden, it just came to me.

I'd definitely recommend swim lessons for adults; the atmosphere is much more supportive than what I remember from child lessons.
posted by transona5 at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2006

First thing they teach you is the Dead Man Float.

Stand in your four feet of water, take a big lungful of air, then squat down until your face goes under. Keep one hand on the edge if you like. Keep a very slow trickle of air coming out through your nose to keep you amused and stop water going up it. When you've had enough, stand up again and breathe normally until you're ready to do it again.

Once you're comfortable with that, move on to the actual Float - which is the same thing, except that instead of squatting down, you flop face first into the water and float face down without moving.

The idea is to overcome the fear of having all your airways surrounded by far-too-easily-inhalable water (which is, I agree, disconcerting) and the sensation of being supported by the water, so your body doesn't believe it has to thrash wildly just to keep from sinking.

Unless you're subject to actual panic attacks, you should be pretty safe doing this on your own. And once you're totally comfortable with the Dead Man Float, you won't be hysterically gasping for air any more, and the 8-year-old pas de deux should no longer be a blocker for you.
posted by flabdablet at 9:47 PM on August 17, 2006

Lessons will be waste of time and money until you overcome your biggest obstacle:

I (naturally) find placing my head underwater to be uncomfortable.

Start at home by drawing a full bath and immersing yourself fully, face down in the water. Practice both holding your breath and exhaling underwater.

Next, moved to a well-supervised pool and explain to the lifeguard that you will be in the shallow end just acclimatizing yourself to being in water, and ask him/her to keep an eye on you. Wear a PFD (life-jacket) -- there should be plenty of them for loan at the pool.

Stay close to the edge of the pool, best if there is a railing that you can hold. Play around until you are comfortable with keeping your head under water in all sorts of positions for at least 20 seconds at a time. Learn to bubble air very slightly out of your nose when your nostrils are pointing upward so that water doesn't go up your nose.

OK? Now take a lesson and go from there. If you're serious about swimming, do not teach yourself, because you will teach yourself bad habits that will be difficult to unlearn later on.
posted by randomstriker at 10:27 PM on August 17, 2006

PFDs are designed to keep your head above water so randomstrikers advice could be a tad difficult. Also, I've never been to a pool that loaned adult life jackets and water wings aren't likely to be too much use.

I can swim, always could, and I still took lessons as an adult to learn to swim better. I may even do it again as you learn a lot. There are plenty of adult only classes out there: try the YMCA, adult learning, junior colleges, regular colleges etc.

Most importantly buy goggles and bring a noseclip to your first day, there is nothing like a little chlorine to the mucous membranes to make you hate putting your head underwater.
posted by fshgrl at 10:33 PM on August 17, 2006

PFDs keep your head above water if you aren't moving. It is very easy to submerge your head if you want to, especially if you have your feet on the bottom in the shallow end or if you use a between-the-legs float. Moreover, many of the decent pools I've been to have PFDs available for all ages and most body-types -- they are an essential tool for teaching newbies.
posted by randomstriker at 11:26 PM on August 17, 2006

i am not a strong swimmer but i can now. used to be in the same predicament as you. tried classes on more than one occassion, but they didn't do much for me. it seems to me that you just need to get comfortable. you probably know the basic stroke cause you've seen in a million times. just watch some people swimming and see how they breath and then practice on your own. i think access to a small pool like that with no one around is the best opportunity for you.
posted by BigBrownBear at 11:36 PM on August 17, 2006

Just so you know, my grandfather spent 80+ years not knowing how to swim, which includes a stint in Normandy during WW2. Adults not knowing how to swim is not at all rare.

My advice? Get used to having your head underwater in your little pool. Just kneel down until your head is under, hold your breath, and then stand up. That is the hardest part in my opinion.
posted by Loto at 12:28 AM on August 18, 2006

I used to be a lifeguard/swim instructor and my favorite students were adults, because they actually wanted to be there (as opposed to kids who were forced into it). I don't think it's at all unusual for an adult to not know how to swim, and it's awesome that you want to learn now!

I agree with calling around and finding a place (YMCA, etc) that teaches adult swim lessons. If you don't want to do it in a group setting, ask if they have private lessons. I would not recommend trying it on your own until you have a few lessons under your belt. Even then, be careful about swimming by yourself - even the best swimmers can drown in very shallow water.

Good luck and happy swimming!
posted by jengineer at 12:43 AM on August 18, 2006

You might have the same problem as I do, that is holding your head underwater without holding your nose. Well, at least that's my problem.

Get in the pool (the shallow end, I'm not talking about real swimming here) and crouch down. Get your mouth underwater and blow bubbles. Get your nose underwater and slooowly blow bubbles. Practice this alot.

Try this--right now. With the air in your lungs now, hold your breath and block your nasal passage so that no air goes out your nose. You should feel air pressure on the roof of your mouth when you do this. No air goes out, no water can go in, right? When you're bored with the bubble thing, hold your breath like this and stick your head underwater. The Dead Man's Float mentioned above is good for this. Work on it some more and you should be able to jump in the water without holding your nose.

As for swimming, just focus on dog-paddling. Relax. Dog-paddling uses a lot less muscle and energy than you might think. Just remember to twist your arms and hands a lot.
posted by zardoz at 4:47 AM on August 18, 2006

You could also start getting acclimated to putting your face under water by wearing a snorkel mask (you could even use the snorkel to allow you to hang out with your face submerged, even a tiny bit).

I've taught adults as well, and I think adults often have a more difficult time than children, so don't expect to pick it up the way the little kids do. But it's perfectly doable, nothing to be ashamed of, and when you do learn, swimming may come to be a great joy in your life.

As others have said, it's essential to become comfortable putting your face under water. You can swim without doing that - breast stroke, side stroke, doggy paddle, back stroke (sort of) - but you'll never really have good form or be a strong swimmer if you can't get comfortable with the idea of putting your face under water. But this comfort can come surprisingly quickly. I saw 2 adults recently go from skittish about putting their faces under water to quite comfortable in a matter of minutes - they just wore snorkel masks and snorkels, and relaxed, and tried to stay as long as possible under water, and just chilled and relaxed some more, and then they were okay with it. Once you get the hang of it, there can be something soothing about the controlled breathing under water. You'll see.

Floating - that does depend on body composition and body fat. I've seen excellent swimmers - men - who can't float. But most people can, and one tip is to take a deep breath - that way your lungs serve as balloons and help keep you afloat. Scuba divers, for example, can control their depth in the water by how much they inflate their lungs.

I agree with the people suggesting that you get acclimated in your pool - I highly doubt you'll drown if you're sober while you do this - and then hire a private swim instructor who has worked with adults. I'm anti-floaties & PFDs, because I think they can be a crutch, and sometimes people get sort of trapped with their head in the water and can't set themselves straight, but that's a personal prejudice. It may be expensive, but you do need someone to teach you proper form. Expect to be exhausted - you'll be using lots of muscles you've never used before - but I've found that exhaustion dissipates fairly quickly too, with practice.

Good luck! How courageous. Private lessons won't be too embarrassing.
posted by Amizu at 6:56 AM on August 18, 2006

There is lots of bad advice in this thread. Lots. Dog paddling takes way more effort than a good freestyle and just trying to mimic better swimmers is the reason why many people who think they are swimming expend quadruple the energy they need to and manage to look awful while doing it. No one says, "Just learn to karate-chop wood by watching other people do it," and swimming is as much about small careful technique as martial arts. Don't use a noseplug or floaties or a scuba mask or whatever--they just avoid learning to be comfortable with water as it is, and comfort is key to swimming easily. Earplugs are only necessary if you are prone to ear infection.

All that said, taking lessons is really the best way to learn. As suggested, a private instructor may make things easier on your ego, but then again, watching the other people in your class stuggle can be awesome too. I adore swimming, but learning can be difficult: it's unlike most of what you do with your body and often your instinct is wrong; plus learning to swim or refining your technique can involve a lot of frustrating effort until something is explained just right or you happen on the correct feeling. However, learning to do it right will eventually make it more enjoyable and make you safer and you're more likely to learn correctly with an instructor watching. Besides, at the pool most people will be too busy working out to pay attention to your flailing. And the lifegaurds have seen worse.

A little more specific advice if you do go ahead:

* Water will go up your nose a bit, even if you learn to blow out correctly. It will sting. Do not freak out. Ignore it. Eventually it will sting less and you will stop noticing because being in the water will be awesome.

* If you learn to swim at a pool where you have to wear a cap, buy a silicone one. Latex may be cheaper, but there's a reason for that.

* Like people said, goggles are key. However, finding the right ones can be an ongoing adventure. To find goggles that fit correctly, go to a store where you can try them on. Without putting the strap around your head, press the eyepieces into your sockets and then let go: if the goggles stay on for at least 5s, they fit appropriately. Silicone sockets are better than foam. I've found that many people have success with one-piece versions like these, as opposed to the sort with separate nosepieces, though if you have a funny-shaped face, the latter might be necessary.

* Total Immersion was recommended above. Some people really like it, some people don't. It's focused on drills that you can at least begin to do in a small pool. I'd suggest checking out the book at the bookstore first to see if reading about drills makes enough sense or if you would need the DVD.

Anyway, good luck. If you have other questions, feel free to email. I would emphasize that the most important thing in learning to swim easily (and also swimming fast, though that is not your concern it seems) is relaxing and being comfortable in the water. So even when every part of you wants to freak out: don't.
posted by dame at 7:53 AM on August 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the response. Life's a little hectic for me right now, but I now plan to register for lessons after the primary. There's a YMCA a few miles away.

Until then, I think I'll use the shallow pool to get used to immersion. The point that I don't want to learn bad technique now that I'll have to unlearn later makes sense.

Again, thanks to everyone!
posted by spaltavian at 8:55 AM on August 18, 2006

Up there somewhere, someone said to practice floating on your back. That's OK. The next thing they said was "put you head underwater". Do not do that while floating on your back - water will fill your nose and you won't like it.

Things to remember about swimming:

You are applying Newton's third law; you move yourself forward by moving water the other way. Activities that move more water in the correct direction produce more motion for you. Activities that move no water, or that move water in some other direction, are a waste of energy. For instance, many people, when swimming 'freestyle' slap the water in front of them with each stroke of their hands. This is noisy, and a large waste of energy. Ideally, your hand should enter the water as though it was a knife, with your fingertips entering first, and the rest of your hand and your arm lined up behind them. Once your hand is fully in the water, cup it and pull water back forcefully. When you finish the stroke, it's not helping any to fling your arm up out of the water in a great spray.

When doing any stroke that uses a flutter kick (freestyle, backstroke), keep your knees straight.

After you become a strong swimmer, do not 'prove' yourself by swimming laps across a large body of water. If you get a cramp in the middle of the lake, nobody will get to you in time to help, even if they do see you're in trouble (and they probably won't.) Last time I checked, little Walden Pond claimed an average of one strong swimmer every year. If you want to swim long distances, find a way to do it so you're reachable by rescuers, and in their field of view.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:14 AM on August 18, 2006

Don't cup your hand when you pull. And don't "move it back forcefully" either. Both will cause you to slip water. Besides, most of the power in freestlye is coming from your body rotation and back and shoulder muscles. The cup and pull pretty much just engages your biceps. This is why you need a real instructor.

Good luck.
posted by dame at 9:45 AM on August 18, 2006

Different strokes for different folks.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:19 AM on August 18, 2006

No. One is right and the other is wrong. One is a more efficient way to swim. There is a reason that people study stroke mechanics as a science. There are cases of great swimmers doing things that are technically wrong and succeeding, but it is rare and it is not a reason to learn incorrectly in the first place. Some things are a matter of opinion. This is not one of them.
posted by dame at 12:21 PM on August 18, 2006

Unless you give me some citation, it is opinion.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:52 PM on August 18, 2006

I'm a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor and have taught many swimming classes.

Learning to swim is not very difficult. There are just three steps: learn to put your face in the water; learn to float; pull yourself along.

(1) Stand waist-deep or a bit deeper, put your face in the water and immediately raise it out. Then, hold it in for a second or two. When you can manage 5 seconds, you're done. Don't dip too deep. The water level should be across the middle of your forehead. Blow out gently through your nose to keep the water out. Nose clips also work, but they're a bother, not to mention uncomfortable. The same goes for goggles.

(2) Go in waist-deep, put your face in the water while moving your arms forward Superman-style and push off gently with your feet. Moving forward will keep you on top of the water. Glide for 5 seconds, a body-length or a little more, and stand up. This is the Prone Float (a less scary term than Dead-Man Float).

(3) Do a prone float and pull yourself along with alternating arms. That's it -- you're swimming.

The arm pull is horizontal, using as much of your arm as possible.

The arm motion is not a windmill. Instead, lift your elbow and move your shoulder and arm forward with your fingrtips hanging down just above the water.

When your shoulder is extended as far forward as you can get it, reach out only a little further and slide your hand into the water until it's ahead of your face, and your hand and forearm are in a straight line going across.

Rotate your hand, forearm and upper arm so that they're in an "L" shape, in a straight line perpendicular to the direction you're going.

Pull back with your shoulder, so your whole arm is moving water backward beneath you.

When you run out of shoulder movement, continue to push back with your forearm and hand.

When you run out of elbow movement, push a bit with just your hand.

Then lift your elbow out of the water and start again.

Relax your hands. Let the fingers wobble back and forth. All the competitive swimmers do this.

Don't worry about your legs and feet. Distance swimmers hardly kick at all, and sprinters do only a little. Do just enough to keep your legs and feet up.

When you're learning, take only two or three strokes, without breathing, and then stand up.

To add breathing, turn your head a little to the side. (Remember that the water line should be at the middle of your forehead, so you don't have to move much.) Many swimmers roll a little from side to side, to make it easier to breathe at the top of the roll.

That's all there is to it, though of course there are several different strokes to learn.
posted by KRS at 1:41 PM on August 18, 2006 [3 favorites]

Mod note: a few comments removed, metatalk and email are options
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:05 PM on August 18, 2006

Even so, I would just like to recap, in the face of

Until then, I think I'll use the shallow pool to get used to immersion.

that if you don't already know how to swim, then you should make sure you have company when you start trying this. You can drown in 4 inches of water, much less 4 feet.
posted by baylink at 11:21 PM on August 18, 2006

From Physics of Swimming:
Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Newton is describing exactly how [swimming] movement occurs when discussing the Third Law of Motion. For example, when you pull the water down your side using the breast stroke, the water moves down toward your feet while you are propelled forward. Action in this case would be you moving your arm in the water, and the equal reaction is the water pushing back on you. Opposite reaction is the reason that forward movement occurs.
From The Physics of Swimming (a different site):
Good swimmers now use sculling actions to utilize lift forces. This is Bernoulli's Principle at work. The Principle of "foil-like" objects moving through a fluid at high speeds with small angles to the flow and a large lift forces is generated, while the drag forces are minimized. The lift forces are caused by the fluid traveling further and faster around the more curved side than the less curved side. Essentially, the hand acts as a foil. This new method eventually became accepted and widely known.
Also from there:
In the aquatic environment, propulsion is generated by accelerating water. The momentum, P, of a mass of water, m, traveling with velocity, v, is P = mv. By forcing water backward with a momentum, the resultant propels the swimmer forward.
I guess that's why people study physics as a science. And it's good to know that the way I've been swimming for the last fifty years isn't "wrong" or I probably would have drowned long ago.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:17 AM on August 19, 2006

As soon as you can do enough laps to get a workout, try learning the total immersion method.

I think that gets it backwards. Don't struggle with laps; don't even put your face in the water until you preview the videos at the Total Immersion site. The TI approach is to make swimming as effortless as possible. The first few floating exercizes in their most basic DVD changed my kids' entire outlook on swimming.
posted by Dave 9 at 11:08 PM on August 21, 2006

Yes, but the action your body makes when you "push backwards with your hand" is not the best way to move efficiently through the water. Neither is cupping your hand. It will move you, but not as efficiently as doing it correctly. Look, I swim competitively, I spend hours every week refining my stroke. You are wrong.
posted by dame at 11:16 AM on August 22, 2006

Dame's not referring to my comment.
posted by Dave 9 at 12:11 PM on August 22, 2006

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