Learning to swim the front crawl
August 31, 2007 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Help, I can't swim the front crawl stroke without becoming completely exhausted in less then 20 seconds.

I hope someone can help me understand what is going on here. Some background, I am a distance runner who is trying to add some variety to my workouts. I'd say that I am in fit condition, so the fact that I am getting worn out so quickly is alarming to me. I have no real, formal swimming training, and I have pretty much taught myself up to this point. I live just outside San Diego, so I have the wonderful Pacific Ocean as my playground. I realize this makes swimming a little more tricky and dangerous, but I have been around the ocean most of my life, and am very comfortable in spending time in currents and waves.

I have no issues swimming sidestroke or breaststroke, and I usually wind up falling back onto one of these strokes when the front crawl (quickly) wears me out. When I stop, I am always out of breathe, and have to tread water for 30 seconds or so to recover, and then I usually fall into swimming side stroke. I don't know how to regulate the power of the front crawl, it seems I always have to kick my hardest and swing my arms quickly to keep the correct bouyancy. What is the method for a slow easy front crawl that a beginner like me can maintain for more then a few minutes? I read somewhere that a beginner should not even by using his/her legs to stay afloat? And I am also not to sure of the timing for breathing. Should I be breathing out the whole time my face is in the water?

Thanks for any input into this matter, and I'd love to to hear any stories from other beginners as well
posted by ShootTheMoon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The default answer for runners trying to become swimmers: Total Immersion.
posted by probablysteve at 11:16 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are a couple of classic crawl mistakes that people do, and this is doubly true if the person is already fit for some reason. The transition from running to swimming isn't as easy as it seems and we recently discussed this in AskMe. You may be a bit winded as you get your breathing and ryhthm down. My apologies if any of this is too basic. I am not any sort of instructor or anything so this is just from my own experience.

1. make sure you are making yourself as narrow as possible in the water so you can move forward. Your stroke is not as much pulling you through the water as it is parting the water so you can propel your narrowed self through it. Try to have your hands entering the water almost above your head and stroking down and around yourself. Do't bring your arms UP too far above you when you bring them out of the water. If your legs are hanging down, try to pull them up so you're as level as you can be at the top of the water. The faster you can go forward, the easier this will be.

2. breathing is the hardest thing to get used to. being good at the crawl is mainly about breath control. You'll have to figure out whether you're better at breathing every stroke, fourth stroke or sixth stroke. This rhythm will help you figure out how much to breathe. I got into a rhythm where I'd breathe, stroke three times and then breathe again on the fourth stroke. Each other stroke I took I was blowing air out, so it went

breathe in
stroke/puff out
stroke/puff out
stroke/puff out
breathe in

3. make sure you don't take your head out of the water too far to breathe because this violates rule #1. I usually try to sor of aim my chin towards my armpit and breathe with my mouth just about level with the top of the water. Sometimes you get some water in your mouth but you rarely breathe it in. Currents and waves are *really* going to complicate this since you can't quite judge when it's an okay time to breathe in, on the other hand the salt water should be making it so your much more bouyant, so I'm wondering what the problem is there.

It took me about six months of regular swimming before I felt that swimming the crawl wasn't tiring, but it was only a few weeks before I could swim up and back without getting so tired I had to stop. Lastly consider going to a pool and asking for some pointers. It's been said around here before that there's a real difference between people who really learn swimming as kids and grow up with it, and people who have to teach themselves as adults. Someone who is a competent and capable swimmer about be able to look at what you're doing and determine if you're doing something wrong or if you just need more practice.
posted by jessamyn at 11:19 AM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Even if you get the best explanation possible here it will be no match for a proper swimming lesson where someone will be able to give you more focused help and correct the things you unknowningly do wrong.

Try Googling for [front crawl]. There are many guides that should explain how to do things.

I agree with jessamyn that breathing is the core of the front crawl.

Start by working on the way you kick using a kickboard.
posted by grouse at 11:24 AM on August 31, 2007

If you are like me you do not have enough body fat to float. This makes it about five times as hard to try and swim the crawl. My body fat is about 7 to 11 percent give or take the time of year. When I jump in a pool I will sink to the bottom and stay there. For my wife and kids it has become comic relief but for me it is one big pain in the ass. When I go swimming I really get a work out.
posted by bkeene12 at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2007

Much respect to jessamyn, but breathing on any stroke that's a multiple of two is a terrible idea. It is absolutely essential that you breathe in an odd numbered pattern, i.e. to both sides of your body. If you don't, you won't develop the required body roll (most of front crawl is done on your sides), but will likely develop a shoulder injury instead.
posted by awesomebrad at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are several reasons why you might be getting exhausted so quickly while swimming, despite being in good shape. I would suggest that most stem from poor form and this is pretty easily remedied. First, I'd recommend practice kicking and breathing with a kickboard. You want a nice clean kick, not splashing up out of the water very much and when you breathe practice pulling with the arm that you turn your head towards so that you get used to the motion. You can breath in every few strokes, but keep it fairly constant because just like in running or working out you need to breathe to perform well. Don't force air out of your lungs when your face is in either, you want everything to be fairly fluid. I think practicing with a kickboard really helps people get comfortable especially in establishing a good rhythm. When you do us your arms, don't make big wind-mills, bend your arm at the elbow when you bring it out of the water. I hope some of this is helpful, though to be honest I haven't swam too much in the ocean, living in the Midwest means I've stuck to pools and lakes.
posted by bernsno at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers jessamyn. At this point, I don't think any pointers are too basic, and your point 3 really nailed that fact. I just realized that I am pulling my head out of the water when I breathe. I guess I am doing this mostly to keep a perspective on where I am, and also to keep an eye on where the waves are. The water visibility is pretty low, so facedown swimming, even with goggles, I quickly lose my orientation. Thats probably why the side and breast stroke are a little easier.

Some points of clarity:

1. Been swimming since a child, but nothing competitive, so I never really learned to do laps.

2. I do use fins a lot, when snorkeling, so I think I might be trying to rely too much on my kicking to propel me forward.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 11:36 AM on August 31, 2007

Further to jessamyn's points, when you breathe out, make sure you keep your one ear in the water. This ensures your breath is really off to the side and not just you lifting your head out of the water.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 11:40 AM on August 31, 2007

breathing on any stroke that's a multiple of two is a terrible idea.

Actually, for beginners it's the way they should learn in my experience. Bilateral breathing is much harder to get a handle on than single side breathing. It's a better stroke for some competitions, but for beginning crawl stroke swimmers, they're always taught to breathe on one side.
It's hard enough for most swimmers to get breathing on a single side correct; biilateral breathing, or breathing on both sides of your stroke, is even more difficult for most swimmers. I'm often asked if triathletes should always aim to bilateral breathe. I think it's good to practice bilateral breathing in workouts so that you can sight to either side during a race. I think practicing bilateral breathing helps make the freestyle stroke more even and balanced. But, if you're faster and can swim with less energy expenditure by breathing to just one side during a race, do it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:44 AM on August 31, 2007

I generally breathe in multiples of two after I've gotten warmed up--I just switch sides every turn to balance it out.

I agree that the breathing is your most likely problem. It also helps to just go slowly--it's like trying to start running by sprinting, and then wondering why you can't go farther than 100 feet! (at least, that was one of my biggest problems with swimming...)

When I first wanted to start lap swimming, I was familiar with the basic concept but a bit fuzzy on the details. I stopped by a public pool and asked about private lessons--a lifeguard told me to come back in 1/2 hour, and gave me a lesson then and there. That was enough of a refresher to get me going and then I just slowly worked up to swimming distances.
posted by sLevi at 11:51 AM on August 31, 2007

Bilateral breathing is much harder to get a handle on than single side breathing

Yes. I can do it now, but I got all the way to Distinction without bilateral breathing. It's hard. Plus you have to be able to hold your breath that much longer to do it.

My major suggestion would be to go to a stroke improvement clinic or sign up for master's swimming at a pool. People who have never been trained have horrible form. What I saw as a lifeguard watching people doing lap swimming was appaling. Sometimes it was amazing people could stay afloat, their form was so bad.
posted by GuyZero at 11:55 AM on August 31, 2007

nthing not lifting your head out of the water.

also, make sure you are not slapping the water as you put your stroke in--it's hard to explain, but try to lead with your thumb and forefinger.

finally, make sure you're not trying to windmill your arms underwater--that will kill you. once your arm goes into the water, bend your elbow and bring your arm down into a salute. then pull your hand down along your body at an angle to your side, eventually finishing with your hand perpendicular to the surface of water (thumb pointing to your front, pinkie to your back). when your arm comes out of the water at the back end of the stroke, it should lead with the pinkie.

it's a good idea to practice on land first.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:02 PM on August 31, 2007

Well, if you're tired after 20 seconds, you're getting the variety you were after :-)

Seriously, there are a lot of factors. One is that, as you've experienced, the crawl is not a very efficient stroke (unlike sidestroke and breaststroke). It can be a fast stroke, but it calls for a lot of body mass in-and-out of the water in a position that's not very hydrodynamic. Another is that open water swimming is just really tiring. You've got chop, current, wind (plus your arms are acting like sails), and a lot of energy expenditure to pick your head up high enough to know you'll get a breath and be able to sight where you're going.

To really improve, definitely take some lessons. If you come to it as an untutored adult, a lot of swimming is a combination of unlearning bad form and putting together like, 45 new motions and trying to get them to match up. A few lessons will really help. If you can find someone versed in the challenges of open water swimming, that'll be even better.

Also, do try swimming with a pull buoy and/or kickboard/fin set-up. This will really enable you to focus on specific technique.

All that said, sidestroke or breaststroke will give you a super workout in and of themselves (especially breast, how I love it). There's nothing that says you have to swim freestyle to improve your fitness.
posted by cocoagirl at 12:05 PM on August 31, 2007

You're almost certainly wasting energy with vertical movement. It should all be horizontal.

The crawl is just doing a prone float and pulling yourself along. (The prone float is what we used to call the "dead man's float" in the days before political correctness.)

So -- all effort should be horizontal, and none vertical, or as little as possible.

Push off and float. Lift one elbow out of the water, as low as possible, and move it forward, with your hand trailing along just above the surface.

"Cut" your hand into the water, thumb edge first, above your head and just slightly forward of where your elbow is. Your upper arm, forearm and hand should be even with one another, across just above your head. Relax your hand, cup it sightly and let your fingers waggle.

Pull back with your shoulder, upper arm, lower arm and hand, as a single unit, pushing the water straight back just under your head and chest. Finish with an extra push with your hand.

As you pull, begin the same sequence with your other arm.

Lift your head only slightly, so the water line is in the middle of your forehead. Breath by turning your head to the side, but not lifting it.

Distance swimmers barely move their legs -- just a beat or two per stroke to maintain buoyancy and balance.
posted by KRS at 12:05 PM on August 31, 2007

From your description, I'd wager you were kicking way too much. The kick should be without much bend to your knees and slow and steady.
posted by advicepig at 12:11 PM on August 31, 2007

Regarding ocean swimming:
If you are swimming the front crawl in waves, it gets much harder. The key to an efficient front crawl is to keep your body as horizontal as possible - that means not lifting the top of your head - that means when you breathe in, your face is only half out of the water, and your chin is slightly more out of the water than your forehead (the arrow pointing out of the top of your head is pointing forward and slightly down as you breathe in).

The problem with waves is that when you breath in, your mouth is open just above the surface of the water. Often, a slight amount of water even dribbles into your mouth as you inhale, but you catch the water in your cheek before it gets into your lungs. In waves, it is very hard to keep your mouth that low. Once you get good, you can do it, but if you are learning, you should do it in smooth water.

On breathing: I breath out through my nose while my face is underwater. You don't want to run out of air too soon, so I hum quietly - this slows the out-breath. You want to run out of air just as your arm reaches your hip. Then as you lift your arm out of the water, your body rolls and half of your face comes out of the water. You inhale through your mouth (I even open my lips asymmetrically - as if you're talking out of the side of your face).

I prefer to inhale every time my right arm is out of the water, and the left arm is stroking, and hum out the entire rest of the time. Anything other than single-side breathing takes me out of my zen state.

On preview - kicking is almost a waste of energy. Do just enough to stay completely horizontal.
posted by mediaddict at 12:13 PM on August 31, 2007

It's true that kicking is not important for a beginner: it's only used to stabilize your rolling, not to propel.

Breathing took me a few months to get right. You don't need to be exhaling the whole time your face is under, but you need to be done before it comes up as you don't have very much time to inhale. You need to practice exhaling with more pressure than you're used to. Don't exhale through your nose either.

I also suggest a few lessons as they are cheap and they make things better much faster than learning by trial and error. Even with lessons it took me 5 or 6 months before I felt competent at the front crawl.
posted by cardboard at 12:16 PM on August 31, 2007

What jessamyn said about breathing is spot on correct. It is one of the most difficult things for fit non-swimmers to come to terms with. In virtually every other aerobic activity your body can kick up your breathing anytime it needs it.

Not so in swimming. I suspect what is happening with you is that your body is trying to increase your breathing but the only way you can do that while you keep breathing on stroke is to increase the rate of your stroke which in this case is counter productive because it will cause you to need to breath even more rapidly.

My advice is to slow down and work on your stroke efficiency while you get comfortable with the breathing process.
posted by dzot at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Please take a lesson or four. As my swim teammate and I were just discussing, there is a lot of bad advice in this thread, but I also don't want to get into an argument. The one thing I would point out is that you really should not enter thumb first: it'll destroy your shoulder.
posted by dame at 1:12 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Go to a pool. If you really want to learn to swim crawl do it in a pool, not in the ocean - til you've got the hang of breathing and swimming in a straight line.
When you're starting out you might need to breathe every 1-2 strokes. But the basics of your problem is that you're out of breath because you're not breathing enough. You're probably exhaling too hard too - there's no need to 'blow out' after every breath. Breathe out slowly and try to make it last the 3 strokes.
Ideally you should be aiming to breathe every 3 strokes, although that's not always optimal, you'll probably find it harder to turn to the left (assuming you're right sided) and so inevitably you turn your body slightly - instead of just turning your head, but you don't say you're training for competitive reasons so its probably nothing to worry about.

As for kick rate - its been a while since I've been swimming but iirc, you're looking at around 6 kicks per stroke. Maybe less outside of a pool.
I have to wonder why you'd want to do crawl in the ocean, as you've already noticed, its not really the optimal style - its a great streamlined stoke for speed over a flat, calm stretch of water, can't imagine its that great in waves - for a start, if you turn your head to breath and get hit in the face with a wave, that's not so good.

No you shouldn't be using your legs to stay afloat - you shouldn't need anything to stay afloat. So that should be the first place to start. Its one of the first things you teach in swimming - how to float. Start on your back - its easier. You should be able to float indefinitely - your body density isn't changing significantly so there is no reason to start to sink - though most people do - it usually because they can't stay still long enough.
Once you've mastered floating on your back, move to your front - its harder but you should be able to maintain it for at least 30 seconds.

Another noob thing to check is your fingers - most people don't think about it or even realise they're doing it but your fingers should be together - preferably slightly curved - like little scoops - no jazz hands.
posted by missmagenta at 1:21 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

As someone who went through this exact thing, you will the get the hang of it as you do it more. You will learn just from being in the pool and watching others -- just stick with it.

But here's my two-cents of a tip. When I started, I was getting my power from my (flimsy) leg and arm muscles. But a lot of the power comes from the core. Try holding your hands on the keyboard and moving your shoulders in a figure eight, like your shoulders were peddling a bicycle. That's where a lot of your arm power comes from, stretching from the ribs to throw the shoulder forward. Okay, now stand up. Do the same thing with your shoulders. See how when you really get into it, your hips start rotating back and forth? That's where your kick power comes from, throwing your hip forward and kicking with your entire leg. Good luck!
posted by salvia at 1:24 PM on August 31, 2007

I agree with dame. There is a lot of bunk in this thread, but I'm not gonna point fingers.

Instead, I shall offer you my advice, from a professionally trained swim instructor and a competitive swimmer for around 10 years.

The water should always be around your forehead level, right above your eyes. This makes it quick and easy to tilt to the side without straining, and to look up to keep your eye on whatever target you have. I suggest breathing bilaterally, because that way you do not tend to veer off to one side or the other. Breathing makes the stroke on that side weaker than normal, which means you will eventually pull yourself to one side. (As a lifeguard, I absolutely delighted in watching lap swimmers who breathe on one side continuously running into the lane lines)

If you actually want to work on your stroke, try some pointers:
-Keep your thumb on your side for the entire stroke (unless your arm is in front of your head). This will train you to bend your elbow and not flail.
-Get a pull-buoy. This little device can be made by sawing off two pieces of pool noodle about 12 inches in length, attaching them together, loosely, with heavy-duty rope, so that you can hold the rope section in between your thighs, having a piece of noodle in front and behind your legs. Or, go to a sports store and ask for a pull buoy. Also mentioned on that page are paddles. They are helpful.

You can email me if you want more pointers, but basically, it's very normal for a runner to get exhausted by swimming crawl rather quickly. You probably tend to rely on your legs, which are probably in great shape, but useless compared to your arms (during crawl). You mention that your breast stroke and side stroke are great, no wonder! When I was cross training as a fencer and a swimmer, my usually decent stroke went to pot because I was trying to use my legs too much. You want to build up your arms, so just cut your legs out of the equation.
posted by nursegracer at 1:32 PM on August 31, 2007

To reiterate my advice - which is lots of other people's advice - go take lessons.

The things is that you can only really adjust one part of your stroke at a time. This thread has too much advice to keep in your head while you swim. Additionally, there's a lot of bad form that is obvious to anyone on deck but feels fine to you while in the water.

Kick speed, head position, arm position, the way you pull, where you take your arm out (I always have short arm strokes - bad habit), how much you roll your shoulders, how much you roll your hips, how much your legs hang, etc, etc, etc. You can't fix it all at once.

Get some help. Fix one thing at a time.
posted by GuyZero at 1:52 PM on August 31, 2007

I made a lot of progress in my swimming by spending a little time after each swim watching other swimmers through the view port at the pool I swam at. It might be worth finding such a pool and doing some of your swims there.
posted by Good Brain at 2:00 PM on August 31, 2007

nursegracer -- could you explain what you mean by your pointer "Keep your thumb on your side for the entire stroke"? I don't understand what this means, and I have the exact same problem as the questioner.
posted by creasy boy at 3:16 PM on August 31, 2007

If you are proficient with sidestroke, and breaststroke, you might find that a Trudgen crawl is more effective as your crawl stroke, than the flutter kicked Australian, or racing crawl. Unlike its later flutter kicked variant, considerable leg power can be effectively harnessed in a Trudgen crawl, although your progress in the water will have more the surge/glide nature of the rhythmic breast and side strokes, than the constant velocity of a windmill powered, flutter kicked racing crawl.

However, many people find that it is easier to learn bilateral breathing with an alternately side kicked Trudgen crawl, as the scissor kick components helps with body rotation control, and rhythmic breathing. This is only effective if you are comfortable scissor kicking on both "sides," although in my experience, the majority of scissor kickers are really only "right handed" or "left handed" scissor kickers. If you only scissor kick to one hand, you'd better stick to single sided breathing, and learn to swim straight lines regardless. But any way you kick, the powerful scissor kick helps to spread the propulsion workload over the large muscle groups of the leg, so that for long distance swimming, the Trudgen can be an efficient stroke, with excellent pacing.

The pure Trudgen stroke, as swum by John Trudgen, did not involve any flutter or butterfly kicks, but since his time, various combinations of modified Trudgen are swum, with different ratios and beats of flutter kicks interspersed with the powerful scissors kicks, principally for "balance" and to help keep the body prone. These mixed styles are also of more use to people swimming bilaterally scissor kicked and breathed Trudgen crawl variants. Personally, for ocean swimming, or for long distance, I and many other Trudgen swimmers drop the flutter component of the kick altogether, and just swim alternate beat scissor kicks.
posted by paulsc at 3:21 PM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't forget to follow up on probablysteve's answer. I think many of the other posters would also appreciate the free articles and other materials on that site (Total Immersion).
posted by Dave 9 at 3:59 PM on August 31, 2007

Swimming is unique amongst the endurance sports in that it is very technical. It literally takes years to develop an efficient stroke because the hydrodynamics are so complex and poorly understood by the average person.

The advice posted so far is a step in the right direction, but if you really want to improve you'll have to pay good money for lessons. There is no substitute for having an expert observe and correct you.
posted by randomstriker at 4:18 PM on August 31, 2007

I took some Total Immersion classes when I was in your position. It's made an amazing difference in my swimming. My front crawl now feels like I'm gliding or skating, not thrashing. It's a lot like yoga - the technique is something you practice and you should always be improving it. It does take a while but it's worth it. There's T.I. coaches listed on their website. Good luck.
posted by TorontoSandy at 4:27 PM on August 31, 2007

In order to swim farther and faster, you need to develop two things: proper form & good stamina. I was in the exact same boat as you when I started swimming 2 years ago. I would be completely winded after one lap.

Proper form is absolutely essential. Without proper form, you are working against yourself in the pool - you are actually forcing yourself to exert more energy in order to swim a distance that could be swam much easier with proper form. I developed my from by talking to and observing more experienced swimmers in the pool, and by watching instructional clips on YouTube. I breathe every 3 strokes, lifting my my arm out of the water elbow first and dragging my fingers along just above the surface of the water towards my head. The best advice I was ever given for proper form was to swim as if I were traveling through the narrowest cave imaginable. Keep that thought in your mind, and keep your body long and narrow.

In addition to form, you need good stamina in order to swim for any length of time. Obviously, this is done by starting small and gradually building up your distance. Having never swam a lap before, I followed "ZERO to 1650 in six weeks" and, after six weeks, was able to swim a mile non-stop. Don't worry about speed at all - your goal is to complete the distance in as little or as much time as possible. Once you hit a mile, you can switch your focus to speed workouts.
posted by tomorama at 6:39 PM on August 31, 2007

Total Immersion is probably a good first step.

Having someone spot your weaknesses is almost a necessity: Many aspects of problems are very hard to debug on your own.

Lots of the tips mefites have mentioned are great, but you have to understand what they intend AND apply it usefully, which is not always simple or easy on your own.

Bilateral breathing is a big useful step forward.

Learn to make a 25 yard (or meter) length using 20 strokes or less. This will let you know if you're swimming efficiently. By paying attention to my form (with feedback from a coach) I now take 12 strokes per length, down from ~22-ish at the beginning of this year. That's with almost no kick, which is necessary for endurance swimming. I now swim a mile in about 30 minutes at a heart rate of about 125bpm (important in long triathlons).

Learning to swim (well) as an adult is fun and challenging.
posted by lothar at 7:29 PM on August 31, 2007

Is it possible you're just trying to take it too fast? You're used to seeing the scenery change a lot more when you run. You're used to a certain amount of motion in your body, even if it used to be carried out mostly by large and well-trained leg muscles. (And if you are another member of the too-skinny-to-float club, you might be taking it too fast out of remembered childhood fear of death during swimming lessons.)

I have had exactly this problem, and taking it easier was the answer. Concentrating on rhythm and concentrating on the waterline about my head both helped. (My personal rhythm: three kicks per pull and three pulls per breath.)
posted by eritain at 1:57 AM on September 1, 2007

Grab a snorkle. If it turns out you can now do lap after lap...

How fast is a stroke? I swim slowly, if I have gone 6 stokes without taking a breath, I may need you to fish me out and do it for me...

Regardless of your technique if you can't breathe you can't swim. So however much breathing you need - try breathing that much :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 4:31 PM on September 1, 2007

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