Intermediate Swimming Advice?
July 23, 2008 6:52 PM   Subscribe

Help me transform myself from someone who knows how to swim (albeit inefficiently) into a real swimmer who swims laps for exercise.

I know how to swim well enough to have fun at the lake or stay afloat/swim to shore if the rowing shell or kayak I'm in capsizes. I'm not afraid of the water; in fact, I already spend a few hours a week swimming with my dogs in an area where I can usually touch bottom. I'm in good cardiovascular shape but I can only make it through one lap in the pool, and I'm absolutely exhausted afterwards.

All of the adult swim classes I've checked out are geared to people way beneath my skill level (can't swim at all) or way above (lap swimmers who want to improve techniques they already know.)

I want to become efficient enough to swim laps. What advice or resources do you have for me?
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
This may be relatively common knowledge, but it helps a lot if you always keep your fingers together and slightly cupped if you're doing anything other than backstroke.
posted by dhammond at 7:27 PM on July 23, 2008

You might learn more from those beginner classes than you realise. The reason you can't make more than one lap is probably due to technique, and beginner classes will show you the most efficient way of moving your body through the water. They will focus on specific things you can work on, like your kick and your arms and your breathing and how it all gets put together. I'm sure that if you are indeed heads and shoulders above everyone else in the class, your instructor will be able to give you advice on what classes to take.

How long is the pool you're swimming in? A lot of beginners overestimate the distance they can cope with. In fact, if you're a beginner making it through one lap of a 25 metre pool you're probably doing quite well! Once you get the technique down you can work on increasing distance.

Think long and streamlined - imagine you're a rod, and swivel your body around that central axis. Keep your head down when you're not breathing (I assume we're talking freestyle stroke here), and when you breathe, don't lift your head - turn it to the side instead. And get your breathing pattern sorted - bilateral breathing (taking breaths on alternate sides, every three strokes) works for me because it feels more balanced.

Good luck!
posted by minus zero at 7:35 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just practice. There's no reason to be exhausted after one lap; that just implies you're not in your top physical form. Also, are you possibly afraid of not touching bottom? I ask because you mention that with your dogs. If so, there is no reason to worry, you know how to swim, ergo, you don't need to worry about drowning. You just have to be tenacious and keep doing more laps.
posted by Penelope at 7:40 PM on July 23, 2008

Sign up for the course that you think is "way above (lap swimmers who want to improve techniques they already know.)" You may find that a few coaching improvements in your basic form so markedly improve your efficiency, that you can suddenly do a few laps. I've personally found that many people trying to swim a crawl stroke are wearing themselves out very shortly, with entirely useless flutter kick techniques, and poor breathing, and that just teaching them an effective kick and working with them on breathing, gets them moving.

For safety, especially in open water, you also need to learn some alternate rest strokes you can essentially do indefinitely, and you should also know how to tread water indefinitely, and to "spy hop" like whales do, to get a longer horizon view of your surroundings than you can just treading water. You'd also like to be able to efficiently swim under water, and to be able to "dry carry" a small bundle of clothing across a pond or river (terrifically useful to have dry clothing to put on in freezing temperatures, after you have to swim a short distance, for survival).
posted by paulsc at 7:40 PM on July 23, 2008

I'm in good cardiovascular shape but I can only make it through one lap in the pool, and I'm absolutely exhausted afterwards.

This is actually quite typical for novice swimmers. This can mean either

1. your breathing is off [does it happen when you do backstroke]
2. your breathing is fine but you just need to get fit.

I literally worked up to fitness swimming a lap at a time. A beginners class or a stroke class really would help you figure out whether you have a technique problem or a fitness problem. In fact even the lifeguard or an experienced swimmer can probably give you enough tips to give you something to practice with.
posted by jessamyn at 7:58 PM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: I went from being someone who could stay afloat and propel themselves forward (sort of) to someone who was able to swim 1650-2100 yards a session. I took a beginners course and then a coached swim. I learned what worked along the way from the instructors, watching youtube videos, reading total immersion, and spending a lot of time in the water. Your breathing will get better over time.

What I learned:
~Keep my face down while swimming, I tended to look forward as I was swimming and this was creating a lot of unnecessary drag.
~Press my chest down as I swam, this helped my legs stay afloat better.
~Rotate as you swim so that when you do breathe (every 3rd stroke) you can simply turn instead of lifting your head out of the water.
~Kick from the hips and not the knees. That is still my biggest problem. Also you don't always have to be kicking, many times on the pull I'll just glide through the water.
~Use a pull buoy, hand paddles, and a kickboard to do drills.
~Keep your fingers together and slightly cupped

Good luck!
posted by collocation at 8:18 PM on July 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

I had very similar issues (didn't want to take a beginner class, not good enough for advanced work) and I took private lessons at UT. There are almost certainly other places you can get private lessons, but I went with UT because it was easy and I was reasonably certain of the quality of the instruction.
The new swimming complex there is lovely, and if you aren't a UT affiliate you can get a community membership. Now is actually a really good time to do it, as you can get a prorated pass through the end of the summer, and the campus area is less crowded. Lessons ran around $20/half hour, and I found them extremely helpful and worthwhile. Feel free to mefi-mail me if you want more info (including my instructor's name, in case he's still there).
posted by katemonster at 8:50 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Would you mind elaborating on what muscles/feeling is involved in kicking with your hips (that seems impossible as a laymans swimmer -- so I am curious what you mean).

Also; what drills with the kickboard are you recommending.

posted by SirStan at 8:53 PM on July 23, 2008

I'll add my voice to the chorus. You should take lessons -- even if they are above/below your current skill level. For a reasonably fit person, swimming technique is the difference between a workout and a single-lap struggle. And it is very hard to improve your technique without someone else observing it. It's usually very hard/impossible to check your technique while swimming.

There's a particular way your hand should enter the water, a way your arm should exit the water, a way your body should be positioned, a way your body should roll, a rhythm to the kick relative to your stroke, etc. You don't need to know all of these to be a decent swimmer, but if you don't know some then you'll be struggling.
posted by ferdydurke at 9:56 PM on July 23, 2008

Best answer: You know, I had this same exact problem (decent runner, but completely worn out after 2 laps). I actually had a friend videotape me, and she pointed out that I was lifting my head way out of the water when I was breathing (as minus zero points out as a potential technique issue). I was doing this because I was instinctively panicking at the idea of just turning my head to the side to breathe: I think I was afraid that if I did that I would inhale water.

So instead I was straining my neck and back every time I breathed, and of course I got completely worn out.

It may be worth a shot to have a good swimmer watch and/or videotape you before you go the whole hog and take swimming lessons. The problem might be fairly easy to fix.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 1:21 AM on July 24, 2008

Best answer: If you are not using goggles then give them a try. I think a lot of novice swimmers waste energy by trying to keep their head above water - normally while doing breast stroke. If you have goggles you will have no problems keeping your head below water for most of the time - this will help you establish regular breathing and will make you more streamlined.
posted by rongorongo at 3:12 AM on July 24, 2008

I was a runner, injured my knee, and had to stop. I turned to swimming as a substitute for running. The first swim I had was a little bit worse than yours. My hind end kept sinking and I got into a slight panic when I was swimming over the deep end of the pool. Sinking to the bottom seemed like a real possibility. I too, could only do one exhausting lap at a time. Very humbling for a previously 4-mile-a-day runner.

I took one private lesson and the instructor gave me a float that goes between your legs. It kept my hind end up enough so that I could just concentrate on moving forward with my arms. I swam a couple of months like that because it allowed me to lap swim for 30 minutes straight.

After that I taught myself what I think is called bilateral breathing - stroke, stroke, breathe on one side, stroke, stroke, breathe on the other. If you only breathe on one side, or if you pull your head way out of the water, you will strain something eventually.

I've been swimming every day for about 2 years now. I'd say it took a couple of months before I became competent enough to really enjoy it. It was worth it. Keep at it.
posted by eeyore at 5:08 AM on July 24, 2008

Best answer: If you can't make it through a single lap without being exhausted, then you're either a flailer and a splasher or you're not as fit as you think. Don't go to the class you think is above your level, its not fair to the other people taking the class. Just because you can move in a forward direction in water doesn't mean the beginner class is below your level. If your technique is so poor that you're exhausted after one lap then you need to go back to basics and you need an instructor, either go to the beginners class or get a private instructor.

This video shows correct body position and technique but you'd get more benefit from watching yourself swim - or being watched by an instructor.

Common technique problems:

'Jazz Hands' - keep your fingers together (your hands should also naturally cup a little to maintain a comfortable position which creates a nice scoop)
Afraid to get your face wet - maintain your head above water contorts body position into a very unstreamlined shape which is obviously bad for swimming. If you can't open your eyes under water or the chlorine stings then get goggles
Arse too high - some people have a tendency to stick their bottoms in the air, you need your body to be as flat as possible
Legs too low again, the angle of your body is wrong for efficient movement through the water

For the last 2 you really need an instructor to help you out of those bad habits, its easy to miss on your own and easy to slip back into without noticing. Those things are all common across different strokes, each stroke also has their own problems too.

Crawl - Breathing is the #1 issue with crawl, if you're breathing on every stroke or every other, move to breathing on the 3rd stroke (you might need to practice holding your breath). As a novice you're probably turning your whole body rather than just your head - that takes practice and a good instructor will be able to point out when you're doing it wrong. #2 is probably splashy feet - if you're in the correct body position and bend at the knee, your foot will come out of the water and will make a splash on re-entry, minimal splashing is preferred - you should try to keep your feet under the water and move your legs from the hip not just the knee.

Breast Stroke - Some people make their arms and legs as wide as they possibly can which isn't just inefficient, its disruptive to other swimmers. Even with breast stroke the aim is still to keep your body as streamlined as possible. Instead of moving your arms outward and in a circular motion, move them towards your body and pull down. - Its hard to describe, you really need a demonstration

Backstroke - Issues to look out for are splashing again and sinking bottom. Try to keep your body flat and when you bring your arm out of the water, do it thumb side up and enter the water pinkie first, amongst other things it reduces the amount of water that ends up on your face - think of it like lifting a paddle out of the water blade side up compared to flat side up. Theres actually a really good YouTube video of it.

it helps a lot if you always keep your fingers together and slightly cupped if you're doing anything other than backstroke.
'Jazz hands' suck for backstroke too ;)

Would you mind elaborating on what muscles/feeling is involved in kicking with your hips (that seems impossible as a laymans swimmer -- so I am curious what you mean).

I'm not sure how that seems impossible - stand up with one foot slightly off the ground and bend and straighten your knee - that is how many novices kick when they swim crawl. It doesn't really work and just makes a lot of splash and very little forward motion. Now keeping your leg straight move it backward and forward - that is sort of what the correct technique feels like - obviously in the water you'll have your toes pointed.
Your knees should be relaxed so there will be some motion but you shouldn't be trying to propel yourself just from the knee, the main movement should come from the hip (unless you're doing breast stroke or a butterfly kick obviously)
posted by missmagenta at 7:09 AM on July 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

SirStan: As I mentioned kicking is the hardest part for me. I used to do this bicycle motion with my knees while swimming meaning I wasn't keeping my legs straight. I needed to be moving them in a scissor like motion. Then when I finally stopped bending my knees so much I kept my feet straight which then caused them to go numb! So I had to learn to keep my feet loose, they were still pointed but not rigid. The only drill I do with kickboard is just to hold the kickboard and flutter kick... there are more drills that I have done which use the pull buoy (the block you put between your legs to keep them afloat) and hand paddles.

On preview: What Missmagenta said.

OP: I am also in Austin and used the services at Gregory Gym at UT. The two classes I took were group classes and while the experience wasn't what I hoped I still got out of it all that I needed.
posted by collocation at 7:50 AM on July 24, 2008

Best answer: One of the things that really helped my adult students was understanding where the power of each stroke and kick really came from - i.e. which muscle groups should be feeling the resistance.

I can walk through the nitty gritty details if you're interested (which will take some time and will be terribly boring if you're not) or you can try to get your hands on the Red Cross Water Safety Instructor book that covers the basic motor skills of swimming.


Freestyle/front crawl: put your right hand on the inside of your right thigh and push out gently - this is the resistance you want to feel as your arm passes under your body. For your legs, you're using your quads and hamstrings, not your calves to kick.

Backstroke: here you're using the muscles that raise and lift your arm to the side to pull and the same muscles are being used for the kick as freestyle.

Breastroke: for your arms you're pulling with the muscles in the front of your shoulders and your chest and your legs are using the inner muscles of your thighs and your butt to squeeze your legs together.

Butterfly: you'll need a strong core for this as it drives your legs (the movement starts from your ~waist~ not your hips) which propels your arms out of the water. The strength of the pull comes from your shoulders and the muscles along your ribcage .
posted by oreonax at 8:57 AM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have similar problems to the OP. I'm not in the best of shape, but even a few feet of swimming can wear me out. I'm sure I don't have the best form in my hands and legs, but as far as I can gather from the comments so far, I am doing the arms, hands and legs correctly.

My problem? I can never seem to get air out quickly enough. My lungs constantly feel overinflated with air and even when I practically scream the air out it's still uncomfortable. I generally wait 5 strokes or more before taking any air. I also tend to take in water as well.

So I'm pretty sure my problem is 100% in the breathing. Now, I'm not sure I will ever be motivated enough to go for laps. I've never really liked swimming in a pool anyway. But if I were to do what the OP was doing, I'd go with the beginner's class. That's because a lot of the beginning classes focus on how to do breathing correctly (from what I recall from taking class as a kid some 20+ years ago). Holding onto kickboards and blowing bubbles then turning your head, for example.

Yes, it will be annoying to go over form a bit, but this is a problem with fundamentals -- familiarity with getting air in and out when you need to while swimming.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:18 AM on July 24, 2008

The most important advice I used to give people when I taught swimming was to make sure that you exhale as completely as you can underwater, before lifting or turning your head to breath (depending on the stroke). Once you have a decent breathing/stroke rhythm down, most of the other mechanical issues will improve through practice.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:03 PM on July 24, 2008

Response by poster: An update for anyone else who is reading this thread because they're learning to swim:

The most useful advice for me was to keep my head down, my legs up and breathe a bit more mindfully. After a few tries, I'm already flailing less, conserving a bit more energy and swimming a little farther than I could before.

I liked Total Immersion's program. The free videos on their site helped, and I plan on ordering the "Happy Laps" dvd. Then, it's off to a stroke clinic!

Thank you to everyone for their helpful input.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 4:24 PM on July 25, 2008

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