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Fitness: Let's Talk Swimming

A guide on how to swim more than 10 feet at a time

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A few people in Scipio's fitness pieces have asked me about swimming, so let's dive (I couldn't stop myself) into the topic. Swimming is a great form of exercise for people of nearly any fitness level; it's low-impact, it caters to multiple needs, and can be utilized by people of nearly any age to stay active. Whether you're looking for a way to rehab from an injury or train for your first triathlon, there's a lot of benefit to learning how to swim.

A couple of notes before we begin:

  1. The tips & tricks I'm going to talk about are fairly basic; if you're somebody who can swim more than 500 yards at a time, there won't be a lot for you here. I'm focusing on helping those who are looking to get started in swimming rather than someone who has swam competitively at any level. (In fact, if you're a former competitive swimmer, please utilize the comment section to weigh in on the pointers I'm handing out. I have practical experience and have learned from certified swim coaches, but I'm not going to take Eddie Reese's gig any time soon.)
  2. My focus is on the freestyle form because it's the only form I have much experience with. If you're great at breast stroke, butterfly, or any others, please pass along your knowledge in the comments. Unless I say otherwise, every time I talk about a stroke I'm referencing the freestyle.
  3. When you go to the pool to try these concepts, focus on 1 of them in any given set. If you try to master them all at the same time, you'll be all over the place & probably fail at all of them. Try to get a good feel for 1 concept before trying a second; over time, you'll naturally start to incorporate them all together.

Most people think they can swim, usually because they've hung out at a pool with friends/family and can make it from one end of the pool to the other. That's all well & good, but that's not swimming; it's the functional equivalent of saying you can drive because somebody bought you NASCAR 15 for your PS4. Swimming for distance is a different animal; it's an exercise that will reward efficiency & punish deficiency. What I'm going to show you is not how to hammer your way through the water, rather I'm going to give you a blueprint for being more efficient in the water. The goal here is to get you through the water using less energy so you can swim for longer distances. I'm going to show you how to learn to pace yourself in the water, which is basically the swimming equivalent to 'conversational pace' in running. If you can learn how to meter out your effort, your ability to swim longer distances will come fairly rapidly. But before we get to that, let's discuss freestyle form first.

Improving your form

TIP #1: RELAX. Panic begets panic, especially when you're in an uncomfortable environment. If you're nervous, intimidated, whatever the case may be, take a deep breath & relax. It's just water.

TIP #2: Learn how to roll onto your back. When I started learning how to swim for triathlons, I had a serious open water fear thanks to seeing Jaws at a waaaay too young age. It didn't matter what people told me as a kid, every single thing that touched my feet while I floated in a Texas lake was definitely a Great White Shark and not a plastic bag or curious catfish. I wanted out of the water as quickly as possible. It's why I never learned to water ski, it's why I never learned to scuba dive, it's why even floating 10 yards off the beach was at best a vaguely contained panic. Believe me when I say to everyone with a fear of the open water: I feel you. What helped me is learning how to control the rotation of my body; when you're halfway through your stroke you're already nearly halfway to being on your back as it is. If you have one arm extended in front of you under water(think of it as being almost parallel to the surface) and you're turning your head to breathe, all you have to do is continue to rotate your body until you're on your back. Leave your front arm out and use it as ballast, it will help keep you in a straight line & extend the amount of time you can breathe. If you're feeling panicked or having a hard time catching your break, rotate onto your back. You can stay there as long as you damn well please because your body is designed to float. if you just relax & lay there, you'll have all the oxygen you need & you can stare at the ceiling/sky until you get your body & mind back under control.

TIP #3: Don't kick. Like, at all. This sounds counter-intuitive, but follow me. Most beginners have a terrible kick; either they're gesticulating wildly in the water, they're bending at the wrong spots, or they're putting far too much energy into their legs. Most of your forward propulsion comes from your arms, especially when you're a beginner. If you're going to put your energy towards anything, put it towards your arms. Chances are your kick is actually slowing you down. Many beginners can lose up to a foot per stroke because their kick is malformed; if your goal is efficiency of effort - and it should be - less kicking is usually better when you first start. Buying a pull buoy and using it while you work on your stroke can pay dividends early on. (Just don't get addicted to the pull buoy, you don't get to use it in races.)

TIP #4: Breathe out with your face under water. Some people try to both breathe in & out with their head above water, which kills your form & makes you work way harder than you need to. There's no need to breathe out with your head above water; doing it under water gives you more time to breathe in when you do surface for air. I tend to breathe in every 4 strokes when under moderate effort, and I generally start to breathe out during the 3rd stroke so the last stroke can be dedicated to getting air in.

(Side note: many people will advocate you learning how to breathe bilaterally. There are solid reasons to learn that skill; I don't do it myself - mainly out of laziness but partly because of neck issues - but as you get better at swimming, you should consider learning how to breathe in both directions. It has benefits, especially if you're going to swim in open water regularly.)

TIP #5: Bring your chin towards your chest. This along with the next 2 tips help with aerodynamics, and will allow you to cover more distance with less effort. Cutting a narrower line through the water = less energy expended on each stroke, which has a cumulative effect. Tucking your chin helps get your body in proper alignment.

TIP #6: Push your chest into the water as you swim. Pushing your chest into the water lifts your hips higher in the water, which brings your legs closer to the surface, guessed it, lowers your drag profile. Kevin Hart's uncle would be a natural at this.

TIP #7: If you're not kicking, keep your feet pointed and touching each other. If you do kick, keep the kicks small - think less like a kick, more like a flutter - and don't bend your knees much. The power in a kick comes from your hips, not your legs. If you're bending your knees quite a bit, you're probably creating at least as much drag as forward momentum with every kick. I once read Chrissie Wellington describe her kick as her legs moving like willow tree branches in a breeze, and that helps me visualize the proper form. Smooth leg movements without a severe bend at the knee are what you're looking for, especially early on in your training.

TIP #8: Imagine there's a vertical line bisecting your body from your feet to your head, and that this line goes on indefinitely. (Alternatively, if you're in a lap pool, imagine this line is the black line under your lane.) When you're swimming, don't let your arms cross this line. Far too many people cross over the line, which increases drag and decreases the effectiveness of each stroke. Ideally, each stroke you make would be - and I'm totally ripping off Mr. Miyagi here - like you painting the fence; it's a long, straight stroke that starts in front of you and ends with your arm extended out behind you.

You can see several of the things I mentioned in the video below.

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There are minor differences between the video & what I've described, which is fine because there are multiple valid schools of thought on proper form. The form I use is a cross between lessons from a former D1 swimmer(and current swim coach) and a technique called Total Immersion that's focused a bit more on distance than increasing speed. There's not one absolutely correct way to swim freestyle, though every version I've come in contact with has many more similarities than differences.

TIP #9: GET IN THE WATER. Whether it's on your own at the local Y, working out with a triathlon club, or finding a Masters Swim class, the important thing is to get started. If you think you're too slow, you aren't. Most of these groups are very welcoming & will steer you towards a setting where you can practice & improve your skills without getting intimidated or discouraged. You might only be able to go 25 yards at a time right now, but if you swim a couple of times a week and focus on building your form properly, you'll increase that distance over time. When I started swimming, I could do 25 yards at a time. I've now done 2 Ironman triathlons which each had a 2.4 mile swim leg. Give it some time, put forth the consistent effort, and you'll get better.

Pacing Yourself

I had a project a few years ago where one of the engineers I worked with was always trying to make everything into a competition. He was pretty fit & liked to run, and when he found out I was into triathlons he started to quiz me on what was involved. He swore he could be ready for an Ironman in 3 months, and when I politely disagreed he decided that I obviously didn't know how fit he was. He claimed he could swim a mile without a problem and didn't react particularly well when I started laughing at him. So we made a bet; I gave him a time he had to beat, and we'd go to the gym where he'd show me what was up. I told him I could do a mile in ~34 minutes during a race(basically 2:00 per 100 yards) and he said he could do that too. He balked when I laid money he couldn't, but I told him I'd give him extra time. I upped it to 51 minutes(roughly 3:00/100 pace) before he agreed to take on the challenge. So after work one day, we met at the pool and before I did my workout, we timed him trying to do a mile. His first few laps were around 2:00, then drifted to 2:10...2:20...2:40...then he would stop at the wall...2:50...more stops...then came the get the idea. He finished the mile with about 40 seconds to spare, and just laid his head on the side of the wall before quietly mentioning that it was harder than he expected. I still have video of that admission on my laptop somewhere, it's glorious.

Any way, the point is that most people who don't swim a lot don't know how to pace themselves. They hammer for as long as they can, many times because they don't realize they're hammering until it's too late. Just like running, pacing in swimming is an important aspect of a proper workout. Once you get to the point where you can reliably do 100 yards at a time - usually 4 lengths of the pool at most gyms in the US - you're already going to start noticing your effort even out a bit. Still, 100 yards is something you can burn through above your ideal distance pace, so how can you know what your pace is? The test I'm most familiar with is the T-pace test. If you're still new to the sport, you should probably try test #3 in their list. If you can reliably do 300-500 yards at a time, test #2 is probably a better bet. This can give you a basic idea of how quickly(or slowly) you should be swimming. If you're not up for the math, you can use ballpark measures such as checking your breathing rate. If you're breathing every other stroke, chances are you're going too fast. For me, most of my endurance work is done at a pace where I'm breathing every 4 strokes. If I'm breathing every 2 strokes, I'm pushing too hard & need to back off some. With time, you'll learn your rhythms and gain the ability to fine-tune your energy output.

BONUS TIP: You're going to feel hungry after you finish a swim workout; that's not because you totally blasted the water, bro, your body's just telling you it's cold. Don't eat more than you normally would after a workout, just go get warm & it will fade. Swimming does a lot of good in a number of ways, but it doesn't burn a ton of calories.

BONUS TIP #2: Buy some Auro-dri, or keep some rubbing alcohol handy. It's the easiest way to get water out of your ears.

Hopefully these tips & links will help start you on the path to learning how to swim for distance. There is a ton of information out there with specific drills, workouts, and more Youtube videos than you can shake a stick at. Dig around and see what you can discover, there's a wealth of data out there for people of all levels.