I truly believe swimmers are not born, but are made (excluding Michael Phelps and his insane body, of course). If you got past childhood without learning how to swim, it’s very possible that you’re now stricken with fear/embarrassment at the prospect. That makes perfect sense; it’s really hard to learn things as adults that for children require basically no work (like learning new languages, for me). But don’t let either of those emotions keep you from being your best self! Anyone can learn to swim, even past the age where it would have been an easily acquired skill. Moreover, everyone should learn to swim, because it feels awesome. You’re basically a fish! Who doesn’t want to be a fish?
Being comfortable in the water is not only a life safety skill, but one that will very much better your quality of life. I could link to some studies that probably exist about how water therapy is real thing that works, or how swimming strengthens your core muscles, or how it’s easier on the joints that running (or how running is the worst). All that aside, I can tell you from first-person experience that I never feel happier than when I’m in the water. It’s basically the closest you can get to returning to the safety of your mother’s womb. And while it might be easier to find a yoga studio than a pool these days, the zen you’ll feel after you start being able to do laps is so much greater than mastering the crow pose.
Yes, if you legitimately do not know how to swim, you’ll need a pool to actually learn. Like learning to ride a bike, you’ll have to just start acclimating yourself to the movements and eventually it will come naturally. The focus of this blog is more to encourage you to sign up for a class and go learn!
A class is necessary. A YMCA near you is a great place to start, but there are lots of private companies in your area that offer classes, as well as city pool programs, for little to no cost as well; a light Google search should point you in the right direction, or, check out this intel from Masters Swimming. The thing to remember, first and foremost, is that there are lots of people like you. Classes are great for locking in the basics; a good instructor will teach you to have a general sense of comfort with the water, how to exhale under water by blowing bubbles, where to put your head under water, and how to kick using kickboards. Put it all together and, before you realize it, there you are! You’re swimming.
Before you head to class, get the right gear. For women, a one-piece is a must. For men, a bathing suit that is not huge board shorts; basically, the point is to avoid “drag” aka anything that will slow you down in the water (which is why swimmers shave all their body hair off). Goggles are necessary for everyone, even if they do make you look like a nerd. (You’ll probably want a pair that aren’t too small around the eyes, because I find those can give you headaches, and are really only good for competition anyway.) If you have long hair, a cap (I prefer silicon because they don’t pull at your hair as much) is good too, and, depending on what pool you swim at, might actually be required before getting in the water. Going to a store that specializes in swim stuff —in New York, I like Paragon’s selection— is good because they can assess your swimming level and point you in the right direction. Everything all together should cost less than $100.
On a more meta level, I find it helpful to think about the science of swimming when I’m tired and laps seem hard. Floating is largely centered on keeping your hips up; if you can push the middle of your body up to the top of the water, the rest of you should stay with it. If you feel yourself sinking, keep your hips up. Breath slowly and carefully. Allow the water to support you— it wants to!
If you need inspiration, this lovely New York Times video about Attis Clopton, a 33-year-old man who overcame his phobia of swimming, is a great place to start.
If you know how to swim —i.e. you know how to float, tread water, can do a basic “crawl”/freestyle stroke, or breaststroke— you’re already doing great! What you’ll want to focus on next is technique. Form is a huge part of getting faster i.e. more productive in the water.
A basic understanding of terminology is helpful. An Olympic-size short-course pool is 25 meters, but a regulation-sized lap pool is usually 25 yards. Because of this, distances are measured in increments of 25: one length is a 25, 2 is a 50, 4 is a 100, 8 is a 200, 20 is a 500...you get it. Knowing the length of the pool you’re swimming in is helpful, in that it can help you figure out how much you’re improving as you gain strength and skill. A mile is 66 lengths.
Starting with freestyle is best. Most people swim freestyle by plunging their arm into the water and pulling it out on the other side. But actually, you want to plunge your arm in and sweep it under your body before pulling out. This pushes the most water out of the way possible. This rule also applies to backstroke, except instead, you’re pushing the water down on your sides.
You’ll also want to start breathing on both sides of your body. When you’re doing freestyle, the pattern is stroke/stroke/breathe, stroke/stroke/breathe. The earlier you get into this habit, the better; it makes you not too reliant on one arm and evens out the muscles in your body. Breathing correctly is also a huge part of having swimming stamina—eventually, you can get the point where you can swim a whole lap without breathing.
For breaststroke, imagine your hands are both scooping out a huge mixing bowl full of cookie dough. When you bring your hands back to the top, finish your frog kick. Imagine you’re a spring being released; you’re a ball, and then you’re streamline. Butterfly is significantly harder, for a variety of reasons, but the arms are similar to freestyle and backstroke, in that you don’t just want to throw your arms in the water—you want to be pulling a lot of water under your body before your bring them out again. This movement, combined with a constant butterfly kick that starts at the hips, is definitely the hardest combination to master.
Exercises and drills are a great way to work on form; for freestyle, the Fingertip drill, the Catch-up drill and the Fist drill (explained in detail here) are all good basics. Kicking with just a kickboard can get you good enough at that so that once you add the arms, you’re not even thinking about your feet. An ideal kick is right at the surface of the water—not so high that your feet are coming out a lot and making a ton of splash and wasting energy, but not so deep that you’re wasting a lot of energy underwater. If you want to work on just arms, you can use a pull buoy between your legs that will keep your legs from sinking while you pull. Some people also like swim paddles, or fins, to give them a feel for better swimming technique.
I find watching form videos to be helpful, if you’re a real nerd. (When I was at swim camp, they would shoot us swimming underwater and then play the tape back so we could see what we were doing wrong.) And if you start swimming laps regularly, you will begin to recognize people at the pool who are pretty good. You can watch them for form tips, or even ask them for them; most people who like swimming are happy to talk about it if you catch them at a good time. Lifeguards are also a great resource, if they’re friendly. They’re usually talented swimmers who have to sit around and watch people do a poor version of what they could do better and would love to strut their stuff in front of you.
(This would be an important time to talk about lane etiquette, which is a huge topic that really deserves a whole blog. That being said: know your speed, and stay in the lane of your speed. Do not pretend you are a “fast” when you are a “medium” or “slow.” Do not get in people’s way. Allow people to pass you. Do not spend half your workout hanging out at the end of the lane, getting in the way.)
For most swimmers, a significant amount of energy can be spent on bettering their skills doing drills and simply putting in the time that it takes to get from being a beginner to being an expert. But there are other things that help; learning how to do flip-turns, which, once semi-mastered, contribute to a better workout and also make it a lot easier to keep momentum going while doing laps. This video is really helpful, but it’s also good to have someone in the water (or by the edge of it) teaching you.
Learning to dive well—especially in shallow water—is also fun, though not really necessary outside of competition.
Once you really catch the bug, there are plenty of programs that can get you better and better. The aforementioned U.S. Masters swimming has lots of clubs where you can swim laps with other adults, even going so far as to compete, if you feel like you missed out on early morning workouts and all-day meets as a child.
For most people, though, simply spending more time working on your swimming skills will just make it easier to hang out in a pool, or a lake, or dive under some big ass waves next summer. Or this winter, since you’re probably a fancy person who enjoys quality time in St. Bart’s every Christmas, which means there is no time like the present to get a move on and get in that water.
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Art by Sam Woolley.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.