by Sal D.

Tips for Beginning Swimmers from an Overanalytical, Somewhat Battle-Tested, Almost-Beginning Swimmer

Human bodies and bodies of water go together perfectly.   But only if the body of water is a Jacuzzi.  In all other cases, the two are wholly incompatible.

I learned this first-hand.

I had been running quite contentedly for years until I started dating (and ultimately married) Anne, an Ironman triathlete.  I quickly became intrigued by this sport of hers — triathlon.  By all accounts, triathlon seemed a perfect way to up the ante on my running passion. And Anne was happy to facilitate my enthusiasm.

So in January 2011, she plopped me into the lap pool and told me to swim fifty meters so that she could assess my stroke.  And I was happy to facilitate Anne’s enthusiasm.

Or, at least, I would’ve been… had I been able to swim fifty meters. 

But alas, I splashed, churned, chugged and sputtered — my hips scraping along the pool bottom — for perhaps twelve meters before I had to stop and stand up because my heart and lungs had taken residence in my throat.  The rest of our swim session only got worse.

Yes… Swimming was clearly going to be an obstacle in my quest to humiliate Craig Alexander.  And in fact, swimming proved to be one of the most difficult and frustrating challenges I’ve ever undertaken.  Ask Anne or any of my Facebook friends.  I’ve been quite vocal in my misery.

A year and a half have passed since Anne first tried to kill me in the pool, and things have gotten better.  I’m still not a great swimmer, but I did improve enough to complete Ironman Kansas 70.3 in June 2012.  And funnily enough, the swim in Kansas seemed the easiest part of my day.

So, I’d like to pass on some thoughts, tips, observations and musings that I’ve amassed while swimming a very steep and difficult learning curve.

I may not be an expert swimmer.  But I *am* an expert on being a beginning swimmer.

  1. Get a Swim Coach!  Really, this is priority one.  The swimming that we learned as kids at the YMCA bears no resemblance to the swimming that is required for triathlon success.  You will likely need to break a lifetime of bad habits and *completely* re-learn how to swim.  A swim coach will get you there in the quickest and least frustrating way possible.  And here’s the good news.  A couple hours of pool time with a swim coach need not be a large investment—especially when compared to a high end tri bike.
  2. Never Underestimate the Value of YouTube.   It’s more than just water skiing squirrels.  Every conceivable swimming question, problem, drill or lesson is addressed many times over on YouTube.  Want to generate more power from your pull?  A swim coach from Tokyo has an instructional video on YouTube.  Having trouble mastering front-quadrant swimming?  A swim coach from Uzbekistan has an instructional video on YouTube.  Can’t get the hang of a two-beat kick?  Seriously…go to YouTube.  It’s an amazingly deep resource.
  3. Keep Your Eye *OFF* the Big Picture.  Learning to swim is the anatomical equivalent of herding cats.  Far too many body parts need to engage in far too many coordinated movements that feel far too unnatural.  Chin down… neck straight… eyes looking down… blow bubbles… press chest… turn head… one goggle in the water… bilateral breathing… lead with elbow… relax hand… don’t cross center line… rotate core… don’t bend pelvis… kick from hips… relax those ankles… CALGON, TAKE ME AWAY!  Until you’ve achieved “muscle memory” — which, by the way, takes a bloody long time and a lot of practice — you can’t possibly keep it all straight in your head.  So do yourself a favor.  Don’t.  When swimming a pool length, focus your attention on *just one* element of your swim stroke.  Do it right, do it well, then focus on a different element.  Sooner or later, it will all feel like second nature.
  4. Drill, Baby, Drill!  This goes hand-in-hand with the tip #3.   Any swim coach, book, magazine or  YouTube video can provide you with countless different swim drills.  Pick a good one that focuses on a weakness in your stroke (in my case, it was balance), drill the hell out of it, then move on to another.  Drilling is dreadfully dull, but you’ll thank yourself in the end.
  5. Get a Video Analysis.  The swordfish-like swimmer in your mind’s eye likely bears scant resemblance to reality.  Ask the coach you’re working with to do some video and explain what they see. You’ll be amazed at all the blatant mistakes you didn’t realize you were making—which you can *now* start to correct.  A picture (and video) is worth a thousand words, my friends.
  6. Catch Your Breath.  I spent months stubbornly breathing on every third stroke…and consistently gassing-out within fifty meters.  It wasn’t until I swallowed my pride and started breathing on every second stroke that I started seeing significant distance gains.  Bottom line: I simply needed more oxygen. You may, too.  So breathe when you need to.  And don’t worry about building lung capacity.  It will come with time and experience.
  7. Rejoice The Small, Incremental Gains!   They come in dribs, they come in drabs.  Oftentimes, they seem few and far between.  But every now and then, you’ll have an “Ah ha!” moment in the pool.  Perhaps you’ll discover, quite by accident, that tucking your chin this way or lifting your elbow that way feels kinda right.    It’s usually something small.   But these things add up.  When you stumble upon a small, incremental gain, write it down and do it again next time.
  8. Tiiiiiiiiime Is On My Side.  Yes, it is!  It takes a long time to become a good swimmer.  It could take years.  So, be patient.  Your goal should not be, “I want to be a good swimmer.”  It should be, “I want to be a better swimmer.”
  9. Don’t Quit!  We are, after all, triathletes.


Share this post