Fear. Its probably the most powerful emotion we feel. It can stop us cold, or it can push us to go far beyond we ever imagined. And, its the number one thing that holds people back from doing any kind of sport involving swimming. Understandably so, because drowning is a real danger for anyone at any age. As a triathlon coach and an adult swimming coach I can understand why people would be reluctant to get in the water with 50 to 100 other people all flailing and vying to get to the first buoy and beyond without being kicked or swum over (or drowning). It is intimidating, and even after 10+ years of triathlons I’ve still been overcome with panic attacks at the beginning, cramps in the middle, and exhaustion at the end of a long swim leg.
If you train right, have an ounce of courage, and follow these steps, I know you can do it AND you will probably come to maybe even LIKE swimming. That was me about 12 years ago.
I didn’t know how to do a flip turn. I got out of breath after 1 lap. I thought 1 lap was from one end of the pool to the other. I didn’t understand all the meter jargon. When I read articles about swimming and looked for workouts it was like it was in some other language–a number equation that somehow I was supposed to learn in an algebra class. I didn’t understand how people could like this! It seemed so hard and exhausting! I never thought I’d be able to swim 750 meters (about 15 laps) in a pool let alone in a lake with other people around, no lines, cloudy water. None of that really matters now, 12+ years later. I have had more personal revelations in the water during a race than any other time in my life.
If you are willing to overcome some basic fears, you can learn to swim with ease. Its not like its gonna happen overnight, but it will happen and its a lot easier than you think.
1. Overcome your fear of being in a bathing suit. Get a one-piece sport suit. Because they fit tighter, you might actually look better than you think you would. Even if you are horrified at the thought of getting in a bathing suit, remember that no one else really cares what you look like. You are your own worst enemy on this front and overcoming this fear can make a real, positive difference in your perspective of yourself. Its totally worth it.
2. Fear of totally drowning. Everyone has a fear of drowning. Breathing air is kind of important to our survival, so going under water where we can’t breathe is unnerving, especially during exercise where you breathe even more. Once you learn the secret to nor feeling like you will drown, you will have overcome one of the most basic fears of mankind and can accomplish pretty much anything. This fear is so powerful–its grip on us is strong and innate, but breaking free from it is one of the most uplifting, gratifying things you’ll ever do.
3. Fear of failing or looking weak (or like you have no freaking business being in the pool). This is the second most-common fear, next to drowning. The fear of not being able to swim an entire length of a pool, feeling ashamed that you’re so out of breath, or that you can’t swim without hanging on to the side after each lap, or flapping around the water looking ridiculous. The truth is that we ALL start here. The other truth is once you get down the 5 basics I share with you below, you’ll feel confident and like you could swim forever.
Sport and life is 99% attitude, and as you can see these first three criteria are all about getting in your head. Actually getting in a bathing suit and walking on the deck of your gym’s pool is a huge accomplishment. It takes guts, especially your first time.
So, assuming you got that far, and you are sitting on the deck of the pool, dipping your toes in to see if its warm, now you are probably wondering–what the hell do I do now??? Here it is. I’m gonna lay this out for you in 5 steps:
1. Do this: Swim one length of the pool–from one end to the other–and see how you feel. Are you out of breath? did you hold your breath when under water? This is the most common thing people do. After all, isn’t that what our swim teachers said when we were little? “Hold your breath under water” for fear that we would breathe in or wouldn’t instinctually know what to do.
Almost every adult and kid I have ever met who struggles with swimming do not breathe OUT when their face is in the water, or they keep their face out of the water and crane their neck so much it hurts and have to hold their breath.
2. Do this: stand in the water, bend over the surface of the water. breathe in. Put your face in the water and push that water out through your nose and mouth. Simply put, make lots of bubbles (that’s what we tell kids). turn your head to the side and breathe in again. turn your face back to the water and breathe out completely.
This is a little secret of physics that helped me to really understand this and have faith in my lungs and my body’s ability to do this: when you breathe out completely–pushing all the air in your lungs–you create a negative pressure in your body so air forcefully enters your body when you open your mouth. So, when you push all the air out of your body underwater, you automatically breathe when you open your mouth as you turn your head and your mouth comes out of the water.
NOTE: You are probably saying: what if I get water in my mouth??? just spit it out on the exhale into the water.
3. Now, do this: swim half the pool preferably with a freestyle stroke (or a breast stroke), focusing solely on breathing out when you’re face is in the water, and breathing in when your face comes out of the water. Consciously force the air out of your body when your face is in the water. This will create that negative pressure so when you turn your head to breathe in, the air will automatically fill your lungs. After you do this for half the length, swim from one end to the other. Its okay if you forget or poop out. Simply focus on getting your breathing pattern down. You can even say to yourself in your mind, breathe in, breathe out, etc. It might sound stupid but its very effective (and its not stupid).
The next most important thing when doing any stroke is pretending the water is your pillow when your face is out of the water. when you sleep (hopefully) you don’t crane your neck to look at the ceiling all night as you lie on your stomach. You are either face down into your pillow, or your ear is on the pillow and your face is looking to the wall. this is how you swim too. When we lift our heads too far out of the water, our lower half falls and then we are just dragging half our body through the water. But, when the water’s edge hits the crown of your head (kind of like where your sunglasses would be if they are propped on your head), the bottom half evens out.
4. Do this: lay in the water face down, and look straight down at the bottom of the pool, like you are looking for a lost earring or diamond (I call this “looking for diamonds”–you never know what you’ll find at the bottom of a pool!). When you go to breathe in, simply turn your head to the side and look at the wall of the pool (like where the numbers are in the tile). Do one length of the pool breathing out and looking for diamonds at the bottom of the pool, and breathing in, turning to the side to look at the tile.
Once you have gotten your breathing and head position down, a lot of your form falls into place and you don’t feel like your flailing. You might even feel like you’re gliding a little. No matter what, the head position and the breathing are key, so keep practicing that. Of course, to feel like we are actually accomplishing something, its nice to be able to swim longer than one length.
Inevitably there will be a time where you feel like you can’t catch your breath or you’re in the deep end and you get a cramp. Having a safety stroke to fall back on is key to overcoming your fear of drowning. Mine is the side stroke. My criteria for a safety stroke is: it has to be easy for you, your mouth is easily out of the water, and its somewhat relaxing. Side stroke is great, because your head and neck are relaxed (vs. breast stroke), you can see where you are going (vs. backstroke), and you can still keep moving in a more relaxed state.
5. Do this: swim 2 laps of freestyle as you learned above, with breathing and head position. Then switch to your safety stroke. Having this in your “back pocket” will give you so much confidence. You will enter the water knowing that you will not drown. It might take you longer to finish than you’d like, but over time you can work on that. Having a safety stroke you know that now matter what, your biggest fear won’t happen.
Try this, share it, and let me know how it goes in the comments below!!! I want to hear how it felt to overcome your fears. I know others will read it and be inspired. Please share your accomplishments!!