and eat!

This is long, but might be helpful for newer swimmers.

A few years ago, when my husband decided he was tired of sitting on the shore of Walden Pond waiting for me and our friends to finish swimming across and back (about a mile), he set out to improve his swimming ability so he could join us.  Here are his tips.

Swimming Notes: Here’s the list of things I think about while swimming:

  • “10 & 2”
  • No Bubbles
  • High Elbow
  • One Eye in the Water
  • Slipstream Feet
  • Catch Up
  • Raking Leaves Sighting

Before I go into those in detail, there are some basic things to keep in mind when you’re starting out.

The first is – Don’t Kick.

Kicking seems like an important way to move yourself along and it is – if you do it right. When you are starting out, though, it’s almost impossible to do it right and when you kick, you accomplish two things: You tire yourself out and you slow yourself down.

Tiring yourself out makes breathing difficult and learning to breathe comfortably in the water is the first thing you want to work on. I’ve been swimming for four years and I am just starting to try to incorporate a kick into my stroke.

The second important thing to do when you’re starting out is finding a pair of goggles that fit right, don’t let water in, and feel comfortable. I couldn’t get a good seal on any goggles I tried and I eventually used the big dorky kind that press against your cheeks and forehead. I looked stupid, but I was able to see and not feel like my eyes were being gouged out. Different brands and styles fit differently, so you might need to go through a bunch of pairs before finding one that fits.

Another thing is Rotation. Don’t think about it. Everyone talks about how important rotation is – and I’m sure they’re right – but if you try to rotate when you’re starting out, you’re just going to end up wriggling around like a snake and it messes everything up. I would try to get everything else down and then start to think about rotation.

“10 & 2” – When your hands enter the water, aim the Left hand at 10 o’clock and the Right hand at 2. This prevents “crossing over” (when your hands break the vertical plane of your body) and can keep you going straighter. The actual numbers should be more like “11 & 1” but if you shoot for 10 & 2, you’ll probably hit it about right. Crossing Over is bad because you want to maintain a straight, streamlined profile and if your hands are crossing the plane, your body is twisting at the waist and you end up doing the wriggling snake thing again. Crossing Over can also lead to shoulder problems.

No Bubbles – As you pull your arm through the stroke, you don’t want to see a lot of bubbles coming from your hand. This means you’ve started your pull too soon and aren’t getting enough glide in a streamlined position. The more you can keep the arm extended, the more streamlined you are. Try to feel the water moving over your fingertips as you keep the arm extended. Eventually, of course, you have to pull or you start sinking, but I still try to keep the bubbles to a minimum.

High Elbow – People use different mental images for this. Some say pretend you’re paddling a surfboard or that you’ve got your arm draped over a barrel. In any case, try to keep the elbow high as you pull through the stroke. Make sure you can feel like you’re moving water with your whole arm and not just your hand.

One Eye in the Water – This is the breathing part. Keeping one eye in the water when you breathe means keeping your head down. You’re going to have to get comfortable taking a breath from the side without lifting your head out of the water using “Popeye mouth.” This is a little freaky because you do get a good bit of water in your mouth while you’re breathing, but it’s just something you are going to have to live with.

Once you realize you can safely take a breath with your head in the water, you will relax a lot more and not get tired as quickly. Go ahead and take a good, big breath. You can even slow down your stroke a bit if you have to. Getting comfortable breathing should take precedence over everything else at first. Just make sure to keep your head down.

A good rule of thumb is: if you can see the sky when you breathe, you are lifting your head too much. If your head is up, your feet are going down and that screws up everything.

And, yes, you are going to end up drinking a ton of pond water or pool water or whatever. It sucks but you should get used to it as soon as you can.

Also, you should start learning to breath alternately on both sides – every third stroke. Bilateral breathing evens out your stroke and helps you swim straighter. It also gives you another option if you’re getting big waves in the face from one side or the other.

Slipstream Feet – I know I said you shouldn’t kick, but you should do whatever it takes to keep your legs and feet in the slipstream of your body. A little kick now and then can help keep your legs up. Also, remembering to keep your head down will keep your legs from sinking. As you work on the upper-body part of the stroke, it’s hard to get enough speed up to pull your legs along and you will find your legs are drooping a bit. Try to keep them tucked in and together – not scissoring all over the place. One instructor said to picture your body in a cylinder and keep the legs and feet in the cylinder.

If you’ll be using a wet suit, that is a magic way of keeping your legs afloat, but you shouldn’t rely on it too much. Working on core muscles will help as well.

Catch Up – the “catch up stroke” is a drill that teachers use to get you to keep one arm extended as much as possible. The idea is that you don’t start the pull until you’ve got the other hand already in place. You can google the drill and see what I mean. It’s a bit extreme for normal swimming, but it is good to try to maintain the streamline by getting the arm back in the water sooner rather than later.

Raking Leaves – this was my philosophy of learning to swim. I didn’t care about going fast at all. I just wanted to be able to swim comfortably over a long distance. The amount of effort I was expending should not be more than what it takes to rake leaves. Don’t try to move huge amounts of water with your arms at first. Just do the stroke easy and you’ll move along. You won’t go fast, but you also won’t get tired.

I like to settle in to my “Forever Stroke” every once in a while, so that I can rest for a bit without stopping. Remember, swimming is all about efficiency and not necessarily about effort. A weak, efficient swimmer who’s not trying at all will annihilate a strong, inefficient swimmer who’s going all out. If you get your technique down, you can then start exerting a little more effort to see if it helps make you faster. (I realize no one actually rakes leaves anymore, but you can imagine what I’m talking about)

Sighting – Sighting is tricky. It’s very important for going straight but it violates all the rules of a good stroke because you have to pick your head up to see. Some teachers say you should pick your head up briefly just before you breathe and get a quick look. I can’t seem to make that work, so I take a peek after the breath just before putting my head back in the water. For some reason, it’s a lot easier for me to sight from the left side. I take the breath, scan around to get my bearings, and then put my head back down. At Walden, we have to keep an eye out for other swimmers all the time so I end up sighting a lot more than usual. As you swim, you’ll probably notice that you tend to drift over to the left or the right. Sighting is a good way to keep that in check and you’ll save a lot of time by taking the shorter route to your destination.

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4 Comment(s)

  1. Southern Girl on a Mission

    May 15, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for the tips. Just starting to swim again, and I’m having to work on all of this. Because I was on a swim team and a lifeguard (30 years ago), I’m very impatient and frustrated that I’ve forgotten my freestyle stroke and breathing techniques….which is probably what’s causing me some anxiety in the water. 80 year old women are kicking my butt and flying past me like I’m the one who’s 80 (kind of like my running)! LOL!



  2. swimbikeread

    May 15, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Trust that it will come back. If you’re able to ignore the speedy octogenarians (!) and focus on relaxing into a rhythm, you’ll be able to find your stroke again. Good luck!



  3. Linda J. Brooks

    December 4, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Thank you 😊 so much for this article. I found it to be very, very helpful. I don’t have a strong 💪 kick and it doesn’t bother me. Just knowing I am able to do laps comfortably is important to me.



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