Swimming is one of the most effective activities for all round fitness and it is an ideal way to improve your performance in other sports. Front crawl in particular offers a low risk way of upping your weekly training without getting injured. It is the most efficient and fastest stroke but because your face is in the water all the time (unlike the other 3 strokes) it does present challenges to the new swimmer.
If you are a runner, cyclist or from a team sports background and you struggle to swim good front crawl without breaks every couple of lengths this blog will help you smash through that barrier and swim 30 minutes without stopping.
I often talk to athletes who really want to swim “properly”, to do a triathlon or as a way of recovering from an injury or just to introduce some excellent non-impact cross training. Some just want to be able swim consistently without collapsing on the side of the pool gasping for breath! I want to show them and you that it is possible!
Perhaps you can run a 5k parkrun but you’ve always struggled in the pool. Well I believe you are also capable of swimming steadily for twenty or thirty minutes. Maybe you know you can do it but for some reason the prospect of such a swim fills you with dread? Instead I want to show you how these steady, continuous swims can be a wonderful, blissful and even meditative experience, whilst bringing a powerful boost to your fitness.
Swimming is a crucible of many different challenges; psychological, technical, of co-ordination and physical fitness. So, as such, these challenges are really worth mastering for our growth as athletes and indeed as people.
There a few key reasons why, whatever your overall fitness level, you might find continuous front crawl swimming for 30 minutes difficult. I will show you what you can do about it – the ways that you can learn to work towards swimming mastery even when starting later in life.
The Psychological challenge
For the uninitiated or inexperienced it can be a psychological challenge simply getting into a the pool. The water might initially feel ‘cold’, the lanes are full of other people, most of whom look much more accomplished than you, they might not be swimming at the same pace as you or they may tap your feet to ask you to give way, accidentally bump into you, try to give you advice, you may start worrying about what other people are thinking about your swimming style or pace, or make the mistake of comparing yourself to others, you may feel worried about being the slowest, or self-conscious about other things.
Have you ever done any of these things? If so you are not alone!
All these issues can create a feeling of anxiety before you’ve even begun to swim. Paul Newsome, head coach of Swim Smooth in Perth, Australia says that the walk from the changing rooms to the poolside is the most important part of your session as it sets your mindset up for the rest of the swim.
Try this! Walk with purpose and fill your mind with positive, calming thoughts and you’ll set yourself up for a great swim.
Be reassured that the water at most public pools is usually in the range of 27 – 29 degrees C, that’s actually plenty warm enough to swim. Ideally the water should feel a little chilly when you first get in otherwise you’re more likely to be overheating as your swim goes on, just be prepared for a the initial coolness of the water and keep moving. People tapping your feet is actually a polite way of asking you to give way at the end of the lane rather than them barging past. Accidental bumps do happen occasionally but it’s extremely rare that these are anything that will hurt you or curtail you swim, it’s no different to walking down a busy street. And most other swimmers are far too caught up in their own challenges to worry about how good you are. Just learn the basic pool etiquette and you’ll be fine. Here’s a useful summary from Speedo 7 Rules of Swimming Pool Etiquette in the UK
Swimming close to other people in lanes can be a challenge. It’s actually a great opportunity to practice being mindful and present in your own activity despite external distractions. This is the very time you most need to leave behind and let go of both your frustrations and your ego. Don’t worry about your pace, let that take care of itself. And don’t worry about what others are doing. After a while you get used the splashing and bubbles. In fact you’ll soon learn that being behind a slightly faster swimmer is a bonus as you benefit from an easier ride in their ‘slipstream’.
Tony is an experienced open water swimmer from Weald Tri Club in Kent, he has struggled with some of the frustrations of being confined to a ‘lane’ after a summer of uncrowded rivers, lakes and the sea. His top tip is to “swim with an inner smile”, “just try to exude positivity and happiness whatever happens to you, realise that others are in the pool, trying their best and if they hold you up or get in your way it’s probably not intentional and it’s definitely not the end of the world!”.
I like to remind myself about the story of the empty boat by Chuang Tzu.
“A man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.”
Try this! When you are tempted to allow the external factors to come crashing in on your swim, smile, then just focus on one aspect of what you are doing at that particular moment. It might mean bringing your concentration back to one aspect of good technique, your breathing, or even just noticing how the water feels as it moves past your hand. I love to try to bring my focus onto the sensation of the water on the very tips of my fingers.
Even for some experienced swimmers, you may start a swim and feel a sense of anxiety. If left unchecked this can spiral into a full on panic attack. Let’s face it you are in an alien environment which your mammalian brain is hard-wired to fear and be anxious about.
Try this! You overcome this fear by repeated exposure and training your brain to deal with the anxiety and “park it”, so swim regularly and be consistent, keep coming back. Start each session easily, take a few moments (as long as you need) to get your mind and breathing right before you get in the pool. Ease into the session, however good you feel when you start swimming, take it deliberately easy for the first few minutes. Try using a tempo trainer to help you to find a relaxed stroke rate and to keep you in check see my blog about stroke rate and review of the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro.
If “panic” arrives for any reason then don’t stop! Instead persuade him to leave by doing the thing that most helps you to relax and take the focus onto something else. I find the finger drag drill a really relaxing drill so if anything happens to create panic I back off the pace and spend a few strokes doing this drill and within 30 seconds my body and mind have reset themselves and I can resume my normal swimming.
Maybe you are a competitive, type 1 person who just wants to do well! You may be used to doing well in other sports or in life. Excellent you should be really up for this challenge then! But you are used to succeeding and it’s really hard to throw yourself into something you might find difficult. Paul Newsome calls this type of new swimmer the “Arnie” (as in “I’ll be back”!). They want to crack swimming by gritting their teeth, trying harder and smashing that water ’til they get to the other end! The problem is that water is nearly 1000 times denser than air. Often the harder you “try” the slower you get! I tell the swimmers I coach that it’s like trying to cycle really hard and pulling on the brakes at the same time.
Try this! Rein in your inner “Arnie” and relax. Don’t fight the water – you will never win! Leave your ego in the changing rooms. Be kind to yourself. Be persistent, consistent and determined – whilst it’s difficult to go back to being the beginner, try to enjoy the gradual process of mastering something really worthwhile and appreciate the life-lessons it teaches us. Feel the flow and speed that comes when “everything clicks” from time to time, enjoy the speed and notice what you are doing but don’t force it.
The Breathing Challenge
One of the most important keys to swimming steadily for 30 minutes is learning to breathe comfortably and to stay relaxed. Most runners don’t think much about breathing when they run. It gets harder to breathe as you run uphill or increase the pace but this usually happens gradually and you know what to expect. As an experienced runner or cyclist you know if you put in an effort up a hill you can allow your breathing to settle back to a manageable rate as you crest the top and start to head downhill or on the flat.
When you are swimming a long steady swim you’ll be starting off easy so you don’t need to breath hard. Most coaches aim to encourage their swimmers to breathe every 3 strokes as this is the most balanced way to swim. It should allow you plenty of time to breathe out and then rotate to breathe in again on the 3rd arm pull.
However it’s common for new swimmers to try to hold their breath under the water and then to breathe in and out while their head is above the water. The tendency then is to either over-rotate onto your back or to lift your head to allow for a long time to breath out and then in again, the loss of momentum and streamlining slows you down and makes moving forward even harder. Added to which you are probably not fully exhaling at all.
If you do this you can rapidly go into hyperventilation mode. Breathing faster and shallower and not really taking in enough oxygen, this creates a sense of panic which in turn results in the frustrated swimmer having to stop, hanging on the end of the pool gasping for breath.
Try this instead!
Practice “sink downs” – where you exhale the air from your lungs and allow yourself to slowly sink to the bottom as you empty your lungs. Practice standing in the shallow end with your head and upper body flat in the water, blow bubbles exhaling in a relaxed way for a count of three and then rotate your body including your head so that you can breath with one goggle in the water.
Put simply the challenge is to exhale normally – as you would do for a similar effort when on dry land. As a runner in different situations you would be breathing differently, you need different amounts of oxygen depending on the level of work you are doing. It’s the same in the pool, if you are swimming easy in a longer effort you don’t need to over-breathe either in terms of how often or how hard you breath. Try to stay relaxed and breathe out properly. If you are swimming harder you’ll need to focus more on the exhale, your body knows quite well how to breathe in.
One top tip is to trickle breathe – exhale trickles of bubbles from your nose as soon as you return your head to the water. Breathing through your nose is inherently relaxing, this should allow you to start emptying your lungs without emptying them too soon. Then as start to rotate your head ready to breathe in, you exhale more forcefully to ensure you have fully exhaled. Then (this is really important) don’t force the inhalation. If you have properly exhaled the simply process of opening your mouth in the air will allow your lungs to fill with the right amount of air. Just allow the vacuum in your lungs to suck the air in. Avoid gasping or over-breathing. Imagine how you would inhale if you were out for a nice relaxing easy run!
The Challenge of Timing, Technique and Co-ordination
Swimming takes a while to master and even to do it competently requires dedication and time in the water to instil the muscle memory. Another swimmer describes this learning as “muscle harmony”. If you’ve ever seen a skinny 10 year old gliding effortlessly down the pool you will know that brute force is not the answer. Swimming really is a whole body exercise (it’s what makes it so great!) but combining the different muscle groups takes persistence and repetition. With a little perseverance though you will get that amazing feeling when it all comes together! It’s a really excellent mindful discipline.
It is obviously a challenge to combine the timing of the stroke and the rotation of the body and head to allow you to breath in without swallowing water or choking. This is where practising some key drills to help you learn effective and efficient technique is really important. Look out for a blog coming soon on the best swim drills.
The Kicking Challenge
To be a good runner you need nice stiff ankles. To be a good swimmer you need nice flexible ankles! If you’ve run for years you will have a legacy of stiff inflexible ankles which stand you in great stead on the cross country or trail runs but don’t help much in the pool. Young swimmers are taught to kick a lot from the start and they have a kick that is not only effective it is ‘propulsive’ i.e. it actually moves them down the pool without the aid of using their arms. Try kicking as a non swimmer and you will soon find out how unpropulsive your kick is. For most older swimmers joining the sport you have to accept that your kick is mainly there to keep you in a decent position in the water and for stability. It won’t make you much faster, you just don’t want your legs and kick making you slower!
You will need to practice some kicking on its own and work out the most efficient way for you to kick so as not to waste energy. Using your legs too much or kicking too hard will quickly send you anaerobic and is counterproductive especially on longer swims. Instead try to develop a relaxed, narrow kick that maintains your body’s streamlining and keeps you flat in the water without overly taxing your cardio vascular system. Do some basic kick drills and ideally work on developing a “2 beat kick” – this takes a bit of work but basically the left leg kicks as the right arm pulls. The legs stay very close together and the timing of this way of kicking is crucial. The main aim is keep it streamlined and kick enough to keep you stable and balance in the water.
The Body Position and Sinking Legs Challenge
Athletes from other sports sometimes have bodies that are not really suited to learning to swim – a relatively low body fat percentage (adipose fat is relatively buoyant, whereas muscle is denser than water and will tend to sink), weak upper body / core and muscular legs all conspire against runners and cyclists being good swimmers. All these factors leave you with the dreaded sinking legs syndrome! Sinking legs are a real problem as they make it much harder for you to move efficiently through the water.
There’s not much you can do about the composition of your body! You need to try different tactics to make sure your body is relatively flat in the water. Firstly notice what happens with your head, if you keep your head a little lower and look at the bottom of the pool rather than too far forward, that will raise your legs. What happens when you breathe? Get good at “pop-eye breathing” out of the top half of your mouth. Rotate rather than lifting your head to breathe. Get your head back down into that “neutral” position as soon as possible. These are all skills you can practice while standing in the shallow end. Combine this with better breathing (exhaling fully can ensure that your front end isn’t too high in the water causing your legs in turn to sink) and a steady kick and you’ll notice a difference straight away.
You may find that purchasing a swimwear made of neoprene like these Zone 3 buoyancy shorts that I use will help with sinking legs. Not everyone approves of them but in all honesty they do help especially when you are learning to swim longer distances. You can get them from amazon here
So give it a go. Get in the pool and have a try at continuous swimming. If you are tempted to stop, work out a way that you can just keep yourself moving. If you need to take a few breaststrokes just to avoid stopping then do so and get back to the front crawl as soon as possible. It is possible to progress gradually towards this goal but if you can swim 3 or 400m then why not just try to keep going for the full 30 minutes. Back off the pace if you are feeling tired, relax and focus on good breathing and staying streamlined.
Good luck and let me know how you get on.