Bigfuzzydoug's Ten Points to Beginner Swimming

author : Bigfuzzydoug
comments : 4

Our member shares what he has learned for beginner swimmers

FROM THE AUTHOR: "I am not a professional swimming coach.  I do not take credit for discovering or formulating these swimming tips. This is simply a collected collaboration of other people's work, condensed into a single article/post.  I do not take credit for works that Terry Laughlin and others have created.  These are just free tips for beginners and newbies and many people quickly grow beyond this advice.  Again, this is not advice for MOP or advanced swimmers.  This article is not meant to take the place of an actual coach, video, book or training program, all of which are probably better."

The key to swimming is reducing drag, not endurance or powering through the water.  This is not just my opinion; it is the law of physics.  I’ll explain it in a simple way:  When you bike, you have to push air in front of you out of the way.  The bigger the frontal section of your body and bike, the more air you have to move.  What’s worse is that it’s not a one-to-one relationship.  An increase in speed requires the square of increase in power to move that air!  The faster you want to go, small increases in speed requires exponentially more power to do it.  That’s why we’re all so big on getting “aero” for cycling.  If we can reduce that amount of air we have to push out of the way, it makes cycling drastically easier.   While it might take Lance Armstrong 300 watts of power to bicycle at 30mph, it would take big, broad-shouldered, me, 500 watts of power to maintain that same speed.  And while Lance can still ride 10mph faster, I’m pretty much at my aerodynamic limit.

Now here’s the bad news.  Since water is much denser than air, it requires THE CUBE to overcome hydrodynamic drag as you go faster!  There is a massive difference between the power output while swimming at 1.5 mph and 2 mph.  As you get faster, it gets (X times X times X) more difficult!  Approaching 4 mph is close to the maximum and very few humans can sustain swimming at 5 mph.  Beyond that, it’s virtually impossible.  Our bodies are just not hydrodynamically shaped to do it.  The current World Record (in the 50m freestyle) is 5.37mph by Duje Draganja (2.4m/sec, 50 meters in 20. 81 seconds).  No matter how strong a swimmer’s muscles and how aerobically fit they are, it is theoretically impossible for a human to power-swim at speeds beyond this.  I highly doubt any human will ever be able to swim faster than a mere 6mph.  We just don’t posses the wattage required to overcome the drag.  Nature just didn't design us to go fast in the water like say, dolphins that can do it at more than five times faster than us...good hydrodynamic shape to them!

So rather than focusing on power and endurance, the first step is to minimize that drag.  This is the most crucial part in learning how to swim!  So let’s get to those ten tips:

1 - Abandon any and all thoughts of pride and image. 

When you go to the pool and see other swimmers seemingly doing effortless lap after lap, do not get caught up the idea that you need to be doing the same.  You have to do your exercises and not care about what anyone else may be thinking when they see you.  Everyone practices drills, even the pro’s!  So if you’re just going to be doing balance drills, so be it.  In order to do flip turns, you have to practice the steps in turn and in order.  If you ever see someone in the pool just doing forward somersaults from a standing position, they’re not weird – they’re practicing their flip turns!  So just do your thing and don’t worry about what other people think.  More than likely, the truly experienced swimmers will recognize what you’re doing and respect you for the drills you're doing.

2 - I would recommend that you get the book or video Total Immersion's "Swimming Made Easy" or "Triathlon Swimming."

If you do, practice those balance drills.  Practice!  Practice!  Practice!  I've been swimming for years and I still do them all the time!  I practice my balance before every swim session.  IN ORDER TO SWIM, YOU MUST BE BALANCED AND COMFORTABLE!

These are the basic balance principles:

Master the side-balance drill.  When you do it, do it with your hands in FISTS!  This will take away a 'feeling' of support.  You'll only have your core to balance on.  Stretch long, bottom arm stretched out, nose in your armpit (YES!), top arm on your hip and your legs as straight as they can be.  Point your toes!  Close your eyes and RELAX!  Gently exhale and let the water support you.  You should feel your top hand on your hip out of the water.  If you want to, you may kick a little, but keep your toes pointed and DON'T BEND YOUR KNEES!  Kick very lightly from your butt.  If you move backwards, that's OK.  Forward or backwards motion isn't the goal here.  Also, if your legs start to sink, that's only natural.  Drive your head down and put your ear against your armpit.  This will bring your legs up a bit.  Let's not kid ourselves here - having strong abs, obliques and back (a strong core) is paramount here!  Strong core muscles will help to keep you straight.  The off-season is the perfect time to get into Pilates.  It is without a doubt, the best "strength training" you can do for your swimming!

So how do you breathe?  It's easy, and yet, rather hard.  SLOWLY rotate your head up (AND ONLY YOUR HEAD), by the neck alone, and take a breath of air.  Then SLOWLY rotate back down again.   NOTHING ELSE SHOULD MOVE!  Keep your hands in fists (FistGlove trainers really help).  The temptation will be to use your hands to press down to support you as you rotate your head up.  But this is exactly the thing we are trying to avoid and correct here!  And what happens if you don't get the balance right?  You'll probably sink.  SO SINK!  It's better to go under in the shallow end of the pool while maintaining the side-balance position than to lose it and use your hands to breathe.  If you have to drown, THEN DROWN!  You won't actually drown; you'll just stand up, breathe, and try again.  Proper balance form under water is far better than poor form above it.  Keep practicing (on each side) until you can maintain the side-balance position with NO BODY MOVEMENT for about two minutes.  This is the foundation for all swimming.

3 - “Displaced bodies in the water go faster with a longer hull.”

This means that the longer you make your body (tips of your fingers all the way to your toes) the less drag your body will create.  Long skinny sailboats are faster than shorter ones.  How do I know this?  I’m also a sailor!  You are not a motorboat which goes so fast that it can plane up and above the water’s surface.  You are a displacement boat and you need to move water out of the way in order to swim forward.  SO LENGTHEN YOUR BODY!  How?  First, make your reach as far as it can go.  Think of getting something off of the very top shelf of the kitchen cabinet.  Do you face it shoulder square and reach up?  No.  You twist your body to one side and extend your shoulder.  There you go - now you can reach it.  Swimming is the exact same way.  It's that twist (or roll) and the extension from you shoulders and lats.  For an extra inch or two of reach, twist your hips in much the same way that a belly dancer would, one hip higher than the other.  It’s from this ‘core’ that comes great swimming.  So don’t ignore that Pilates class at the gym!  Swimmers don't have huge arm muscles or triceps; they have great back, abdominal and oblique muscles!  So makes sure that each and every reach is as far out in front of you as you can.  It's a good stretch too.  Go into the weight room before your swim and go to the chin-up bar.  Grab it with one hand, twist, and let your body hang for 20-seconds.  Do your belly dancer hip twist and see how far down you can go.  It’s a great pre-swim stretch.

4 - “Torpedoes move faster than oil tankers.”

You have to try and maintain a slim, sleek, torpedo shape.  Back and legs straight as a board.  Think of your body swimming through a narrow two foot-wide-tube.  Most swimmers' legs tend to sink.  You need to overcome this by two things:  First, improve your back, abs and oblique core muscles.  I can’t stress enough how good exercises like Pilates are for swimming!  And second by lowering your head and pressing your chest down, you raise your legs.  This is known as “downhill swimming”.

Unusual Training Tip:  Try to look at your feet!  That's right.  As you swim, I want you to try and look under and behind you.  This is going to drive your head down, get your feet up and make you more streamlined in the water.  Your chin should be against your chest.  Not so tightly that you can't breathe or that it's uncomfortable, just so that you're leading with the top of your head, not your forehead and driving your head down.  Again, the goal is to raise your legs and look like a flat, horizontal torpedo in the water.

Throughout this article I'll have some "Unusual Training Tips" that over-exaggerate body motions.  Why?  BECAUSE YOUR SENSE OF BODY POSITION IN THE WATER IS WAY OFF FROM WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS!!!   The only way to know for sure is to underwater video yourself and then watch it.   The initial reaction is always the same, "THAT'S how I look?!   I thought I was flatter/longer/better than that?!”  Sometimes you have to over-exaggerate a position in feel to get it to where it's really supposed to be.   Once you achieve the correct position and repeatedly do it and then get the feel for the proper positioning, then it becomes second nature.   But in the beginning you'll have to accept that how you think it feels right, more than likely isn't right.

5 -  “Be a front-quadrant swimmer.” 

So if a longer displacement body is faster in the water, always be a long body.  Always have one arm full extended out in front of you.  If one arm is out of the water in recovery and the other is under you pulling back, then you are only as long as you are tall.  You will slow down as compared to always being three feet longer with one arm always extended.  How do you do this?  A good drill is called the "thumb-to-hip drill".  Before you bring one hand back in a stroke, make your thumbs touch in front of you.  Feel the water flowing past your body.  Then as you do your stroke, bring your hand ALL THE WAY back; make it touch your hip.  This practice technique forces you to always be fully extended in the water.  Later, as your swimming improves, the drill is called the “catch-up drill”.  My personal style of swimming says to NOT move your arms like a kayak paddle.  One arm is always fully extended.  In order to do this, the recovering arm (out of the water, coming forward) moves twice as fast as the arm in the water pulling.  The recovering arm has to “catch up” in order to keep one arm always fully extended out in front of you.  Yes, your arms do not move at the same speed.  The key is to think, “as soon as my thumb hits my thigh, get it fully extended in front of me as fast as possible and touch my thumbs.”  But keep my pulling arm at the proper pace.  Don’t pull too fast or too hard.  You’ll waste more energy trying to pull yourself faster through the water than you will efficiently overcoming the drag of going through the water.

6 -  Breathing

Oh boy!  The tough one.  When you swim, you roll to breathe.  When you breathe, your chin should be up against your shoulder and your eyes looking back at your shoulder.  Keep that chin in!  Don't lift your head.  The moment you lift your head, you create a massive drag wave that slows you down.  You might as well tow a parachute!  If you keep your chin in tight to your shoulder, you'll have to roll your body to breathe.  Your mouth will be right at the surface of the water and yes, you may get a little water in your mouth - so just get used to it.  You'll find that you can breathe just fine with a little water in your mouth.  When you roll down again, just spit out with the exhale.  Be an ambidextrous swimmer.  Practice breathing from both sides.  That's how you see where you are going and how you can see the people swimming on both sides of you.  In an open-water triathlon with waves or sighting buoys, it's ok to occasionally lift your head to sight your bearing.  Just don't do it too often - just enough to swim straight.  If the water is choppy and has waves, your form won’t matter as much and you’ll have to lift some in order to site and breathe.  But this is OK.  But swimming and breathing from just one side usually makes people swim in a circle in open water without a big black line on the bottom of a crystal clear pool to help guide them.   Practice bilateral breathing and learn to swim straight.

Unusual Training Tip:  

At the pool, count how many strokes it take to get from one side of the pool to the other.   When you have that number, swim the next length with your EYES CLOSED!   Open your eyes when you're five strokes before that strokes-per-length number.  Can you do it without hitting any lane lines?  Do you continually hit the same side lane line?  Does your balance tend to drive you off-line in the same direction all the time?

Some more on breathing:

In order to maintain that head-in position, as your roll to breathe, your chin has to stay in tight towards your armpit.  Baseball players often have a big problem of pulling their heads up and away during their swing.  This pulls their eyes away from the ball at the last moment and they often miss.  They have a classic training technique to keep their heads in throughout a swing to keep their eye on the ball.  They put a tennis ball under their chin and hold it during the swing.  If the ball falls out, they're pulling their head.  We can't swim with a tennis ball under our chin, but we can think about it and use the imagery to keep our heads tucked in tight.  You have to think about keeping your chin in tight as if to hold a tennis ball in place.

The stroke: 

Let's do the breathing as an example from the RIGHT side.  You can do this right now, sitting at your desk.  Both arms are extended in front with your thumbs touching.  As you start the right side pull, you begin to roll towards the right (left shoulder down).  Now your left arm is fully extended with your shoulder extended (as if reaching for the mug in the back of the very top shelf) never flat to the bottom with your arm out.  As your right thumb touches your thigh, your right elbow bends and begins to rise out of the water.  Since you are rolled to the right and your head is down with your chin towards your chest, the only place for your chin to go is towards your armpit.  As your right elbow comes up high out of the water you find your face looking almost behind you.  This is how you sight the swimmers BEHIND you trying to catch you!  You'll also find with a good roll, a high elbow and your chin in your armpit, that a big space of air at your mouth has been created.  Now you breathe in!  Make sure you've been exhaling through your nose while your face is under water.  Do not waste any time exhaling with your mouth in the air.  This is for intake only!

Now for the most important part!  Remember, you’re not a planing motorboat.  You can't rise up and plane over the water, so don't try to!  We talked about the right arm during the pull, so what do you do with the left?  IT STAYS FULLY EXTENDED OUT IN FRONT OF YOUR BODY!  The most common thing beginner swimmers (and even experienced swimmers) do during the breathing stroke is to begin the pull on the other side too early.  They do this not to pull water back and propel them forward, but rather, to push water DOWN to push them up and out of the water to breathe.  It's a natural instinct to want to push yourself up higher out of the water to breathe, but don't do it!  That's what will slow you down and ruin your rhythm.  Not pulling during the breathing stroke with the extended arm is a very difficult thing to do.  In order to do it - you have to have balance in the water.  That's where your drills come in.  You have to do those side-balance drills so that you can breathe with that left arm fully extended and not pushing down to raise you up.  Achieving this one thing is the most important and dramatic portion of your swimming stroke that will make you go faster.  We'll address this again in #9.  It's THAT important!

7 - Never hold your breath!

As soon as your face goes back underwater, start exhaling and continue until you empty your lungs.  This does two things. It allows you to completely blow off the carbon dioxide in your lungs, thereby preventing the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles and keeping you from getting tired.  And it makes breathing faster and easier because you're not wasting time exhaling with your mouth out of the water when you should be inhaling.  See if you can practice swimming with this pattern:  breathe in on the left, left stroke, right stroke, left stroke, breathe in on the right.  If it's close to your normal breathing rate, great!  Those two strokes with your head down and streamlined is what will really make you go farther and faster.

Here's a little experiment you can do right now:

Take in a deep breath and hold it.  How long can you hold your breath?  What does it feel like?  Now, hold your breath again but this time, take in a deep breath and blow it all out, entirely.  Then hold on and see how long you can go until you have to take in the next breath?  What does it feel like?  It feels easier the second time because your lungs autonomically feel the urge to take a breath when there is a build up of CO2 in your lungs.  If you exhale all of that CO2 out, you can trick your body into going longer.


You don't push the water back towards your feet; you grab the water and pull your body through the hole in the water that you made.  The slower you try to swim, the more you have to concentrate on your form.  There's a reason that those early morning Tai Chi people move very slowly.  Spiritual enlightenment comes through proper form, not speed.  When you try to swim faster, your form and stamina will fall apart.  I guarantee it!  If you can swim slowly and feel the "underwater glide," you've got it!  When it happens, you'll know it and it feels really cool.  You're like, "Am I coated in Vaseline?  I'm just slipping through so easily and fast!  Awesome!" It only happens when you swim smooth and SLOWLY.

9. - Swim forward, not up.

Your swimming stroke is not meant to push yourself up and out of the water.  It is meant to propel you forward.  Keep saying to yourself "forward forward forward."  This is why the pull-phase of the stroke does NOT HAVE YOUR ARMS STRAIGHT!   You're not taking straight arms down and back from your shoulder.  Because the entire beginning part of THAT pull has you pushing water down, not back.  If you bend your elbows and immediately pull water back towards your feet (the same motion as climbing up a ladder)...  

Let's practice that right now:

Hold your arms straight over your head and with your elbows locked, bring an arm down and rotate from the shoulder until your hands touch your thigh.  Now do it again, but this time pretend you're climbing up a ladder.  Bend your elbow (hand a little away from your body) and your hand goes straight down to your thigh.  The second way has all the energy going straight down - nothing wasted - everything to power - very efficient.   And that's what triathletes are all about, EFFICIENCY!

The most common mistake by amateur swimmers (me not excluded) is that they convert their breathing stroke into a vertical support stroke to push their heads up and out of the water further.  It doesn't work and it's wasted energy.  It slows you down (dramatically) and creates bad habits.  Keep that chin in tight to your shoulder and use that stroke to go FORWARD!  Why?  Again, I have to go back and talk again about displacement bodies in water and how length of waterline/wetted surface affects speed.  Unless a boat can plane above the waters surface and eliminate drag all together, it has to push water the water out of the way to move through it.  That's YOU!  Going through the water and pushing it out of the way.  You have no choice, you're displacing that water.  The fastest sailboats are those that are very long, 100-feet, and very narrow, less than 15-feet.  That's a long, thin, displacement body.

The moment that length is decreased, you create "wake turbulence" behind you which is like little whirlpools.  These areas of twisting, turbulent water act like suction and hold you back.  So it is imperative to maintain the maximum length possible at ALL times while in the water and displacing that water.  That's why the thumb-to-thigh or catch-up drill is so important.  It forces you to always have an arm fully extended.  This actually allows you to glide through the water longer and easier making it easier and faster to swim.  Most professional swimmers will have a blazingly fast catch-up phase to their stroke.  Their recovery arm comes forward to meet their extended arm to where they always have an arm up front.  The actual pull can be slower.  It doesn't need to be that much faster than the moving water because you can't use raw power to go that much faster. 

Most people suffer in that as they're recovering an arm, turning up, getting their mouth out of the water to take a breath, they begin the next pull to push down and keep their head up to breathe.  They've immediately decreased their length of waterline by two feet or more and this immediately creates wake drag.  You have to be able to put your ear on your bicep with a fully extended arm and keep it their throughout the entire breath.  Recovery arm meets the extended one, rotate back down and THEN begin the next pull.

A simple thing to write.  A considerably more difficult thing to do practice and perfect in the water!   For me as well.  THIS more than anything else, will probably improve your swimming distance and speed by a huge amount!

10 - Aids and Tools

My favorite is FistGloves:  Swimming with your hand in a fist feels really strange!  It forces you to have good balance because you can't use your hands to push yourself up out of the water.  I usually do five warm-up laps with the gloves on and then take them off to do my training.  Wow!  It feels like someone has glued dinner plates to my hands!  You'll feel like you're going as fast as a dolphin!  I then do my five cool-down laps with the gloves on to make sure my body remembers proper balance in the water until the next swim.

Hip fins:  These are fins on a belt that you wear around your waist.  They do two things; they force you to roll.  If you’re not rolling, your hands will hit them on each stroke.  And they also provide some resistance during that roll and twist which will strengthen your core.

Pull buoy:  This is the buoy that you hold between your knees to help keep your legs up.  This helps to isolate your arm-stroke to work on perfecting it.  While I find that a pull buoy is good for isolating the arms for correcting issues, I think swimming with a pull buoy too much can be bad because it gives you a false sense of balance.

Fins:  The same with fins.  They are good for helping to isolate the arms, but using them too much gives you a false sense of speed and balance.  Use them until the issue is corrected and then stop.

Hand Paddles:  These are meant to create resistance during the pull to improve lat strength.  I say, forget them and concentrate on form and balance.  Spend some non-swimming-day time in the weight room on the lat bench to work on building strength.  We're all about balance and form here.

Kick board:  While a kickboard is a good tool for getting the feel of forward kicking power, I prefer to do “vertical kicking.”  Go into the deep end of the pool, keep your arms around your chest and using only your legs, and try to maintain a vertical position by kicking alone.  This will quickly let you feel what is the optimum way to kick.

Speaking of kicking.  While sprinters may use a strong kick, we are triathletes.  Our goal is to get through the water as quickly as possible, while saving enough energy (especially in our legs) for the upcoming bike and run.  I believe in a small kick which keeps the legs within that two-foot-tube that I wrote about earlier.  Once your legs go outside that tube, they increase drag and slow you down.  So your kick comes from your butt, not your knees.  Try to keep your knees relatively straight and use your glutes, quads and hamstrings to do the kick.  Don’t worry so much about a strong kick or the rhythm; it will naturally fall into place.  Just concentrate on not bending your knees too much and keeping your ankles within 18 inches of each other.

BONUS Extra on Endurance: 

"Why do I get so tired and can only do 2-4 lengths before stopping from exhaustion?"

Everyone has an initial plateau from a mind-body connection when it comes to beginning exercise.  Let me explain.  When you begin running or biking, your muscles send a signal to your brain saying, "we need more oxygen and glucose fuel!” Your brain's first and foremost reaction is to want to conserve as much energy as possible and not burn it, so it says in your subconscious, "then we should stop.”  But since most people have biked and run much more than they have swam, they can push that initial subconscious thought to the side and keep going.  Also, while biking and running, we have a constant and endless supply of air to always breathe.  After a few minutes the body establishes a working exercise rhythm, the brain and the subconscious accept it and you establish your "pace".  I can bike at an average 21mph for six straight hours.  I can run a 9-min/mile pace for three hours. The point is that I have trained my body and mind to break through that initial plateau and establish an efficient and do-able exercise pace.  

The same thing happens when you swim.  Except for two differences; you haven't been swimming as much and as regularly as you have biking and running.  And you don't have that constant and endless supply of air.  You need to pace your breathing and roll up to the air to get it.  But that's just a function of form.  You still have the same subconscious plateau to get over.  And there's no other way to do it, other than to just do it.

Go to the lifeguard and tell him/her that you're going to do an endurance set of 15 laps (endurance for you that is) and to please keep a close eye on the lane you are in.  Then SWIM 15 LAPS NON-STOP!  Keep your pace slow and steady and remain as relaxed as possible.  At some point in the first three laps, you will feel tired and begin to get nervous.  That nervousness may even become anxiety or fear.  Stay slow and steady and KEEP GOING!  DON'T PANIC - YOU HAVE NO CHOICE!  You have to keep going!  You cannot stop!  It is not an option!  The lifeguard is watching you and they won't let you drown.  Just keep swimming.  You're forcing your body to establish a swimming pace and teaching your subconscious to release the anxiety and fear.

You'll begin to notice something around the 6th to 10th lap.  IT STARTS TO GET EASIER!  Your heart rate will lower, you'll smooth out and the swimming will even begin to get boring.  That's the goal!  You may want to instead of counting laps, just keep mindlessly swimming for 15 minutes and glance at the clock every once in a while.  Sing a song in your head.  Think of something else other than swimming.  Transport yourself to another place.  Your body will adapt and your mind will relax and accept it.  Lots of competitive swimmers here often complain about doing endless, boring laps.  They're constantly doing different drills to put some fun back into the training and they're the ones posting, "How do you keep track of your laps?  After 50, I lose track." These people have trained their bodies and minds to swim past that plateau and establish a swimming pace.  And you can too!

One final note:  Nobody EVER got better at swimming by practicing once or twice a week.  If you want to get better, you've got to get wet!  So be in the pool 4-6 times per week!  Five hours or more a week is a MINIMUM to get anywhere.  Be consistent and practice, practice, PRACTICE!  You practiced walking and running for three YEARS before you got truly good at it.  It took you two whole summers before you could comfortably ride a bike.  So don't think that two days a week is going to get you through an Olympic swim that's four months away.  Sorry.  There's just no other way of doing other that to get doing it.

I hope you found this free advice helpful.


Click on star to vote
28154 Total Views  |  39 Views last 30 days  |  7 Views last 7 days
date: May 22, 2012


catamaran sailing, sailboarding, SCUBA diving, skydiving


catamaran sailing, sailboarding, SCUBA diving, skydiving

View all 1 articles