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Home > Magazine > Waters > How to Swim: twice as fast, twice as easy

How to Swim: twice as fast, twice as easy
August 19, 2008

How I Learned to Swim, Finally: The Everyday Helpful Lessons of Self-Taught Swimming


by Jeff Potter

[This is an old OYB story that had a lot of typos. So I cleaned em up and repost it now.]

Swimming is one of those things that you can do for years without really knowing how. You can learn to do it without feeling all that confident about your skill or even ability to stay afloat, more like youíre using willpower mostly, while relying merely on the knowledge that youíre sure this is how you do it. So you bull your way to a lame kind of speed, relying on huge amounts of youthful fitness, perhaps. It might not be fun, but itís how itís supposed to be done, so we slog thru it. Also itís a sport thatís very easy to be rushed in doing, to have a panicky feel. Iím talking about the crawl, of course. It seems like the easiest stroke to lose control of. Itís also the best in certain regards. But itís a doozy. Itís easy to overdo it and exhaust yourself. Itís easy to go slow despite working hard.

But this isnít how swimming has to be. Iím no pro, but maybe the story of how I finally figured it out can help you.

I may have a few tips here that will put you over the hump into a rock solid crawl, no-brainer, "now Iím finally comfy" type of stroke that you didn't think was possible. I know I didnít. Maybe I can save you some of the frustration I went thru.

Iíd had lessons. Iíd read books and articles. Iíd been coached by team swimmers. But I admit Iíd never been coached for real, nor did I take a lesson as an adult. This breakthrough was self-taught. I'm sure I wasted a lot of time. Maybe Iím still doing a lot wrong. But it works. Better than ever, by far. And it has nothing to do with fitness that I can see.

I had been swimming for decades. I had even really tried to learn how to go fast, long and strong so that I could win triathlons. Actually, before that I had wanted to do crossings. To see if I can swim across here or there. No more than a mile. Hmmm, could I do it if I had to, I wondered. That sort of thing. I really liked the idea of swim touring. Go maybe 3 miles down a lake shore. Really come to grips with it. But as it was, it was hard. Iíd have to really work and build up to do it. It was really easy to get winded, panicky, tired. But I could canoe-race all day, race any other way, for that matter. Why did I fall apart in the water? Why wasnít it easy?

I read up on swimming, pros told me their tips. You gotta do the S-stroke with your hand. Etc., etc.

I finally got out onto a perfectly still pond one day for some skinny dipping and noticed that I could get some glide going even while crawling with my head above water. I was trying to slow my stroke down. You know how you see those old ladies in the pool just gliding along without seeming to even move? I wanted to be able to dial back and stay in control. I figured that would really help my ability. If you can go slow in balanced control you can go fast---a good rule in any sport. So in trying to go slow that day I noticed I could still get some glide if I interfered less with the water. And that it made a certain feeling of water flow down my chest. The less I interfered with the flow, the more glide---even though weíre just talking a few inches here. The water that day was real calm and I could see the glide by a little bow wake that would stay vee-ing after each stroke. I verified the glide by having my head above water, but I finally now also had an underwater notion of what it was like due to that feeling of flow down my chest. I put goggles on and put my head down and could see little particles and leaves and such keep moving toward me nicely after each decent stroke. So I tried to keep that flow going.

I found that an S-stroke with the hand did help. That it helped keep my hand in solid water. Swimming is slow stuff. S-ing is not wasteage. Let that hand slowly wander, out at first, then in to the center, then kinda out again. Youíll be better off.

I also used to try to use a long reach to cover more ground. I overextended my shoulder a few times and got injured. Maybe real swimmers can do that. But I was now trying to go slow. Conserve. Relax. Really, not just pretend. So I finally tried really shortening up---just let the arm enter with a relaxed bend, or a gentle straightening. Forget extending your shoulder. I find a totally relaxed, natural shoulder and arm reach to be much less work. ---And the glide kept going, no stall out.

What I also did along about now was swim with goggles in just 3-4 feet of water. I could notice my pace along the bottom. I noticed that with my S-stroke and my short arm that I was still moving along.

This period of improvement took place over a month or two. Maybe 5-10 swims.

I also said to myself that I didnít care if I sank, I was going to have a slow rate, like a granny, so I wouldnít get winded no matter what. Panic was worse than slowness. Gotta start somewhere. I got away from the workout mentality of churning the water and went back to square one.


My notion of relaxed touring came back to mind. Maybe it was the skinny dipping pond I used to go to. A very relaxing place. Very pretty. Iíd just swim a few entire lengths. When you go for distance you look at the big picture, no worry about the in between.

At that point I started looking ahead. To where my hands entered the water. I started pulling the water past me and I started really trying to keep out of the way of the water. Suddenly I realized that you gotta get real horizontal, that any drooping was bad. Suddenly I realized that my leg stroke was mainly for keeping my legs up and shallow and out of the way of the water flow. I also started getting better posture. I sucked in my gut, to lift it up out of the way of the flow and to lift my back up flatter toward the surface. Keeping the head looking down also helped me keep my back up toward the sky.

Lifting the gut made my whole torso flatter in the water. Raise the small of your back. The flow improves! I now try to "stand tall" in the water. You donít have to stretch or reach---but just donít bow, sag or arch.

Iíd always heard about keeping my hand close to my body as I stroked, but I just didnít get it. Now I could tell there was something to it. Pushing was another nice key to unlock. Itís a bit like mantling in climbing, where you grab a ledge at chest height then push it down past you. It suddenly became clear that itís the easiest way to push water past something which youíre already trying to keep out of the water. Possibly it helps avoid sagging also.

One of my main lessons was to stay out of the water. Let as little of me sink in as possible. Stay out of its way. Keep the thighs high! The hips high! The belly high! Back flat, chest flat. Treat the body like a raft and then shove it along, niceíníeasy.

It was very relaxing then to look down. Even to look at my toes. Keeping a flat back makes this easy. It was also nice looking straight ahead sometimes. I could tell I was starting to really move and glide thru the water and it was nice looking forward to check progress.

One sure sign that Iím stroking right, and moreover that my posture is right (BECAUSE POSTURE DICTATES STROKE!) is that my hand finally touches my thigh like all the rule books said it should. I guess the how-to books didnít emphasize posture enough coz it never really worked for me before. It seemed forced and artificial. But thatís not the best sure sign. What pleasure is there in doing a forced rule? My super-sure sign that I'm stroking right is that I feel water flowing past my thighs. I feel the glide flow away at the bottom of that stroke. If Iím keeping my body out of the way, Iíll feel flow over my pelvis and thigh. And thatís a good thing. And stop that snickering! : ) It means Iím not bogged down and that weíre getting somewhere efficiently. And weíll be where we want to go before ya know it.

Thatís the cool thing about finally learning how to swim. It finally seems to move you faster than the effort it takes. Thatís the hump to get over in any sport, I think. The payback hump. Where you get somewhere earlier than you think you deserve. Where the other shore rushes up to meet you. Hey, not bad. Such a nice change from paying with lung-hack and exhaustion just to swim anywhere.

I made these final breakthroughs while swimming across the Danube in Vienna every day one summer. Itís a big, serious river about a half mile across and I was swimming across in front of a LOT of people in this downtown park. I didnít want to either drown or need to be rescued or look laborious. Actually, I knew I had to be efficient or it just wouldnít be worth it, it would be panicky. Well, maybe it was the do or die that made me see the light. But suddenly swimming got easy and I was there and back before I knew it and not even out of breath. I was swim-touring.

I found that as I got more secure, I could break rules without slowing too much. Like taking peeks ahead to see where I was going.

Well, if youíve put up with me so far, I might as well give you the Number One tip! The secret to building on my new rock-solid foundation.

I roll. I rock. I let my chest roll like a barrel thru the water. I let that rolling provide power instead of my arms. Itís not an exaggerated roll. Maybe just quarter turns. Itís a total rhythm roll. And it really relieves the arms. And it totally sets my pace and tempo. Sure, it might involve dipping the shoulder but it doesnít seem to hurt flow. It just rolls along. Itís my bedrock. I can roll thru weeds, thru harsh stormy waves, thru kicked up water. Itís like a rocking chair. Itís finally the rhythm of swimming. Nothing is good without a rhythm. So here it is. Set your roll to "easy" and it will stay there. You wonít suddenly find yourself rushing or out of breath. It wonít happen. The roll is too big. Itís central command. If youíre churning with your forearms your tempo can change and your arms start to tire or pump up before it even registers in your head (youíre worrying about other things at that point). Start from the roots, the base. A nice, gently rolling barrel. The rest will follow.

If you want to increase your aerobic output at that point, you can easily do so by increasing your roll-rate first of all. Don't reach farther or strain more! Instead make it like increasing your cadence when biking or when running. Increasing stride-length is the last step in running, for the elite---it's usually much less stress and much easier to go faster to choke-back on length, to shorten up, and to pick up the cadence instead. Keep to your base!

Now try swimming with other people, if that's what you want to do---like in a triathlon. Swimmers can draft just like bikers and get just as much benefit. Your solid new base will keep you calm while you swim close enough to touch their toes occasionally---and to feel the free ride.

I find that by swimming in this way that I get a proper warm-up and proper muscle use. In this way the big muscles get used the most. I get no tiring, cramping, clogging or pump-lockup. I get thoroughly warmed-up and worked-out just as in any other sport done right. Everything being used, nothing overused. Me in charge. Getting nice payback.

Now isnít that what swimming should be?

So shorten and relax that reach, roll that chest, keep everything high, use your legs to keep your back half high, stand tall, look up, look down, look at your toes, S that hand, touch that thigh and take it easy. Feel the glide flow past your thighs. Youíll do fine.

Give it a try yourself and good luck!

Reader Comments - Add Your Own Comment
kayakclc - , posted on Aug 22, 2008
Love the description.

One addition. If the reader has trouble 'feeling' it he/she may want to try the side stroke. The same stroke everyones Aunt swims. Except you must put your head in the water (unlike your aunt who always held her head up out of the water).

This was the easiest stroke for me to get tuned in to balance and glide in the water. It's also easy to get your breathing down.

Once I learned this stroke my crawl improved 100 fold and I could go for hours. Prior to that my crawl sucked and I couldn't go more than a 1/4 mile.

BTW, the side stroke is only a shade slower than the crawl but more efficient. Every Navy Seal uses it.

JeffOYBmain - Williamston, MI, posted on Aug 22, 2008
Glad you liked the report and thanks for the side-stroke tip. Heck, it pays to use all the strokes, I would think. I used to rely on the side-stroke when swimming in big waves and before I could crawl. I didn't know it was close to the crawl speed. Do you always frog-kick with it? Maybe my frog was never so hot. I do a kind of sideways frog when I side-stroke, but maybe I'm not doing it right.
kayakclc - , posted on Aug 25, 2008
I use a scissor kick with it. (which is maybe what you mean by a sideways frog)

Yay, it's kind of shocking to think the side stroke can be fast. Probably because you never see it used "with a purpose".

In the navy we had to use an underwater recovery stroke (no sense advertising your presence)which meant either the breast or side stroke. Even the guys that swam the breast in college all used the side stroke.

Once my side stroke got streamlined and balanced my crawl just became a series of alternating side strokes. (with out of water recovery instead of underwater)

Everything you described was great...I just had to figure out 1/2 of it 1st. I think it was the balance that I couldn't grasp until I stayed on 1 side.