Swim for fitness. That sounded easy: I already knew how to swim. So one day I stood on the pool deck looking at all the other happy lap swimmers, from speedy athletes to the portly old lady, swimming slow and steady. I was about to join their ranks, but I was woefully unprepared. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
When I pushed off the wall to swim my first length, I began to sink. I flailed my arms to keep from drowning, and then I started kicking, but then my legs sank and were basically useless. Then I felt like I was going to suffocate, so I forced myself to the surface, gasped for air and dove down again. When I finally reached the end of the first lap, I clutched the edge of the pool sucking in air. The old lady glided up next to me, touched the wall with her hand and then her feet and serenely glided away. How could I be more like her?
I Started from Scratch, Even Though I 'Knew How to Swim'
To start, I signed up for a swimming class. It helped, but it wasn't exactly what I needed. The instructor assumed that we knew how to swim but not very well (true and true) and that we needed to work on improving the mechanics of our motions in the water. This was also true. But he didn't start at a basic enough level for me.
A lot of swimming lessons for both kids and adults focus on how to move your arms and how to move your legs. If you're a natural swimmer, you'll figure out how to put everything together so your body works like a smooth, beautiful machine. But some of us aren't natural swimmers. I had swimming lessons as a kid, and got some more instruction in my high school P.E. class. I could swim in the sense that you could push me into the water and I would not drown, but I didn't learn to swim for distance, and I hadn't figured out how to cover distance like those lap swimmers did.
A program called Total Immersion was what turned the tables for me. I started a book called Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier, but the author, Terry Laughlin, has a whole enterprise that includes books, videos and training camps. You can also find local coaches that use the technique.
The book was 100 pages of swimming philosophy (you can skim it, but don't skip it) followed by detailed descriptions of twelve drills. They start with learning how to float without sinking, and eventually build up to a fully functional freestyle stroke.
This method clicked for me in a way that nothing else did. Its drills teach you slowly and mindfully to find your balance in the water, and then to develop a relaxed, easy stroke. If you find yourself flailing, you're advised to go back and spend more time with the easy drills.
There's a cult-like following around "TI", as devotees call it, because this approach works for a lot of people with backgrounds like mine. What we most need to learn is how to relax in the water instead of fighting against it, and how to be streamlined and efficient to avoid wasting energy.
No system works for everybody, of course. Some swimmers find the beginning drills boring, or get frustrated because the program doesn't include specific work on strength and speed (instead, you're expected to develop those as a side effect of good technique). As with anything, feel free to shop around for whatever coach or program fits your style.
I Found My Balance In the Water
I'd always heard that men, thin people and muscular people have a hard time swimming. They sink (since it's fat that floats) and they find that their legs are especially heavy in the water. So maybe my body composition was to blame. Or maybe I needed to kick more to keep my legs afloat.
But Total Immersion recasts the sinking issue as one of balance. Everybody has a balance point, so everybody can find a way to make their body lie completely horizontally in the water. Take it from a chronic leg-sinker: this is actually true. I was able to teach myself from a book how to float, something that my previous lessons never could.
Here's how the book explains it:
Churning your legs hard to compensate for the way nature put you together will wear you out… What you really need is a better way of getting those hips up where they belong.
And there is one. I call it "pressing your buoy."
Here's how it works. What happens if you push a beach ball into the water? Right. The water pushes it right back out. You have one place on your body that's buoyant like that -- the space between your armpits. Call it your buoy.
Press your buoy into the water and the water will press back. But keep pressure on that buoy and you force the water to push your hips up instead. Just what you want. Simply letting water pressure ease them to the surface takes far less energy than trying to prop them up by churning away with your legs.
My first day in the pool after reading these words, I floated face-down in the water, pushing my chest and head down far enough that my body became flat in the water. The book suggested some mantras to keep the right image in mind: "Lean on your lungs" and "Swim downhill".
I did that first drill, balancing and kicking my way down the pool lane -- like a kickboard drill minus the kickboard. Over the following weeks, I did the rest of the drills, and eventually was able to swim a freestyle stroke that felt, if not fast, at least relaxed.
Total Immersion is based on drills like this one, and you can see a "cheat sheet" of them all here. After you've mastered the simple float-and-kick motion, you move on to variations where you roll gently from side to side, where you glide with your hand out in front of you like a spear, and where you incrementally build the arm motions of a freestyle "stroke".
Besides the initial drill that teaches balance, Total Immersion is useful because it emphasises staying relaxed (so you don't tire yourself out) and keeping a smooth profile so you aren't fighting the resistance of the water. Or as Laughlin writes: you open up a little hole in the water and slip through it.
I Met Other Swimmers and Got Feedback
Ready for the next step, I looked for a local Masters Swimming program. The word "masters" is used in different ways in different sports. In swimming, it just means adults, so you don't need to be an accomplished athlete to participate. If you took swimming lessons as a kid, maybe competed on your high school or university swim team, a masters club is where you can go when you outgrow those. It's like swim team for grownups.
But you don't need prior experience, and masters clubs tend to be friendly to beginners. The one I signed up with certainly was (and you can find one near you here.) There were weekly practices, where the faster and middle-of-the-road swimmers did workouts together with a little help from a coach. And the beginners -- including me -- got a session that was more instruction-focused.
I lucked out, too: the coach used the same drills and techniques I'd been practising. Each lesson started with a video that we would watch in our street clothes; then we'd meet in the pool and put the material into action.
Real live coaching was even better than the books and videos, because a coach can give you direct, personalised feedback. I knew what I was trying to do (bring my elbow high out of the water, let's say) but only an observer could tell whether I was actually doing it, and how well I was doing.
Around this time I moved, and the masters club in my new town didn't run a class for beginners. But they did have a friendly community where people were happy to help each other, and every now and then they would run a clinic where you could swim in front of a coach and ask for pointers. So that was helpful too.
I Learned to Read Workouts, and Built One Just for Me
So what do you actually do in the water when you're a lap swimmer? Sure, you can jump in and swim freestyle back and forth for an hour. That's an option. But just like running or any other sport, your workouts don't have to be the same every day.
You can always return to the Total Immersion drills, if you started with those like I did. It's possible to spend most of your time on drills and still become a good swimmer. (Laughlin quips: "Fitness is something that happens to you while you practice good technique.") But there are plenty of other options.
You can build your own swimming workouts using websites like Active, and the aptly named 100 Swimming Workouts. Any swimming or triathlon site will have a ton of workouts to choose from. They're usually listed by how many total meters the workout covers, so do a reality check and think how much distance you're likely to cover in the time you've budgeted for your workout. For reference, most lap pools are either 25m or 50m. (If you're not sure, your pool is probably the 25m kind. Fifty is huuuuge.)
Swimming workouts are usually based on short intervals: a couple laps of a certain stroke or drill, followed by a certain amount of rest, and you repeat that set a few times before moving on to the next thing. Here's an example routine from 100 Swimming Workouts:
Total Distance: 600m
- 100m crawl warmup (rest between laps if needed)
- 4 x 50m crawl resting :30 between each lap (try to keep the timing the same for each lap)
- 4 x 25m crawl changing breathing pattern (breathe every 4th stroke on the first two, then every 2nd stroke on the last 2)
- 2 x 50m your choice of strokes resting :30 between each lap (try to hit the same time for each lap)
- 100m crawl warmdown (swim slowly and relax)
So when you show up to your 25m lap pool, you'll start with four lengths of front crawl, also known as freestyle. Swimming competitions often have "freestyle" events where you are literally free to swim in any style you like. The fastest stroke is front crawl, the one where you're face down and pulling with alternating arms. All the swimmers I've met refer to this motion as the "freestyle stroke".
After that, you would do your four intervals of 50mm, which means up and back. They refer to this as a "lap", while many swimmers would call that two laps since it's two lengths. It doesn't matter. You know why? Because when swimmers want to be specific, they will say "50m" or "25m", not give you a number of laps.
Swimming workouts often give a certain amount of rest in each set -- here, it's 30 seconds. The idea is to practice pacing yourself. If you need more rest than that, it means you pushed yourself too hard. Swim the next set at a more relaxed pace, instead of wearing yourself out and taking more time to recover.
Obviously, you'll want to make sure the workout makes sense for your skill level. Sometimes I'd grab an advanced workout (writing it on an index card in a baggie, or in a waterproof notebook) and tweak it to give myself a little more rest or to shorten the yardage as needed.
I also learned to read the "pace clock", or that giant stopwatch-looking thing on every pool deck. It's like a regular clock minus the hour hand, to help you measure your workout sets (and rests) in seconds and minutes. Typically you start your lap when the second hand is at the top, and then when you finish, it just takes a glance at the hand's current position to find out how much time elapsed while you were underwater. You don't need a wristwatch but it can be handy to have one (waterproof, of course) if you decide to skip the intervals every now and then to practice distance swimming.
Within a year of starting my swimming journey, I was able to jump into the pool and swim a solid mile without stopping: all freestyle, slow and relaxed, with a decently efficient if not perfect stroke. I never mastered flip turns and I never got super fast. I'm no Olympic swimmer, or even competitive, but I could glide up the pool, touch the wall with my hands and feet and glide away like it was nothing.