It’s never too late to get reacquainted with your inner mermaid. Two swim coaches give their best advice for becoming stronger and more confident in the water.
When you break it down, swimming has a high potential for embarrassment. It requires us to show grace, coordination and strength—all without the security of clothing. This didn’t seem to bother us back when we worked as lifeguards at the YMCA or as splash-happy counselors at Camp Good Times. But over the years, without regular access to a pool or a pond, many of us have grown tentative in the water.
It’s worth rebuilding our confidence, though, because swimming offers a total-body workout like no other. And as many athletes are discovering, this non-impact activity is an excellent alternative for joints that have become stiff from years' worth of pavement-pounding. It can help us feel weightless—and even ageless. "The water doesn't know what age you are when you jump in," said Dara Torres, who at 41 was the oldest woman ever to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. "So why not?"
While complete novices are best served by a class or private instruction, some lapsed swimmers just need a little push. We asked two professional coaches for advice on getting back in the swim.
Buy goggles that fit.
This is the best trick for avoiding those uncomfortable under-eye creases. "People think they need to have their goggles on really tight in order to keep the water out," explains David Marsh, the head coach of SwimMAC competitive swimming club in Charlotte, North Carolina. The problem is that tight eyewear not only presses into sensitive skin, but they also pull across the bridge of the nose, allowing more water to seep in. To find the best fit, treat goggle shopping like swimsuit shopping, and try on as many styles as possible. For recreational swimmers, Marsh is excited about Speedo's forthcoming Liquid Storm goggles, which will be available early next year. They have a silicone injection in the padding for a softer fit, and thicker double-straps that are less likely to tangle hair.
Build a strong core on dry land.
"Swimming uses every muscle in your body," says Coach Marsh, "and most of them connect through your core." To strengthen the muscles around the spine, Marsh recommends the Dead Bug exercise:
Lay on your back with your arms and legs up in the air, like a beetle that's seen better days. Press your back firmly into the ground.
Without arching or releasing your lower back, lower one leg down to the ground, then bring it back up. Your arms remain up in the air. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Work up to bringing the opposite arm and leg down at the same time. "There's no compression on the spine, so you can maintain the same line you have when swimming in the water," says Marsh.
In the pool, start by treading water.
You should be able to tread water for five full minutes without sputtering and gasping, says Marsh. "The phrase 'treading water' implies you're trying to stay up high like a water polo player polo. Focus more on comfortably floating with your head above water without touching the sides or the bottom of the pool." Move arms back and forth under the surface of the water, bringing them in front of you and then slightly out to the side. Your legs should be flutter-kicking beneath you, with your feet relaxed (not flexed). As a rule of thumb, Marsh recommends warming up in a body of water that actually feels warm and comfortable, as a super-cool pool tends to make us tense up. If the water is chilly, get your blood flowing by doing some calisthenics on dry land and vigorously jumping up and down in the shallow end.
Familiarize yourself with the breaststroke.
It's important to master a stroke that can easily get you from one side of the pool to the other, and could conceivably take you from a sinking canoe to the shore. For most of us, this is the breaststroke. It's easy to do, hard to mess up (even when the swimmer is stressed), and takes much less energy and skill than the freestyle or butterfly. Perfect form matters less in this stroke than others, but here's a quickie refresher:
Extend your arms out front and your legs behind you, Superman-style. Pull your arms back to your shoulders in the shape of an upside-down heart, ending the movement under your chin. "It's a common tendency to want to pull the arms back all the way to the ribs," says Coach Marsh.
To kick, pretend you’re a frog. Pull your heels up to your bottom, then turn your toes out 90 degree and push the water backwards with the bottoms of your feet.
If you are comfortable plunging under the surface when you stretch out your arms and legs, go ahead. But if you're having a good hair day, feel free to keep your head above water.
Take it two laps at a time.
Make it a goal to swim from the shallow end to the deep end and back; this will help you develop stamina. Try to wait to fix your goggles or take a breather in the shallow end, where you'll be able to stand to the side of the lane and will be less likely to disrupt the rhythm of faster swimmers. Marsh, who has coached tadpoles, Olympians (32 of them), and recently, a 72-year-old former Navy frogman, says that swimming is experiencing a popularity boom, so it's likely that you won't be the only person in the pool making a long-awaited comeback.
Ready to advance? Work on your freestyle stroke.
Unlike the breaststroke, breathing really matters here, says Scott Bay, head Masters coach for Team Blu Frog in Orlando, Florida. Many people tend to hold their breath for too long, which quickly causes them to become winded. The other common mistake, he says, is lifting the head too high out of the water. Facing forward causes the hips to drop so that the body is no longer horizontal. Practice using the lane lines and side pool markings to get your bearings so that you won't need to constantly look ahead.
Learn to turn.
While the flip turn is illegal in breast stroke competitions, it's a graceful and efficient way to turn around when swimming freestyle. Having trouble? You're not alone: "Some of the best swimmers on the planet who have been swimming for 30 years will still turn too late during a competition and mess up the flip turn," says Bay, who also works with U.S. Masters Swimming to certify coaches. There's no one trick that accommodates every swimmer’s speed, height and arm length, but he does suggest these pointers:
The most common mistake is to do a somersault. Bay's advice is to bend at the waist in a pike position. "Tuck your chin to your chest, reach for your toes, and throw your feet over. Resist the tendency to curl up in a ball, as that uses more energy."
Practice doing the flip in the middle of the pool until you have it down.
When you’re ready, start swimming toward the wall, leaving a bit more distance between you and the wall than you think you'll need. Look for the markings on the pool floor and walls when you begin your flip. If you don't end up close enough to hit the wall with your feet, you'll need to pick a new spot on the pool floor or wall and try again, says Bay.
When your feet touch the wall, bend your knees to approximately 90 degrees and give a good push.
Reach your arms in front of you and twist from your core so that you’re belly-down and ready to start your stroke.