Swim Like a Fish, Look Like an Olympian
Before you take the plunge, soak up these 6 tips from top swimming experts and your friends at The Beach Company
If clearing 25 to 50 meters in a pool without clinging to the sidewall or trying to catch a breather sounds impossible, that's probably because humans aren't meant to swim. “When we jump in water, our body reacts in this way of, 'How long can I stay above water?' ” says Jason Kilderry, Level 1 USA triathlon and track and field certified coach and owner of ETA Coach near Philadelphia. The good news is your initial flailing can be turned into a strong technique, Kilderry says.
Another big perk of jumping in a lap pool? It helps carve that long, lean, sexy V-shape body—broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Whether you’re looking to challenge your fitness or sign up for your first triathlon, follow this must-know advice from top swimming experts to help get your feet wet—and kicking like a powerboat.
The Advice: Go against your instinct.
Swimming isn't second nature to most humans—especially if you haven’t done much swimming since you were a child. And there’s a reason being in water takes so much of your energy. “On average, we convert only 3 percent of energy into forward motion swimming. That means the other 97 percent is getting consumed by the water,” says Laughlin, who's been a swim coach for 40 years. “The problem isn't lack of fitness, but rather skill.”
This explains why you may be able to run a 5K with ease, but can't do two laps in a pool to save your life. Once you understand that getting started is difficult for everyone, you can stop letting this sinking feeling (literally) ruin your swim workouts. Think of it as a rite of passage and you'll be on your way to feeling more energized—and not totally beat—when you hit the showers.
The Advice: Save your breath.
The secret to breathing correctly isn't only turning your head to gulp air on every third stroke. It's about keeping your body in the best position to inhale and use your oxygen efficiently. This means keeping your hips high in the water and making sure your head is neutral with a long, straight neck and your eyes are looking down, advises Hyman. (Eyes down, that is, except for when you turn your head to breathe.)
One way to keep your hips up is to lean slightly forward into the water, pressing your chest down toward the pool floor. Keeping your hips near the surface will make it easier to roll to your sides and glide as you catch your breath. With low, flat hips, however, rotation is near impossible—not to mention that this mistake can create drag, making your arms the tugboat of a faltering ship. Continue to rotate and glide even when you're not coming up for air, which should be on every third stroke. “Pretend you are a human kebab and the bottom of the pool is the BBQ grill,” she says. “It sounds silly, but try it. You want to get your kebab cooked evenly on both sides without letting anything fall off the skewer.” By using your body efficiently, you’ll get more from each breath you take.
The Advice: Patience is everything.
Father knows best, especially this dad and physician who raised his son—Gary Hall Jr.—to become a 10-time Olympic medalist in swimming. “The motions involved in swimming well are complex and utilize nearly every muscle in the human body,” says Hall. “It requires some pretty significant flexibility of the shoulders and ankles in particular.” After about a month or so, he confirms, anyone can get comfortable working their body in this way. And when you do, “You'll really begin to enjoy the feeling of moving weightlessly through the water. Swimming efficiently is like getting a workout and a massage at the same time,” he says.
The Advice: Count strokes, not laps.
It’s easy to get caught up in completing a certain number of laps. But the best and simplest way to measure efficiency is to count your stroke per pool length, recommends Laughlin. “At 6-feet tall, I take 14 to 15 strokes to cross a 25-yard pool, 16 to 17 in a 25-meter pool,” he says. “My stroke count might go up by one or two if I swim especially far or fast, but never exceed 17 in a 25-yard pool, nor 19 in a 25-meter pool.” The more strokes you take, the more energy you expend, which will tucker you out sooner than you'd like.
To figure what your optimal stroke count should be, Laughlin says add or subtract a stroke from his count for every 3 inches change in height. For example, if you're 5-foot-9, aim for 15 to 17 strokes in a 25-yard pool.
The Advice: Quit trying to be Michael Phelps.
There's no doubt Phelps is the pinnacle of swimming perfection. As the most-decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, he has inspired countless men to put on a Speedo and go for it. Unfortunately, even if you quit your job, hired a full-time coach, and swam more than 75,000 meters a week, you still couldn't touch this guy—unless you also spent 20 years eating, drinking, and swimming like he has, Kilderry warns.
Rather than waste time and energy setting impossible standards for yourself, follow a more realistic plan. “Make some days about swimming longer sets that focus on endurance, and other days about swimming shorter, faster sets that build up speed,” he says. “A classic beginner mistake is to only focus on technique, but you need to mix up workouts, and train for speed, endurance, and overall efficiency, too.”
The Advice: Use your legs.
Think swimming is about pulling with your Frankenstein arms? Think again. “The top sprinters can kick 50 meters within 5 to 6 seconds of their normal swim time,” Dicharry says.
Grab a kickboard and see how you measure up against the best of the best. If it takes you 5 to 10 times longer, then you need to work on your kick. While a kickboard is generally considered a good tool for this, Dicharry recommends ditching it since it can bias your position, promoting too much arch in your back that makes your hips drop in the water. “Instead kick on your back,” he says. “Cross your arms overhead in a streamlined position—as if you're about to dive in—and kick from the hips, not knees, to keep the body high in the water.” Try to keep the your head neutral with your nose pointing toward the ceiling. (Bonus points if you don't splash or churn water into a froth.)