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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Holiday Bobber To Athletic Swimmer

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

pool dive
The realisation that you are not as good of a swimmer as you first thought:

I have always enjoyed pleasure swimming on holiday, emphasis on pleasure. I do a few lengths, bob around for a bit to cool down and then go and find something else to capture my attention. In my mind, I can swim. However, I have never challenged myself in this discipline.

Enter being knocked down a peg or ten.

Serious swimming:

Cockily I danced into the local pool, signed up for an unlimited membership and sauntered towards the changing rooms. New goggles and swimsuit at the ready I felt like a pro, Michael Phelps move over. Submerging myself into the freezing pool I noted three lanes. Slow, medium and fast. To save myself the embarrassment I stayed in the slow lane and did a few lengths of breaststroke, overtaking the mothers that had left their children in the fun pool and had come into the slow lane for a bob and chat. "Maybe I do not belong in the slow lane" I pondered. However, I stayed and slowly carried on with my lengths. After 10 warm-up lengths, I stopped and watched people in the medium lane, gathering pointers on their technique. One man seemed to be out of his depth with everyone overtaking him. A man emerged next to me, proceeding to bitch about the slow man. " Maybe I will save the medium lane for when I am more confident" I decided.

Teething Issues:

After listening to the man be nasty about slow swimmers in fast lanes, I confirmed that front crawl was the stroke of choice in the faster lanes. Therefore, to graduate from the slow to the medium lane I needed to get to grips with the front crawl. Front crawl would also stand me in good stead for a decent time at Iron Man. So off I swam opting for front crawl one length and breaststroke back to get the hang of swimming for a long period of time. I managed 45 minutes before things started to go wrong. My hands developed shooting pains through my small and index fingers, almost feeling like cramps but a more numbing pain. This made it virtually impossible to swim more than two lengths without stopping and became worse when adopting a front crawl. My breathing in front crawl also became out of kilter the more tired I became, taking a breath every one or two strokes rather than 5 or 3. Essentially, once I was a little bit tired and my stamina disappeared I was a drowning cripple.


Feeling slightly disheartened by being rubbish on my first swim I decided to do some research. Firstly into the hand problem. After surfing every corner of the Google sea it would appear there are three main reasons why I develop cramp-like pain in my fingers and hands while swimming.

  1. I do not stretch properly before swimming, it is important like any sport to warm up and stretch out various body parts.

  2. The muscles in my fingers and hands are not strong enough to withstand long swims yet. Like any muscle, you need to build up strength before trying to do too much volume. A lot like trying to run a marathon when you have never run before, or going for a 90kg squat having only ever lifted 20kg.

  3. I have tense fingers and hands while swimming. Rather than having my fingers slightly held together, I keep mine pressed together in a cup form, which apparently is incorrect.

The forums and Word of Mouth had information such as:

"Shake out your hands before, during, and after swimming and relax. Keep your fingers together but not tense, just so you can pull water. Remember to stretch your forearms too. Also, maybe you should incorporate some sets into your training time and not just swim big long straight swims. Sets will increase your speed and endurance and the breaks will give your hands a rest"

"Relax your hands. Do not worry about keeping your fingers together. Many studies have been done relative to the best finger position, and the most consistent results I have seen show that your fingers should be spaced 5-15mm apart. Given your trouble with hand cramping, I think that the key will be keeping your hands relaxed … leave your fingers in whatever position feels most relaxed"

"I’ve had cramps in my hand swimming my longer distances, but I think that’s due more to dehydration…make sure to hydrate well before your workout. Also, try some sculling exercises to increase strength in your hands"

Therefore I decided to look into hand and sculling exercises for beginners.

Exercises to strengthen hands for swimming:

A lot of my swimming and cycling journey is going to consist of researching workouts and exercises. I have raided Youtube and Google for tips on strengthening hands while swimming and here are a few drills I have found and since tested that seems to be making a difference.

sculling diagram

In basic sculling, you move your hands, palms down, in a circular or figure-eight motion, on or just under the surface of the water, exerting pressure downward. You keep your arms in front of you with your elbows bent and position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. The motion keeps you afloat when your body is in a vertical position in the water. I now make a point of doing this for 5-10 mins to warm up before each session along with a few lengths of the exercises in the above link.

Hopefully, this will strengthen my hands and also make me more aware of my body in the water. After all, you have to lay a decent foundation if you want to be any good at something!


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