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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Learning to Swim... properly.

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

lane swimming

After a few months of paddling around in vain at my local leisure centre, and not really getting anywhere in terms of efficiency, I decided to admit defeat on the swimming front and have lessons. How useful was this? Did it cost a fortune? Did I improve?

Initially, I figured that a couple of swims a week would be enough. No gadgets, no drills just upping my mileage each week until I could swim 2 miles. I reached the point where I could swim 2 miles without stopping in the pool. However, it consisted of a front crawl 25m and then a breaststroke 25m back over and over as I was becoming exhausted doing front crawl for longer periods of time. This was hugely un-motivational as I was only just making the cut-off time of 2 hours and was physically exhausted to the point I was struggling to climb the ladders out of the pool after. Not good. People would be tearing past me, not kicking any stronger or paddling any faster than me, but somehow were going twice the speed of myself at half the effort. I was doing something very wrong in my approach to swimming training.

Enter lessons! After hunting around for a week at the leisure centre I was beginning to become a bit depressed. Lessons were in excess of £20 for a private lesson and were only available when the instructors felt like getting back to you, which was rare. I figured out that I would like a lesson a week for two months. This was to make sure I was practising correctly and once a week bad habits could be nipped in the bud before they became any worse. This was going to cost a fortune, a fortune I did not have, let alone to throw away frivolously on swimming, after all, a girl got to eat!

I scoured the net and phoned up recommendations but everyone was either fully booked for weeks, expensive or the nearest pool was 10 miles away. As a last resort, I phoned up my old secondary school Sutton Valence. Knowing they had a decent 25m pool available I begged if it was possible for "Old Suttonians" to use the pool on occasion for a lesson. The answer was a no, however, a triathlon club held lesson sessions there on a Tuesday evening so I was advised to call them and ask. RESULT!

I called the local triathlon club Maidstone Harriers, beginning to wonder why on earth I was not a member, surely if you are a first-time triathlete taking on an Iron Man a triathlon club would be invaluable.

Long story short, I joined the club and booked on to the 4 lesson block for £20, a bargain compared to the other prices I was being quoted. These were group lessons, but seeing as the pool was so big we each had a lane to ourselves and the two coaches made sure everyone had ample attention.

At the first lesson I arrived a little nervous, I knew my swimming was not up to standard, but thankfully another new member was there and we agreed we could be rubbish together. The first port of call before anything was a go-pro analysis of our technique under the water and above at all angles to see exactly what our strengths and weaknesses were. Feedback was an email with our video, a video of the perfect stroke, things to improve on and videos to drills to help with improvements. Mine was as follows:

"Firstly, there are a lot of good aspects to your stroke. Breathing, roll and head position are all looking good.

Here is Mr Smooth for comparison: . Mr Smooth is Swim Smooth’s ‘ideal’ smooth swim stroke.

Here are a few areas to work on:

1). Reach. It is quite noticeable (from the side view video) that after hand entry your arms typically dive deeply quickly - particularly your right arm when you breathe on that side. Ideally, your ‘spearing’ action should be more shallow with your arm extending forward under the water (more similar to your left arm action). Any drills that encourage you to a long stretched position would be good to correct this.

This is a nice one for encouraging you to stretch forward with each stroke.

2). Crossover. From the top view of your video, we can see that your arms cross over the centre line of your body as you extend forward. Ideally, the hand should enter the water ahead of the shoulder and extend forward in front of the shoulder and should not approach the centre. Some drills that focus on hand entry and extension should help.

6-1-6 Drill

3). Kicking Technique. There are two aspects of your kicking we can improve:

i). Avoiding Knee Bend. You have quite a lot of knee bend in your kick technique. Ideally, kicking should be imitated from the hip with a relatively straight but supple knee. Try kicking with a straight leg and practice some kicking drills - perhaps some torpedo kicking

ii). Avoiding Scissoring. From the top video view, we can see that at particular times, your legs scissor apart, particularly when you are breathing. Ideally, your legs should be largely together. Scissoring them will create drag and is probably a subconscious reaction to the ‘crossover’ issue highlighted earlier. Again kicking with a kickboard or torpedo kicking will really help.

Here’s some general good advice for kicking. Improving your kicking will help with your body position by lifting your legs higher also:"

On reading this I panicked a bit and thought "Oh dear there is a lot to improve no wonder I am shattered after a swimming session I am not efficient at all!" However, not one for giving up I decided to let the lessons roll out and see what improvements were made in the next few weeks. All I can say is I was amazed.

The lessons had structure, something I was not used to in the pool seeing as I had a flippant let's just swim as far as a possible approach. The lessons consisted of a warm-up with sink downs, a drill section, a build-up section, the main set and a cool down, with each lesson covering around 2000-2800m total swimming. Each lesson was broken down to focus on one key element of the stroke I.e kicking from the hips, hand position and entry etc. Gadgets and aids were used in each session depending on what we were working on. Having never used any of these before it was a slight minefield. I was thinking to myself naively, surely we do not need flippers, fins and floats, surely we just practice swimming? However, now I appreciate that these aids let you take your mind off one aspect of the stroke to focus on another, not as much of a waste of time and money as first thought!

The first block of my lessons consisted of the following sessions:

The first was focusing on breathing. I used to gasp for air every second stroke like an asthmatic with a plastic bag over their head, not ideal when you are trying to relax in the water. The more I would panic the more I would have to breathe and rush my stroke, a vicious circle really. The sink downs got me familiar with submerging myself under the water and breathing out in long controlled breaths. A few of these and I was getting used to controlling my breathing out and not worrying about being under the water for longer periods of time.

The 6-1/3-6 drills allowed me to carry this through to a stroke and apply it to my body position. However, the real help came with the main set where bilateral breathing had to be the norm, no more breathing every second stroke, this was forbidden. Forcing yourself to experiment with every 4th or 5th stroke on the way back really makes you appreciate how easy bi-lateral actually is and makes it feel more natural. It helped me mentally adapt to the fact I was not going to run out of oxygen any time soon and as a result, I relaxed a huge amount and could focus on my position a bit more.

Swim lesson week 1

The second lesson was on kicking, a nightmare element in my video. The torpedo kicks were the trick here and the notion of touching your big toes together. To start off with the teacher got us all to tread water, but rather than flapping around as one usually does she made us kick from our hips and not our knees to stay afloat, if our legs bent she would pull us up on it. This was a nice quick test to see if you are kicking correctly, if you are kicking from the hip your hip flexors and glutes should ache after a couple of minutes of treading water properly!

Once we had the motion correct we moved on to translating this newfound muscle movement into swimming technique. Having to think about a different item every exercise really forces you to swim properly. The big toes touching was a huge help, I now make an effort to notice my toes touching when I am swimming so I no longer have my legs spread like a prostitute on a Friday night after too many Vodkas. Doing this not only made me more streamlined but also forced me to point my toes. I noted a huge pace increase just by straightening my legs, kicking from the hips and pointing my feet. The bottom half of my body by the end of the session was more a gliding help than dead weight frantically trying to push me forwards.

swim lesson itinerary

The third lesson was speed and altering your pace. This was straightforward. A set of 6-3-6 drills to ensure our balance and position were correct before entering pace pyramids. These were:

300m slow

200m steady

100m fast

50m sprint

50 m sprint

and back down

I have always been a one pace pony when practising and doing this really forced me to consider race pace. I would have to up the speed at Iron Man and with that comes a need for accurate body positioning, technical ability and fitness. This really tested all three and has been adopted into my swimming regime once a week at the end of a session to push myself. It was also a great way of appreciating how slow I have been swimming and that a 200m steady pace is more than doable for a long period of time rather than my slow 300m.

The final was hand position and entry, again a not-so-positive aspect of my technique. The below paddle drills really made me think. Paddles go over your hands on your middle finger with your hands flat to the plastic. If your hand does not enter the water correctly then the fin will slide around and you will get no pullback in the water, causing you to slow right down. The longer trips also forced us all to have a high elbow recovery, ideal for open water swimming in unsteady water. The single-arm freestyle drill was hell, and one part of the lesson I did not enjoy. I was all over the shop, banging into the wall and the lane dividers I could not control myself without my other arm to balance me out. Another thing I noticed was how hard it was to lift my left arm up without my right arm out in front coming back from its stroke. It would appear I have a very very weak left arm that relies heavily on the balance and alignment of the rest of my body.

swim lesson plan

From just these four sessions alone (I was lazy and did no practice in between!) my swimming has improved a ridiculous amount:

- I am breathing every 5th stroke without any bother and no panicking rather than my past gasping for air every second stroke.

- I am kicking from my hips so my legs are no longer tired at the end of a swim session but are rather effortlessly drifting behind me in the pool offering my arms a touch of help, rather than the knee scissor thing I was doing.

- My hips are higher in the water.

- I look down, keeping my spine in line rather than having a slightly crook neck.

- My elbows are raised high on arm recovery rather than my arms skimming the water and creating drag.

- I stretch out in front of each shoulder with a flat hand, rather than cupped hands in front of my face with a diagonal entry.

- My arms are relaxed on recovery rather than tense in the forearm and wrist.

- I have noted the importance of keeping your core solid in keeping alignment.

Obviously, I am not a perfect swimmer, nowhere close, and the above are not always happening at once, but I am aware of how a good front crawl stroke should feel, it should not feel as if you are being drowned in the sea by a mass murderer.

So to anyone reading this thinking about taking on any triathlon, whether you are like me and useless at swimming, or even if you are a one-off being Michael Phelps I would urge you to join a swim or triathlon club to get lessons. Having someone film you and show you what you are doing wrong is invaluable, as is having someone poolside picking up points to improve at the time.

To anyone struggling with swimming just keep going. Have a few lessons, and have someone look at your technique and work on it. Do not worry about the miles covered each week to begin as you will struggle an awful lot and will find it draining without the correct technique once you get past a mile. I intend on having another block of lessons minimum before going out onto the lake with my triathlon group, however now I have the basics in the back of my mind I shall be starting to do a long swim once a week to start clocking up the miles again, hopefully, this time in a less painful and more relaxed manner!

So how useful was this? Very

Did it cost a fortune? No, £20 for 4 one-hour lessons.

Did I improve? Yes, not that I could have become much worse, but the improvement has been huge.

Very few of us are experts and sometimes you can not muscle through something with brute determination. Seek help, have lessons and get better. It will all be a lot easier in the long run if you swallow your pride early on.


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