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by Erica Slaughter

March 9, 2020

You’re not really a beginner, but how do you swim better?

You’ve had the requisite swimming lessons at some point in your life, you’re not afraid of the water, and you’re able to get across the pool. You might even be an accomplished athlete in another sport or a trained member of the military, so your physiological functional capacity is not the issue. But the ability to be able to swim well and to hang with your peers at the pool still confounds you. It’s frustrating and makes you want to declare “I choose not to swim!”

First of all, it’s not just you. Swimming well involves an incredibly complex set of coordinated movements. For people who grew up as competitive swimmers and have swum thousands of miles in the pool, the movements became second nature a long time ago. It can be difficult to explain in words what’s become motor control.

I know that doesn’t really help at this point. So please allow me to try to break it down.

Potential Reasons for Your Difficulty

First, it’s necessary to diagnose the problem honestly. If the majority of the athletic or fitness activities you’ve ever done have been on land, you’ve developed the necessary biomechanical skills to perform well in those. There will be some things that just don’t translate to performing well in swimming. Consequently, your swimming ability may be hindered in one or more of the following ways:

Poor posture in the water—Your body is not aligned in a way that is hydrodynamic. To use swimming vernacular, you’re not streamlined. Your head’s too high, your hips are too low, and/or you’re trying to tow your legs behind you.

Breathing in the wrong way at the wrong time—You’re turning your face all the way towards the ceiling when you want to take a breath. Your breath timing is not optimal in your stroke cycle. You’re taking too long to breathe. You’re gasping, nearly hyperventilating, and/or fully exhaling.

Limited ankle flexibility—Your feet are dorsiflexed (like when you’re standing) when swimming as opposed to plantar flexed (toes pointed), such as when you’re running. The position of your feet causes your knees to bend and your flutter kick looks more like you’re on the elliptical machine.

Uncoordinated arms and legs—Your arm stroke and kick are completely separate movements. You have no body rotation. You do not extend your arm forward when your hand enters the water. You do not generate much propulsion from your arm stroke because you don’t finish your strokes.

What You Need to Do to Fix the Problem

Your movements might be wrong, but they’re embedded in your neurological pathways nonetheless. Rewriting some of the code takes time and repetition. If you want to improve your swimming ability, it can be helpful to understand the rationale for swimming movements:

Improving posture in the water—The easiest and most relied-upon correction is to lower your head position. But it doesn’t stop there—the rest of your body needs to fall in line, all the way down to your pointed toes. The main objective here is to reduce your form drag, that which slows your forward propulsion through water.

Breathing the right way at the right time, and for the right reasons—In swimming, breathing serves two purposes: respiration and buoyancy. Breathing is made more challenging by movements outside your body line, i.e., lifting your head or turning your face more than necessary to grab a quick breath. If you feel that you don’t have enough time to breathe, the real culprit may be that your stroke is too short.

Ankle flexibility is crucial—When it comes to generating propulsion with your kick, keeping your ankles loose enables you to make contact against the water with the top of your foot. Just as in running you contact the ground with the soles of your feet, in swimming your downward strike comes from the top of your foot.

Marry your arms and legs—With your body line corrected, a lot of movements can naturally follow. You can lengthen your stroke, have more flexibility with breath timing, and incorporate hip drive to coordinate your arm stroke and kick. Rotation is especially important in long distance freestyle technique, because the rhythm created is most conducive to increasing distance per stroke, pacing, and even energy distribution.


  • Technique and Training


  • Training