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by Scott Bay

September 23, 2019

No matter your age, you can keep experimenting and find something that improves your swimming

Listening to Bruce Springsteen singing Glory Days made me think about all of the things that have changed since what could be considered my Glory Days. (They were never that glorious, by the way.)

What I can tell you is that there have been a lot of changes in how we approach swimming, aging, and approaches to technique. If you consider the arc of your own swimming experience, regardless of age, you don’t swim like you did as a 6-year-old or a 17-year-old or a (insert age here).

So, what is the theme of that experience? You gotta change as you grow.

Back in the Day

Whether you’re 18 and your back-in-the-day was just a few years ago, or you’re 70 and you remember swimming with no goggles, what has happened to your swimming since then is a function of your life and changes in you physically. That doesn’t mean you can’t make changes in the pool and make things happen, rather than let them happen.

Let’s take a look at how you can learn from your past swimming and what you can do to move toward your continued swimming life.

  • Breathing: Over the past few decades, most swimmers have been taught to bilateral breath, which makes you less prone to developing a muscular imbalance. Breathing to one side made you a bad person on some swim teams.
  • Body Position: Many swimmers were taught to keep the waterline at about their eyebrows. After all, that was how it was always done, and you wouldn’t run into your lanemates if you looked where you were going.
  • Stroke and Recovery: If breathing only to one side was bad, then having a straight-arm recovery in freestyle was surely cause for people to believe your character was suspect. There was also a school of thought about the “S” pull for freestyle.

What Now? The Great Experiment

These things represented our best swimming thinking at the time. Although they are only snapshots and not complete stroke breakdowns, the point is that just like you, things change over time. Some people still teach them and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s room in the pool for everyone’s thinking.

The next step in advancing that thinking here is that you have to experiment with what works for you. With just these few ideas, here is a good road map for trying new things.

  • Breathing: Breathing to one side is acceptable if it works for you. If you’ve spent your entire swimming life breathing to one side, you probably have a muscular imbalance—your neck muscles on your breathing side are shorter than the ones on the nonbreathing side—and changing it now might require more effort and discomfort than it’s worth. Massage and using fins or a pull buoy can help you learn to breathe on your weak side if you want to. And you can experiment with different breathing patterns, ones that are compatible with your fitness and comfort—play around with your patterns for freestyle and butterfly to find what suits you.
  • Body position: Lots of swimmers try to emulate someone such as the great Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, who had a very high head position. Problem is that the Thorpedo had a very long neck, so this might not work for you. Once again, experiment with where your hands, head, shoulders, hips, and heels are. Experimenting with this will not only make you faster but also more comfortable in the water. That’s true for all strokes.
  • Stroke and Recovery: There are many different styles of strokes and recoveries that it seems like anything goes. Check the rulebook first, but after that, play around with different movements. It’s OK to do things all the way wrong while you’re experimenting, so you know what that feels like. Seek advice from a coach or two while you’re trying new things, and you’ll likely get varied feedback. And as far as straight-arm recovery, open water swimmers have learned that it’s necessary to keep their hands from getting mired in chop and waves. Progress!

Trial and Error

If you’ve been a lifelong swimmer, you were going to get stronger and fitter just by getting older. As you reached maturity, you continued to build strength and get a better sense of both gross and fine motor skills. But there comes a point when all swimmers tap out their physical development.

Each stage of the journey requires you to adapt to what your body can do. It’s part of the learning process. Focus on how to swim the best with what you have in that time. And for that you have to be willing to try out something new. It can be frustrating because it really is trial and error.

But the good news is that we’re not canceling the sport anytime soon, and we are one of the few sports that has a 100-104 age group.


  • Technique and Training


  • Training