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by Terry Heggy

October 5, 2017

Getting swimmers without an aquatic background up to speed

People who learn to swim at an early age retain confidence in their aquatic abilities, even if they’ve stopped swimming regularly. But folks who learn to swim as adults often exhibit symptoms of discomfort in the water. These may include the following:

  • Exhaustion after a short distance—even when they’re extremely strong and conditioned for dryland exercise
  • Fear of deep (or low-visibility) water—even when they swim reasonably well
  • Stopping completely for minor disruptions (e.g., taking in a little water)

It’s tempting to blame these symptoms on a lack of fitness or mental toughness, but that is usually not the case. It’s merely that these athletes are missing a few fundamental concepts that lifelong swimmers take for granted.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about people who do know how to swim and have a desire to improve their skills. These are typically fitness swimmers or triathletes who seek Masters coaching to take them to the next level. For those who have not yet learned basic skills, refer them to your facility’s Adult Learn to Swim program.

Three essential concepts work together to form a tripod of support for solid swimming. While they seem intuitive to lifelong swimmers, it’s important to explain, demonstrate, and hammer them home to anyone who joins Masters without an aquatic background. Communicate swimming concepts by explaining them in terms of other activities that your athletes know and understand.

The Walking Pace

When athletes perceive swimming as difficult, they tend to approach it as if every stroke requires a supreme effort. They simply work too hard, which results in complete exhaustion after about 50 meters of frenzied swimming. It’s as if they started to run a marathon at their 100-meter dash pace, or started a set of 100 bench presses with their maximum weight. That level of effort cannot be sustained.

Explain that swimming should have a walking pace. In other words, if you relax and swim slowly enough, you should be able to swim for a very long time without exhaustion, just as you could walk for miles without collapsing like you would if you ran a maximum sprint effort on the track.

Remind them that it took them months (if not years) to learn to walk as a baby, so they must commit to learning the proper technique in swimming, as well. But once they understand the walk-before-you-run concept, they’ll be able to approach technique training with the right attitude. Mastering a walking pace becomes the foundation that enables them to work on sustainable speed.


Inexperienced swimmers often feel that if they stop swimming, they’ll sink like a stone. Counteract this fear with the following drills.

  • Treading water—This is a great drill for everyone because it teaches feel for the water and demonstrates how the pressure on the water changes with very small adjustments in hand angle. But for newbies, the essential lesson is that they can stay atop the water by balancing gravity with minimal movement and effort.
  • Inactive (perpendicular) float—By taking a lungful of air and then just relaxing, most people can float vertically without any movement whatsoever. The feet hang down so that the body is perpendicular to the surface, with the waterline typically falling somewhere between the nose and mid-forehead. Tilting the head back usually enables the mouth to reach the air for another breath, meaning that the inactive float position can be maintained indefinitely by simply breathing to keep the lungs full. Air provides the buoyancy to balance the body’s weight. The lesson for newbies is that they are not going to sink.
  • Minimalist (parallel) float—Most people can float on their stomachs or back in a position that’s nearly parallel to the water’s surface, once they understand that their lungs act as the body’s fulcrum for balance. Explain that the body is like a teeter-totter that pivots at the chest—putting more weight on the top side of the fulcrum (i.e., extending the arms overhead) counteracts the weight of the legs on the opposite side of the balance point. The lesson is that proper balance technique (extension and catch) eliminates the need to expend effort to propel the body upward, enabling the ability to swim at the walking pace.


The fear of sinking is likely to be accompanied by its equally destructive cousin, the fear of ingesting water. Although it’s completely rational to avoid taking in water, the fear of doing so results in failure to breathe properly. This creates drag, as body position is distorted to lift the head high above the surface. And worse, swimmers are tempted to hold their breath and neglect to exhale properly.

Give your athletes examples that demonstrate the concept in terms they relate to.

  • Ask if they would ever hold their breath during sustained running or cycling. Explain that the breathing pattern for a walking pace swim should be exactly as it would be during a Sunday stroll in the park, and that a higher-effort swim would result in the same regular breathing pattern but with additional force and quicker tempo, exactly as they would experience during heavier dryland exercise.
  • Ask if they’ve ever sucked a gnat into their mouth while running or riding. If so, how did they handle it? They’ll answer that they continued a regular breathing pattern, but cough to clear the airway during exhalation. The same solution is used for ingesting a small amount of water during a swim. There’s no need to stop.

Obviously, if they do inhale a significant amount of water, they should stop swimming and signal to the lifeguard for help. But most splash-in-the-mouth incidents can be handled without a disruption in rhythm. Help your swimmers recognize that (other than a small amount of head movement to get the mouth clear of the water) breathing in swimming is the same as it is for any other sport. This recognition is the key that turns a start-and-stop struggler into a smooth and confident distance athlete.


  • Coaches Only


  • New Swimmers
  • Stroke Technique