A swim guide for the petrified

Just signed up to an event and wondering what on Earth you have done? Fear not: swim coach Mike Porteous is here to help

Graham Wynne

Thousands of swimmers enter events every year. Once the euphoria of getting a place subsides, newcomers to the world of swimming at distance in open water may well be having a quiet word with themselves: what was I thinking? What if I can’t actually swim that far? Can I just sit in the finishers hot tub for two hours instead? 

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Each year, amongst the mix of swimmers signing up are many who are making an amazing new start: maybe regular outdoor dippers now making a big step up in distance and unsure whether their technique and fitness will see them through; or super fit cyclists, runners or others about to learn to swim pretty much from scratch, aware that more than endurance and determination will be needed.

But there is another group that this new starters’ guide can apply to: regular swimmers who tell themselves they will always be slow and at the back.  No one says you have to be super fast – but for some I suspect there’s a stronger swimmer in you quietly yearning to get out.

Whatever your starting point, swim caps off to you all!  You’re about to do something brilliant. Unlocking the swimmer in you starts with technique – but probably not as you would normally think of it. No top tips or one-size fits all tricks. It’s all about finding the great swimmer in you – relaxed, fluent and immensely enjoyable.

Ready? Goggles on. Let’s go.

Start as you mean to go on: remember to relax and adopt a learner’s mindset

Below are the Key Principles that appear in every Swim Forward Plan I provide for swimmers I coach – whether complete beginners, Channel swimmers or those competing internationally.  And you’ll see it starts with developing a relaxed way of swimming.

Strong, distance swimming is not an all-out, high intensity, power sport.  So tell yourself, before even starting, that you’re aiming first and foremost for a relaxed fluency – and as it says, if you find yourself tensing up or in a fight with the water, stop.  Slow down. Refocus and relax. 

Second, I have found it helps to remind yourself you are learning something new.  Despite what some think, there aren’t really any “natural swimmers” – just people who have had different opportunities to learn and practise.

I’ve noticed in myself and in others, we can sometimes be very hard on ourselves when something new doesn’t come quickly or naturally.  “Oh! Why can’t I do this? … I’m just being stupid… I’m no good, it’ll never happen.” Learning to swim takes a big dose of what I call patient persistence.  You’re doing something quite new which calls for a dedicated, mindful focus. If you catch yourself saying “I can’t do this”, try adding in the wonderful little word “… yet”.

So on to the technique and I’m going to single out three key elements.  Each requires you to find what works for you.

Graham Wynne
Our key principles:

Relaxed: swimming is meant to fun! If you are tensing up or feel like you are in a fight with the water, stop. Slow down. Refocus and relax

Breathing: everything starts with a relaxed, controlled breathing out, emptying the lungs

Rhythm: whilst there are lots of elements that make up a great stroke, we want to get you into your own rhythm, feeling like all these elements are in sync and in tune

Technique 1: Breathing

In life and especially when we’re active, breathing is generally a good thing.  In swimming there is an extra twist. It’s all about breathing out.  All your instincts will be saying “if you’re in the water, hold on to your breath.”  But we need to do the opposite. As in our Key Principles, swimming front crawl starts with a steady, relaxed bubbling out.

The air we are desperately holding on to is actually CO2 that needs to be expelled.  And if we hold on to our breath we have to raise our heads right out of the water to breathe out and gasp in – breaking up the rhythm, becoming less streamlined and inevitably soon coming to a breathless halt as we simply can’t take in enough air.

Where we want to get to is a relaxed, steady bubbling out as soon as our heads are in the water, emptying the lungs so that by the time we come to the third stroke our lungs are pretty much empty and we can keep a really low, streamlined head.  Breathing in on the third stroke – known as bilateral breathing as you’ll breathe in on one side, then the other – also helps ensure a good balance and rhythm (which we’ll come on to).

How to get there?  Well, it’s about that patient persistence, slowing yourself down and finding the rhythm that allows you to exhale over the three strokes without any holding of the breath.  A great test is to see how low you can keep your head as you gently turn to breath in to the side. Barely a neck muscle is used. If you’re looking up at the roof or sky you’ve still got some bubbling out to do.

Vivienne Rickman Poole

“The air we are desperately holding on to is actually CO2 that needs to be expelled.  And if we hold on to our breath we have to raise our heads right out of the water to breathe out and gasp in – breaking up the rhythm”

Technique 2: To Glide or Not to Glide

Not to is best.  Sometimes when you’re at a pool or maybe watching youtube clips of great swimmers you’ll see someone appearing to glide through the water, graceful long strokes, seemingly effortless and you’ll think “wow, I wish I could swim like that.”  I think there are two misconceptions here that can get in the way of you finding the great swimmer in you.

The first to mention, just to get it out the way quickly, is that even the smoothest of swimmers are always applying an effort – one that is directed in an efficient, strong no-pauses rhythm.

The bigger misconception is that gliding is the way to go for everyone.  Unfortunately this is the ‘old school’ way many of us were taught in years gone by.  If you’re tall and have an albatross-like arm span then a long gliding stroke is probably going to suit you well (with an important proviso).  Most of us aren’t built that way though. And the proviso is that stretching out with a long straight arm, as if reaching for the water as far as you can and trying to minimise the number of strokes, ends up being very inefficient.  To demonstrate, let’s try two experiments.

Experiment 1:

As you’re reading this, stretch one arm right out in front of you, hand held flat as if it had just entered the water.  Now, can you bend at the elbow? Chances are all you can do is press the straight arm down. And the muscles in the front of your shoulder have probably gone into a tight fist.

Take that to the water and the straight, gliding arm, once outstretched and locked out can only press the water down  – which has the effect of lifting your upper body up, your lower body down and puts quite a strain on those front shoulder muscles.  And the part of the stroke that actually needs to be the strongest, to move you forward, ends up being rushed.

How to get it right?  Swim Smooth, world leaders in swim coaching, use a brilliant image to help break out of the glidey thing: ‘arm over a barrel’.  Picture a submerged barrel just ahead of you – you’re trying to get your arm over and round the barrel so you can press it back and haul yourself through the water.  This means ingraining an arm position that has your fingers below the wrist and wrist below the elbow.

Experiment 2:

Something I ask swimmers is “where’s the crook?”  Going back to your outstretched straight arm, take a look at where the crook of the elbow is (the inside bit).  If you can plainly see it the crook is stealing the best of your stroke!

Now, keeping your hand in a flat position (that is, not angled) slowly lift the outer elbow round and up to hold the arm in the Swim Smooth fingers below the wrist, wrist below the elbow, arm over a barrel position – and thereby hiding the crook from view, as it shamefacedly points downwards.  You’ll feel big muscles in the back of your shoulders suddenly engage. And you can easily bend at the elbow, as if ready to catch hold of the water and press it back, not down, giving you a strong, effective stroke that feels… brilliant!

Jess Rose

Technique 3: Swimming into a Pocket of Water

Here’s the final bit of technique for now before some concluding suggestions. This is about imagining there is a narrow, you-shaped pocket of water just ahead that you are squeezing yourself through.

You’ll need to roll your whole body to slice into the pocket. Your legs want to be long and loose, kept within the body cylinder, to stay streamlined. And just after your hand spears into the water, tip back the fingers and wrist so the hand and forearm arm become a paddle, pressing the water back (not down!) and making you slip and slice through.

To get the body rolling I like to imagine that, through some quirk of rapid adaptation to being in the water so much, I am now breathing from my hips. I also say to myself “reach, roll, tip”. I’m feeling a big stretch and lengthening through my rib cage to reach forward (note: not from the arm locking out straight and gliding); I’m breathing from my hips and telling myself each stroke starts from the hips rolling; and I tip the hands back to haul myself through that narrow pocket of water.

Practical matters: training guides and time management

So how long do you give yourself?  And when do you need to start if you’re going for the Bantham Swoosh in July or the Dart 10k or Hurly Burly in September?

There’s a Guide to Planning Your Endurance Training on the OSS site, which talks about breaking up your preparations into phases.  As it suggests, if you are making a new start, I would recommend putting aside a period dedicated almost entirely to developing your technique and finding the rhythm that will work for you.  This is also a great time to get that expert help so you start off on the right track. Building up endurance – along the lines suggested in the Endurance Training Guide – can come later.

For people who come to me to learn front crawl from scratch, I generally suggest setting aside around eight to twelve weeks – going to a pool an absolute minimum of twice a week; three is ideal.  Don’t worry about counting lengths or time. Everything slow and composed, attuning yourself to the feel of each element of the stroke and ingraining the key movements, such as the arm over a barrel.  For most people it starts coming together much earlier on. I encourage new swimmers to book in one or possibly two other one-to-one sessions to check on how it’s going and for me to introduce some further technique as needed.

The article on the Zen and the Art of Pool Swimming has a suggestion for a Technique Session called Pass Go that is a good one to try. I’ve also included another session at the end of this article to give you something to work with: the Three Peaks to Perfection.

Finally: let’s go back to some things said at the start. First, how brilliant that you are making a new start! I have a passion for seeing people surprise themselves with what they can do and believe there is a great swimmer in each one of us – yes, you too! 

Vivienne Rickman Poole

The Three Peaks to Perfection

The purpose of the Zig-Zag three peaks to perfection exercise is to work on the three basic elements of your ‘swimmer-in-you’ technique.

Warm Up: Before jumping in, take a few moments to compose and still yourself, breathing deeply.  Do a few shoulder rolls to loosen up. The start with a few easy, unhurried lengths to acclimatise and settle into the session.

Pyramid 1 – Breathing: Swim 1, 2, 3, 2, 1 lengths with a short recovery between them to compose yourself.

Focus on the continuous bubbling out.  How low is your head? Are you looking to the side of the pool or up?

Pyramid 2 – Arm Over a Barrel: Swim a second 1,2,3, 2, 1 pyramid as before, this time adding in a focus on the arm over a barrel arm shape, head in a position where you can watch your hands tip back(much more interesting and helpful than examining the pool floor).  Do you feel the muscles in your back and the lats doing the work?

Pyramid 3 – Streamlining: Swim a third 1, 2, 3, 2, 1 pyramid as before, this time adding in a focus on rolling your body as if breathing from the hips, feeling a big stretch through your rib cage and picture yourself slicing through that narrow you-shaped pocket of water just ahead.  Doesn’t that feel great?

You can then either repeat or swim some easy lengths, enjoying the feeling of the stroke coming together.

As you progress week by week the peak of your pyramids can get longer.

  • Mike Porteous runs coaching company ZigZag Alive and is a Swim Teacher for children with disabilities through the charity Level Water.


Mike Porteous