To become a better swimmer, you need to gain Swim Fitness. Swim Fitness is earned on a few levels:
Endurance is the first point, since you probably thought of this first. No matter how great of shape you are in, if you do not have good Technique, you will feel like you are out of shape when you swim. (Not to mention, you might look like a grizzly bear. Don’t look like a grizzly bear! Look like a salmon! Wait, bad analogy.) To gain Endurance, you need to swim a lot. But swimming a lot will not
necessarily help you swim fast. If you do not have good Technique, you can have better overall fitness than all of the other swimmers and still be slower than all of them. So let’s come back to Endurance after we establish good Technique.
If you are new to swimming, you should be focusing on your Technique all of the time. When you first get into the water, your body doesn’t truly know what it should do to swim efficiently. After all, swimming is a complex, dynamic set of movements. Even if you did know where to place every part of your body at every moment of the swim stroke, it is possible that your body may not be able to get into that position if you have mobility issues. For example, as a former gym rat, my shoulders have always been very tight and I am constantly working on opening up their range of motion. There are many methods of doing this, but that is for another article.
Once you are able to get into the proper position and mobility is not your issue, then can safely put repetitive load in that position. When you work on your Technique, you are training your neuromuscular system how to perform the movement properly. You pick the total movement apart using drills to coordinate the intended movement with your actual movement. To really make that connection, you need to intersperse swimming with the drills. Maybe it looks like “Drill for 10 strokes – Swim for 10″ strokes”, or maybe it’s “Drill for 25 meters, Swim for 25 meters”; either way, you are constantly applying the drill to actual swimming and you are training your body proper Technique.
However, simply drilling and swimming isn’t enough to give you good Swim Fitness. You need to make sure you are doing the drills correctly. How do you do that? Well, you can film yourself and then compare that to YouTube videos, you can hire a coach to give you drills that will specifically help your issues, or you can join a beginner swimming class! It is no coincidence that the DFW Tri Club can help you with these second two options. In my personal swimming journey, I put in my time with private swim lessons and now I can comfortably go for a mile swim in the open water after taking several months off! (Unfortunately, I’ve done this twice in the last year.) Each lesson was an investment. I retained it all and those lessons have not left me. I’ve committed them to muscle memory, they are now apart of my Swim Fitness.
Guess what else happens when you work on your Technique? You magically gain Endurance. Yep, before you know it, you can swim 500 meters straight. And then 1000. And next thing you know, you just swam a mile and you have more energy left. All this time, your mind was tricked into working on the task at hand, Drill 25 here and there and magically you became a swimmer. Sure, some of this is due to your improved Technique reducing drag, making it easier to slip through the water, but there is also the part that your swim muscles are now ready to handle the load longer.
Well, the Mental side of this comes with gaining confidence by doing it regularly. When you start swimming, you are constantly adjusting and trying new things. You may find yourself uncomfortable at times, but if you trust the process, you will slowly become more comfortable. And actually, there may come a point when you embrace the discomfort. When you swim past your comfort zone, you are pushing the limits of your Swim Fitness. You know that you can recover from a hard set while still swimming at a recovery pace, as opposed to stopping to take a break.
Knowing alternate strokes can also help your race times if you find yourself needing a break. You can do back or breast stroke, both of which allow for more breathing and you still proceed forward toward the finish, rather than just stopping and treading water until you are ready to proceed again. When you have recovered and you are ready to proceed with freestyle, then you will have started at a position that is now 10, 20+ feet closer to the finish than if you just stopped in the middle of a race. When your race time is now a minute faster than it would have been if you stopped, you can interpret that as being more Swim Fit. Again, these strategies come with swimming more… but more importantly, swimming smart.
Don’t be intimidated by learning how to swim. Most adults do not know how to swim properly. Take it from me, a Californian who grew up at the beach and in pools! Let a coach guide you. It will be much more efficient that way. Your faster progress will reward you with greater enthusiasm toward mastery. As adults, it is hard to find new skills to master. Swimming is an excellent skill to master. It increases your breathing capacity, works a lot of different and often neglected muscle groups, and it is easy on your joints. Thus, it is one that you can do until you are very old, well beyond your running and cycling years. Come and boost your Swim Fitness with us soon at DFW Tri Club Masters or the Swim Basics class!