« Health & Fitness

Adult Swim? 7 tips on learning to swim as an adult

by Andrew Gille

I read Tim Ferris’ “4 Hour Body” book in the spring of 2011.  Although I did really get myself into great shape during the summer and fall of 2011 with his “slow-carb” approach to dieting, the chapter that probably had the most profound effect on my life was “How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days.”

His story about hating swimming, about how it exhausted him and how he hated it and how the inability to swim embarrassed him really resonated with me.  It took me a heck of a lot longer than 10 days to learn to swim, but I can now do it in a manner that I guess I would say is “effortless.”  

It took me about 9 months to get to the point where I could do ten laps in a row without stopping.  Ferris recommends the Total Immersion swimming technique.  Purchasing the TI book, checking out the website and buying a few of the videos definitely helped me on my way to learning to swim effortlessly.  Here’s a pretty popular video that shows perfect TI form:

Here are a couple of the things I learned that might help you if you didn’t get much out of your swim lessons in childhood and now want to participate in a triathlon or just be able to swim laps as an alternative to plodding away on a treadmill for hours as a cardio workout.

1. Get some goggles - You’re going to have to get your face in the water if you ever want to learn to swim with any sort of efficiency.  The first step to being able to do this is to get a good pair of goggles.  Keeping water out of your eyes is essential to being more comfortable with your face in it.  Ferris recommends the Kaiman Aquasphere, which is also my goggle of choice.  If you swim at an indoor pool like I do, you’re going to need to replace these every couple months, the chlorine is going to deteriorate their ability to do their job and there is nothing more frustrating than swimming with leaky goggles.  The Total Immersion videos feature swimmers using a variety of goggles, it appears that the inventor of TI, Terry Laughlin prefers the AquaSphere Seal goggle since that’s what I always see him wearing in his videos.  This isn’t a commercial for AquaSphere though, Speedo, Dolfin and other companies make similar goggles and maybe one of them will work best for you.  You’ll want to make sure you get a pair that doesn’t hurt your face and put pressure on the bridge of your nose, but stays on when you dive into the water, which you’ll maybe eventually want to do.

2. Get your face in the water - One of the reasons I was so exhausted previously was that I was trying to swim with my face out of the water.  That puts you in a completely inefficient position where you have to fight hydrodynamics and your body and legs act like a giant underwater brake that you need to fight against.  Like I said above, you need to get your face in the water if you want to do effortless laps.  I guess if you’re satisfied with doing endless laps of backstroke you really don’t but I wasn’t and you’re going to seriously handicap yourself in a triathlon if you don’t learn to swim with your face in the water.  The first thing to remember is to always be breathing out when your face is under water.  I got used to this by doing a lot of bobs in the pool and even practicing blowing out in my bathtub at home!  Eventually, I did a push off drill like this exhaling as long as I could underwater.

The push-off after a turn is still one of my favorite parts of my lap swim.

3. Get in the pool as much as you can - I have to say this is actually somewhat of a challenge for an adult.  There are a lot of open swim times and opportunities for children to participate in swimming and learning to swim but, especially if you are a single guy in his mid-30’s it isn’t the easiest thing to find open lap lanes to practice.  I actually borrowed my nephew and 14 year old cousin and took them to the pool a few times so I didn’t feel weird about practicing at “Family Swim Night.”  You’ll never improve unless you continually get in the pool.  Once you’ve made some progress you need to go back and do it again and improve on that progress.  Once you finally get it, you’ll be able to be out of the pool for a month or two and jump right back in, but during the time you’re learning, you’re going to fall back unless you get in at a regular interval.  For me that was at least once a week.  If I skipped swimming for two weeks I’d go backwards in progress, once a week and I improved or at least stayed the same.  So scour the pool schedule for all of the open lap times you can and get in and get in the water.  I even signed up for lessons, just so I’d get more pool time which brings us to the next point.

Me after my first mile with no rest between laps!  

4. Sign up for lessons - Not only does this get you guaranteed time in a pool but you’ll see that you aren’t the only one who is trying to learn these things who isn’t also trying to learn how to write their name as well.  The worst part of adult swim lessons is actually signing up for the class.  I have to admit that I had a little shame telling the young lady behind the desk at the pool that I wanted swim lessons.  Well, she didn’t laugh at me or point at me saying, “You’re a man twice my age, what do YOU need swim lessons for?” like I expected.  She just signed me up and from there it was actually pretty awesome and beneficial to my progress.  Generally adult swim lessons have people at a variety of levels all mixed together, you might have someone who can do no more than get in the shallow end along with someone looking to streamline their technique for their next Iron Man.  Instructors usually focus their attention on those with the least experience or the most questions so if you come with a set of drills in mind already, you’re going to probably get an hour of uninterrupted pool time to get your practice done.  You get out of adult swim lessons what you put into them.  Working with someone who knows more about something you’re trying to learn is always going to help you so get the advice and get your questions answered, so have the instructors look at what you’re doing and take their advice on how to improve, then practice more outside of the lessons.  I’ve seen people in my adult swim lessons go from being awkward head up swimmers to practically human-dolphins and I’ve seen people who basically just wasted an hour of their free time after work for six weeks in a row, it all depends on what you take from the swim lesson and put into it outside of the lessons on your own.  

5. Use all the equipment at your disposal - One area I disagree with TI inventor Terry Laughlin on is the use of pool equipment such as pool bouys, flippers, snorkels and kickboards in the development of your swimming skills.  At one point or another I used all of this pool equipment and I think without it It would have taken even longer for me to be swimming effortless laps.  I used a FINIS “swimmers snorkel” to eliminate the apprehension I had about breathing and concentrate on the rest of my form at first.  I also used fins when learning the dolphin kick and I really think it helped me get down the movement I needed to be doing.  One of the most valuable pieces of equipment to my own development was the pool buoy.  My kick is terrible due to a rather common problem a lot of people have who learn to swim when they are older, their ankles aren’t very flexible and this inhibits their kick.  By taking the kick out of the equation, the buoy helped me put the finishing touches on my breathing and when it was time to graduate to bilateral breathing, the buoy helped me there as well.  At first I could only breathe properly with the pool buoy but as I got more and more comfortable with the buoy, I was eventually able to do 10 laps with the buoy, then five laps without, then 10 laps with and 10 laps without, then 10 laps without, and 10 laps with then 20 laps without, now I rarely use it anymore.  I think Laughlin has a point that you don’t want to become reliant on pool “toys” in your swimming but if you have discipline and make sure you use them only as a stepping stone to better swimming I think they are an invaluable resource to learning to swim.  

My flip turn off the wall

6. Don’t give up - This may sound cliche, but learning to swim when you’re older really requires that you have a real desire to be able to reach your goal.  It takes a lot of work and there may be times when you think you’ll never get it.  You just need to continue and at least keep your abilities from deteriorating.  Tim Ferris is clearly a much more extraordinary human being than I am in that it took him only 10 days to learn what took me probably 10 or 11 months.  To achieve the level I’m at seemed like it took forever.  For a while I just swam length by length, I remember the first time I swam a mile, it took me an hour and a half.  I swam length by length with at least minute rests in between each length.  Now I can swim two miles without any rests in between lengths or laps.  I still have a lot to learn, I’m really slow and it takes me about 35 minutes to swim a mile or 36 laps right now.  Competitive swimmers can do this easily in the low 20’s, so there is a lot of improvements I obviously could make to improve my technique.

7. Get the right suit for the job - One last bit of advice, especially for men is to forget whatever modesty you have and get a form fitting swimsuit.  Women already have to deal with the fact that their swimsuit shows every curve and bulge of their body.  If you want to effectively and efficiently swim men have to get the same kind of suit.  This doesn’t mean you need to buy a pair of tiny Speedo briefs and strut around shamelessly.  A pair of Speedo jammers covers as much as a pair of compression shorts and will cause you infinitely less problems with drag.  Save your swim trunks for water skiing and your rich brother-in-law’s backyard pool bar-b-cues.  When you’re learning to swim laps or swimming as a part of your cardio workout, wear a form fitting suit that doesn’t act as a hydrodynamic drag as an underwater parachute.  One last word on suits, if you’re going to swim in a chlorinated pool, you’re going to want to get a polyester swimsuit.  Until I learned this valuable lesson I was buying a new nylon/lycra and swimsuit every two to three months.  I purchased a TVR Durafast Polyester swimsuit about a year ago and although all of the threading has been bleached whiter than my dentist’s wife’s teeth, the suit is still basically the same color as when I bought it and hasn’t disintegrated like a nylon/lycra suit tends to do after heavy usage in a chlorinated pool.

Those are a few of the things I learned on my way to making swimming an effective part of my fitness routine.  If you stick with it and have the desire to learn, you can go from being a splashy aqua-phobe like I was to a near mer-man or maid, which I certainly am not...yet.  Swimming is a great no-impact workout and a lot more fun than the eliptical or treadmill in my opinion.  Plus you open up a whole new way to have fun, have a goal to work towards and meet people by giving yourself the skills you need to enter triathlons.  I don’t imagine that I’ll be able to pound my knees and back on a treadmill into my 80’s and 90’s but I’m pretty sure I’ll still be able to get my laps in at the pool, I might be even faster and more efficient by then!