Three Epiphanies I Needed Before I Could Learn How to Swim

On a logical level, going to a public pool to get adult swimming lessons made perfect sense for me–I was 50, after all—I felt a need to better engage with my kids (who had grown up in the water), to finally learn something I should have learned as a kid, and perhaps even to reinvent myself as a triathlete one day. Yet emotionally, even just to book these lessons, I had to dig deep to overcome my chronic feelings of shame and embarrassment, now coupled with a new risk of publicly exposing myself as an inadequate swimmer on a pool deck.

When our instructor asked us to get into the shallow end of the pool, it became quickly apparent I was already in the top half of the class — I, at least, had no trouble getting into 4 feet of water in a swimming pool, but several of my new classmates had clear hesitations doing even that. Somehow that knowledge seemed to relax me — there were others worse off than me!

Our instructor asked us who could swim 25m of the pool and then back without stopping. Although I succeeded in swimming one length, I was gasping by the end and had to swim a modified back stroke to get back to the starting point. An inglorious start to my new swim program, but there were only two others in the group who could do the same thing … we were already the “stars” of the class, though that wasn’t saying much! Our collective baselines, at least, were now clearly established, and I had nothing left to hide.

Our instructor spent the entire class building a sequence of breathing drills, primarily to get us first used to putting our faces in the water, and then exhaling in water, which requires more force than breathing in air.  These breathing exercises seemed, at first glance, to be somewhat boring, but they became integral to my understanding as to why I couldn’t swim–I had never gotten comfortable with exhaling in water for an extended period of time. With this drill came my first epiphany: swimming is the only sport where breathing matters–a lot; so much so, in fact, that getting comfortable with forcibly expiring in water was more important than learning the techniques of stroke production. With this first lesson, our instructor was getting us to see what would be my second epiphany: that to learn how to propel ourselves in water, we have to build your stroke around your steadily-maintained breathing rhythm, and not the other way around.

The breathing exercises were all simple enough—children are taught them routinely–they were a built-up sequence of baby steps, none of which needed strength or speed, or even looked like exercise. With practice, we all eventually got comfortable expiring in water. Within a few sessions, I was delighted when my 25 meter swimming limit became a 400m continuous swim, and all because my breathing, for the first time, remained under control while swimming easily. My third epiphany would continue to anchor all my future swimming: to be able to manage any effort level of a sustained swim, I needed to stay relaxed while swimming, focussing on complete expirations, so that my breathing rate and rhythm remains totally under control. Just like walking precedes running, swimming easily precedes swimming fast.  The difference is the need to remain conscious of good expirations and breath control in the water.

In a nutshell, to learn how to swim, you need to:

  1. Develop comfort with putting your face in water, and to expire in water.
  2. Develop and maintain sustained breathing patterns with all expirations in water.
  3. Keep your expirations complete, forceful, and variable, depending on your level of effort.
  4. Always prioritize your breathing control over your stroke mechanics for sustained swimming of any level of effort.

If you have want to learn how to swim, or have been learning how to swim as an adult, or can still recall the epiphanies you embraced when learning, what barriers have you been faced with, and how have you overcome them?  We would love to hear from you.  Enter your comments below.

Mark Fromberg

60-something open water swimmer, trail runner, gym rat, retired MD, writer, consumed with optimal health in retirement

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