Is it possible to get good at swimming late in life? Yes. (Photo: Shutterhack)
Swimming has always scared the hell out of me.
Despite national titles in other sports, I’ve always fought to keep afloat. This inability to swim well has always been one of my greatest insecurities and embarrassments.
I’ve tried to learn to swim almost a dozen times, and each time, my heart jumps to 180+ beats-per-minute after one or two pool lengths. It’s indescribably exhausting and unpleasant.
In the span of less than 10 days, I’ve gone from a 2-length (2 x 20 yards/18.39 meters) maximum to swimming more than 40 lengths per workout in sets of 2 and 4. Here’s how I did it after everything else failed, and how you can do the same…
At the end of January, a kiwi friend issued a New Year’s resolution challenge: he would go all of 2008 without coffee or stimulants if I trained and finished an open-water 1-kilometer race in 2008. I agreed.
He had grown up a competitive swimmer and convinced me that — unlike my other self-destructive habits masquerading as exercise (no-gi BJJ, etc.) — it was a life skill and a pleasure I needed to share with my future children. In other words: of all the potential skills you could learn, swimming was one of the most fundamental.
So why is this post only coming out now, eight months later? Because I tried everything, read the “best” books, and still failed.
Kick boards? Tried them. I barely moved at all and — as someone who is usually good at most sports — felt humiliated and left.
Hand paddles? Tried them. My shoulders will never forgive me. Isn’t swimming supposed to be low-impact? Strike two.
It continued for months until I was prepared to concede defeat. Then I met Chris Sacca, formerly of Google fame and now an investor and triathlete in training, at a BBQ and told him of my plight. Before I had a chance to finish, he cut me off:
“I have the answer to your prayers. It revolutionized how I swim.”
That got my attention.
In the first workout — I’ve never had a coach or supervision — I cut my drag and water resistance at least 50%, swimming more laps than ever before in my life. By the fourth workout, I had gone from 25+ strokes per 20-yard length to an average of 11 strokes per 20-yard length. Unbelievable.
In other words, I was covering more than twice the distance with the same number of strokes, with less than 1/2 the effort, and with no panic or stress. In fact, I felt better after leaving the pool than before getting in. I couldn’t — and still can’t — believe it.
Here are my notes from the Total Immersion book, which I would recommend reading after watching the Freestyle Made Easy DVD, as the drills are near-impossible to understand otherwise. I was actually unable to do the exercises from pages 110 – 150 (I cannot float horizontally and have a weak kick) and became frustrated until the DVD enabled me to attempt technique with propulsion. The theories and explanation after the DVD, however, will change how you view all of it:
My Top 8 Tips for Novices
Here are the principles that made the biggest difference for me:
1) To propel yourself forward with the least effort, focus on shoulder roll and keeping your body horizontal (least resistance), not pulling with your arms or kicking with your legs. This is counter-intuitive but important, as kicking harder is the most universal suggestion for fixing swimming issues.
2) Keep yourself horizontal by keeping your head in line with your spine — you should be looking straight down. Use the same head position as while walking and drive your arm underwater vs. swimming on the surface. See Shinji Takeuchi’s underwater shots at :49 seconds at and Natalie Coughlin’s explanation at :26 seconds. Notice how little Shinji uses his legs; the small flick serves only to help him turn his hips and drive his next arm forward. This is the technique that allows me to conserve so much energy.
A good demonstration of a TI crawl.
3. In line with the above video of Shinji, think of swimming freestyle as swimming on alternating sides, not on your stomach. From the TI Wikipedia page:
“Actively streamline” the body throughout the stroke cycle through a focus on rhythmically alternating “streamlined right side” and “streamlined left side” positions and consciously keeping the bodyline longer and sleeker than is typical for human swimmers.
For those who have rock climbed or done bouldering, it’s just like moving your hip closer to a wall to get more extension. To test this: stand chest to a wall and reach as high as you can with your right arm. Then turn your right hip so it’s touching the wall and reach again with your right arm: you’ll gain 3-6″. Lengthen your vessel and you travel further on each stroke. It adds up fast.
4. Penetrate the water with your fingers angled down and fully extend your arm well beneath your head. Extend it lower and further than you think you should. This downward water pressure on the arms will bring your legs up and decrease drag. It will almost feel like you’re swimming downhill. I highly recommend watching the “Hand Position and Your Balance” video at the top of this page here.
5. Focus on increasing stroke length (SL) instead of stroke rate (SR). Attempt to glide further on each downstroke and decrease the number of strokes per lap.
6. Forget about workouts and focus on “practice.” You are training your nervous system to perform counter-intuitive movements well, not training your aerobic system. If you feel strained, you’re not using the proper technique. Stop and review rather than persist through the pain and develop bad habits.
7. Stretch your extended arm and turn your body (not just head) to breathe. Some triathletes will even turn almost to their backs and face skyward to avoid short gasps and oxygen debt (tip from Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman world champion).
8. Experiment with hand swapping as a drill:
It’s difficult to remember all of the mechanical details while swimming. I short-circuited trying to follow half a dozen rules at once. The single drill that forced me to do most other things correctly is described on pg. 91-92 of the TI book: hand swapping. Coach Laughlin’s observations of the Russian Olympic team practice were a revelation to me.
This is the visualization I found most useful: focus on keeping your lead arm fully extended until your other arm comes over and penetrates the water around the extended arm’s forearm. This encourages you to swim on your sides, extends your stroke length, and forces you to engage in what is referred to as “front quadrant” swimming. All good things. This one exercise cut an additional 3-4 strokes off each lap of freestyle.
Gear and Getting Started
Ready to give it a shot? If you have a phobia of swimming or just want to feel the difference a few counter-intuitive techniques make, here are some starter tips:
1. Gents, don’t swim in board shorts. I tried this in Brazil and didn’t realize it’s like swimming with a parachute behind you. Terrible. Get some Euro-style Speedos and streamline. Be cool on the beach and opt for efficiency in the water.
2. Get good goggles. I am now using Speedo Vanquisher goggles, which I find effective if you use a latex swim cap to keep the straps in place. I need to tighten the nose bridge straps every 100-125 meters or so to prevent chlorinated water from blinding me, and leakage with all three goggles I tested seem to be due to eye pieces spread too far apart. I’ll be experimenting with the much-acclaimed Aqua Sphere Kaiman swim goggles, which are simple to adjust and tighten without removing them from your head.
3. Start practicing in a pool that is short and shallow. Use a lane in the shallow end (4 ft. or less) and opt for a pool that is no longer than 20 yards. I’ve since progressed to 25 yards but found focusing on technique easier with shorter pools. Since I’ve adapted to 25 yards, I plan to move to an Olympic-sized 50-meter pool once I can do 10 x 100 yards with 30-45 seconds of rest between sets.
To Finish Up…
I never ever thought I’d say this but: I love swimming.
I’ll swim for two hours and sneak out to get in an extra session a few hours later. I still can’t believe it.
I encourage all of you — whether you want to overcome your fears or win the Ironman — to give TI training a test drive. It’s the first instruction that’s made sense to me and is 100% responsible for the fastest transformative experience I’ve ever had in the world of sports. Just incredible.
Now, if I can just get from 100-yard sets to 1 kilometer 🙂
[Postscript: The creator of TI himself, Terry Laughlin, has left additional tips and observations in the comments.]
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.