Wish you could swim better? From learning how to breathe while swimming to building stamina in the pool, these swim coach-backed tips will get you swimming stronger in no time.
If you’re anything like me, your average pool session will go a little like this: everything feels easy, calm, doable… until you reach the end of your second length. From then on, your arms feel as if they’re weighted down by bricks, every breath is an effort and your goal of 40 lengths suddenly feels like a mammoth task.
I’m no competition-level swimmer, but I’m OK. However regularly I go to the pool, though, swimming a kilometre feels hard; all I want to do is improve my stamina enough to make it a less exhausting experience.
Luckily, I’ve found a bunch of experienced swim coaches who are willing to share their top swimming hacks for transforming the average swimmer into a human fish.
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Don’t be afraid to put your head under water
“Many adults who were never formally taught or are learning to swim at a later age are a little aquaphobic – not exactly scared of being in the water but nervous about putting their head below the surface when swimming,” explains Daniel Hancock, swimming teacher and coach for Better, which runs almost 140,000 swimming lessons for children and adults across the UK every week.
“If your head is positioned above the water all the time, it actually makes any stroke feel harder. Keeping your head constantly elevated when doing breaststroke will strain your neck and lower back over time, and doing front crawl without putting your head underwater can be completely exhausting.”
If you’re not used to swimming with your face submerged, start small. Wear goggles and aim to either swim with your face level to the water (so, if you’re doing breast stroke, your mouth is water-level), or aim to dip your face two or three times per length, and then build up time under water.
Nail your body positioning
Performance swim coach Harley Hicks, who taught a group of non-swimmers to complete a one mile open water swim as part of an Olympic legacy programme, agrees that positioning your head and body correctly is key to comfortable swimming.
“Think of Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If your head is too high, your legs will start to sink and vice versa. Even when lifting your head to breathe, you should try to limit how high you lift up from the water surface.”
He also recommends stretching your arms into each stroke as far as possible, going slow and steady if necessary. “Aim for long, composed strokes as opposed to short, fast and snappy ones.”
Try to control your breathing while swimming
“In the pool, adults will, often instinctively, hold their breath,” says Hancock. “You wouldn’t hold your breath while running, so why do it when you’re swimming?”
He suggests practising something taught to child learners – standing in the water and submerging your face to blow bubbles. “Once you’re comfortable with that, start breathing out underwater and in again at the surface. Then begin timing those breaths with your stroke.
“Slow your speed if you need to, in order to exhale fully underwater to clear the lungs, before coming up for the next intake of air. Short breaths can lead to hyperventilating, which will tire you quicker.”
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Calm down the kicking – your front crawl power comes mainly from the arms
If you believe your kicks should push you forward, it’s time to think again. Hicks explains: “When swimming front crawl, around 85% of your propulsion should come from your arms.
“However, many swimmers mix this up and put the effort into their legs. This leads to an inefficient stroke and some very exhausted lungs at the end of a length.”
Build strength and stamina as you progress
Once you’re feeling more comfortable in the water, you can start building up your strength and stamina to ensure your swimming remains effortless.
Hicks suggests a simple ‘mini set’ to try on your next pool session. “Give yourself one minute to swim a 25m length, including rest time before you set off again. Repeat that 16 times to complete a 400m beginner set. This can be tailored to your ability and progressed at your own pace, but every time you go to the pool make it 1% harder. You will see progress!”
Eat a snack before your swim – but leave plenty of time between swimming and main meals
Who remembers being told as a child on holiday, that you couldn’t jump straight into the sea after lunch? Well, this might not be strictly accurate after all.
Numerous studies and scientific reviews have struggled to find any evidence suggesting that swimmers should restrict food intake before getting in the water – so don’t be afraid to have a snack before a swim if you’re feeling lethargic.
But as with any exercise, Hicks advises against consuming a heavy meal before swimming, instead recommending small amounts of carbs, such as oats or pasta, pre-swim for energy.
Post-swim you should eat as you would after any endurance activity: carbs to replenish your energy levels and protein to the repair the muscles.
Listen to music via underwater headphones
Once you’ve mastered the physical side, the key to an easy and effortless swim is psychological. There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that exercise feels easier when music is in the mix. A study by Brunel University found that listening to music during exercise enhanced endurance by 15% and increased feelings of positivity.
“For me, listening to music while swimming is vital if I want to achieve an intense workout without distractions,” says Hancock. “Time in the pool is a much needed period of exercise, but also a ‘brain break’ for me during a busy schedule. Music allows me to feel the pace of my swim that much better.”
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Thanks to waterproof headphones (make sure they are labelled at least IPX7, preferably IPX8 for the best pool-proof sets), you can immerse yourself in sound and water, simultaneously. I tested a fancy pair of Jukes Pro Training System headphones on my swim, but you can get some really good budget-friendly options for around £30.
Once I’d grappled with securing it to my head via my goggle straps (swim cap wearers will find this part easier), it was quite a novel and lovely experience to listen to crystal clear music underwater. Just like when running to my favourite playlists, I genuinely felt like I was powering through the water with ease and the laps flew by.
Because swimming can be as fast or slow as you wish, and as chilled or aerobic as you need, a whole library of genres and tempos can create the right mood music for your swim. Metronomy’s album The English Riviera provided some suitably coastal vibes for my swim, but you could also try a retro swim to the Beach Boys, a highbrow swim to Handle’s Water Music, a playlist full of Frank Ocean, Wet Leg, Sea Power, The Waterboys… (OK, no more swim-based puns).
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