Why is it that so many strong, fit athletes find it so hard to learn to swim?
I'm in the process of writing an article about why experienced athletes who can run or bike fast and long distances can't go beyond 25, 50 or 100m without collapsing on the side of the pool completely out of breath. I've come across so many over the years who just wont even try any more or who struggle with it. I've recently been coaching an elite, record-holding ultra runner who has found the transition of learning to swim steady, continuous front crawl SO frustrating! It's taken nearly a year but we are finally getting to the point where she can do it. The 'journey' has been interesting for her and for me!
My hypothesis is that it is down to a combination of 5 or 6 factors the most significant of which are
breathing (specifically exhaling sufficiently),
anxiety due to lack of experience in the water,
sinking legs / bad body position due to runner's body composition,
stiff inflexible ankles causing unpropulsive kick
overall a sub-optimal technique causing the athlete to "fight the water"
perhaps also an "Arnie" mindset (a la Swimsmooth) which says I MUST be able to do this!
The article is coming together - I'll link it when completed but I'd be interested if any of you have experienced this as an athlete or a coach and what you think causes it.
Thank you Harry, some really helpful feedback there. I'd been going for the little and often approach so that's interesting to hear about your idea of using two long sessions to kick start it all. Like you say you are lucky to get some good blocks of time in the pool like that!
I definitely hadn't thought about the aquatic skills but this makes a huge amount of sense. I'm also a swim teacher / tri coach / run coach. I hadn't joined the dots to think about using some of the early stages swimming skills. I will definitely give that a go.
On the breathing - I have kept trying to ask her to equate the level of breathing to effort that she would do on a long run - i.e. to try to settle into an easy inhale and exhale but you could well be right, trying to gasp in too much air when not actually needed leading to hyperventilation. It's very counter-intuitive to a new, slightly nervous swimmer to not breathe too hard and relax but I'm sure that's a key skill.
We've been doing sink downs and push and glide with exhalation.
thanks again, lots to think about there.
I should add that she did manage to progress to cover a mile in the river late in the summer. With frequent stops to recover her breath and it was painfully slow, but finally swimming most of the last 4 - 600m without really stopping.
But back in the pool and it's still hard work getting beyond 50m. Maybe something to do with the fact that you have to / can stop at the end of each length but she is probably the most determined person I have ever met personally. So it's not a lack of ability to push through 'pain'. Her aim is a sprint tri next year and to complete the 2 mile Serpentine swim in the summer.
thanks again Harry, I've been using the phrase "use your whole body" on the fist drills - really like that!
Our tri club (Weald Tri) is taking the plunge and hiring the whole pool (instead of 2 lanes) from the new year. We're going to dedicate one lane to those wanting to learn to swim continuous front crawl or who would describe themselves as 'beginners'. We've had 11 club members sign up for the new "lane" in 2 days, these are triathletes who've never dared to join us for a club swim session previously so we've obviously touched a nerve.
I'm going to use some of your ideas about general aquatic skills and we're going to do some filming and asking them to sign up for a 6 week block. So we'll review progress and take it from there.
I've written up some of my thoughts into an article on my website if anyone's interested. It obviously varies from swimmer to swimmer the exact reasons why swimming consistently without stopping for 30 minutes is challenging compared to say running a parkrun.
Anyway cheers again and I'll let you know how we get on with our beginner lane.
i have been suffering the same issues as your pupils. I’m ok at run (completed a few marathons), ok at bike, but 25m swim had me gasping. Anxiety was definitely an issue - I loved being under water but being under with empty lungs was bad! I breathed out and sunk, then my daughter would stand on my back for a few seconds to heighten the panic sensation - this got less over a few weeks and helped.
I have very very slowly progressed to 2km without stopping. This has been a case of just doing the miles. I had some very good form coaching but even with this there was no ‘magic bullet’. Im at the point where I can almost open my mouth and enough air gets in rather than taking big gulps. I’ll be looking to speed up next (2k is taking me 56minutes!)..
itd be great to read your article Kevin.
Well, this has hit the nail on the head. It's my issue down to the ground. I'll definitely be trying these things out.
I tested my issue by holding my breath for two strokes on breast stroke. I concluded that I am waiting too long before taking a breath and then gasping for air. I suspect I have heavy legs as a cyclist too but will get someone to watch me to see what I may be doing. I need to know what I am really doing rather than guessing on a solution based on no knowledge.