Even for the fittest of athletes, learning to swim as an adult can be a challenge. For example, Xavier Watson is extremely fit by most accounts.
A competitive runner with a 4:57 mile to his name, he has completed numerous half marathons and other road races, often placing high in the rankings.
He is a black belt in karate, and works out seven days a week.
But when 40-year-old Watson took up swimming with the goal of competing in triathlons, she felt her fitness was failing her.
“I wanted to go across the pool and was barely able to catch my breath,” he recalls. “I’ll inhale water, get bored, and leave for the rest of the day.”
Watson is not alone. According to a recent survey by the American Red Cross, more than half of all Americans either cannot swim or lack all basic swimming skills.
And of the adults surveyed, only two percent expressed interest in taking lessons. After all, learning to swim as an adult is not only physically challenging, it can also be intimidating.
Can adults learn to swim easily?
For many non-swimmers, fear and anxiety about drowning are major barriers to getting in the pool. “I always felt like I was going to black out and drown,” Watson shared. “It’s hard to shake the fear of drowning.”
But learning to swim as an adult is not impossible. Now a year into her swimming journey, Watson is feeling much more comfortable in the pool.
“As challenging as anything, it took a lot of patience and time,” he explains. “I still have a goal of competing in a sprint triathlon at the end of the summer.”
Learn how to be comfortable in the water
Learning to swim starts with telling yourself first able to – And be willing to accept that it will probably be a rough ride at first.
It’s perfectly normal to have anxiety about swimming – there are real dangers to being in the water and not knowing how to stay afloat.
But worrying about drowning can be something that interferes with your stroke and can make swimming seem harder than expected.
When you’re uncomfortable and tense in the water, you use more energy than necessary, which can be tiring.
Is this a way to get past the anxiety of learning new skills?
Take time to calm your nerves well before getting in the water, says Raquel Torres, a USAT Triathlon Level 1 coach and elite triathlete who competes professionally for the Dominican Republic.
“Spend five minutes before getting in the water imagining the experience,” she says. “Think about every detail: your stroke, your breath, your kick.”
He recommends practicing how you react to unknown factors, such as being tired or afraid of water. “This mental exercise will help align your mind and body and boost your confidence.”
Learning to Swim: How to Get Started
Once you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s time to conquer the physical obstacles. While some adults are able to learn to swim with YouTube videos and how-to manuals, most experts agree that regular lessons with a certified instructor are the key to learning efficient, accurate strokes.
Adult swimming lessons are available almost anywhere (find options near you at your local YMCA or USA Swimming Foundation).
Specialist swim schools such as British Swim School and SwimLab are also springing up around the country, focusing particularly on small group or one-to-one instruction, often providing more in-depth analysis such as video feedback technology, which allows you to study your lessons. Stroke to improve your form and adjust your technique.
How long does it take for adults to learn to swim?
How long it takes to learn the basics of swimming depends on the individual — some people are comfortable swimming after a few months while others may take longer.
As with learning any new skill, consistency is the key to not only becoming more proficient and confident in the water, but also to overcoming your fear of swimming.
“Anxiety usually comes from a lack of familiarity,” says longtime swim coach Gary Rodriguez, founder of Tower26 Swim Team in Los Angeles. “So make a plan and execute it frequently. Once you do it enough times, you’ll be less afraid and a lot more confident in the water.”
Swimming Drills for Beginners
Once you understand the basics of swimming, you can start refining your stroke. Incorporating swim drills into your workout can help you improve your form and stroke and target specific problem areas.
“Working on drills isn’t always the most fun thing to do, but they’re essential to your swimming economy,” says Dominic Latella, co-owner and head coach at Swimbox in Fairfax, Virginia. “A well-designed machine has no unnecessary parts or movements.” Swimming drills can help you work through any issues that may be holding you back or slowing you down.
Here are a few drills to try:
1. Kick the toy soldier
- Face the wall of the pool and grab it with both hands.
- Push your body into a prone position and slowly start doing flutter kicks.
- Keep your knees and ankles strong to eliminate as much bend in your knees as possible.
- Keep your feet close to the surface as you kick with straight legs.
Goal: Locking your knees forces you to kick from your glutes and your hamstrings, increasing hip stability, balance and strength.
Pro tip: When you kick, remember to engage your core. Think of drawing your belly button into your spine to tighten your abs.
- This is an exaggerated freestyle stroke. When you perform big, open strokes, point your fingers straight up toward the ceiling as you lift your arm out of the water.
- Let your chest, hips and legs roll from side to side.
- Once your arm is forward as it passes over your shoulder, rotate your arm downward for optimal position as you return it to the water, bringing your other arm out of the water to continue this alternate swimming stroke.
Goal: The big windmill stroke helps rotate your body 90 degrees, which works on body rotation and core control.
Pro tip: Keep your head and neck still. Your chest, hips, and legs will roll from side to side with each stroke, but your face should be firmly fixed looking down at the bottom of the pool.
3. Pull the fingertip
- Start with freestyle swimming.
- Each time you bring your hand forward to start the stroke, instead of pulling your hand out of the water, drag your fingertips along the top of the water.
Goal: An exaggerated drag on your fingertips along the surface of the water encourages efficient recovery and sets you up for an optimal stroke.
Pro tip: Think of your elbows pointing toward the sky, so that your fingers point toward the water.
Pack your swimming starter kit
Packed up for the pool? Make sure you have these essentials in your bag!
1. Competition Swimwear
Even if you don’t plan to swim a race in your life, you’ll still want to look the part.
Snug-fitting, supportive swimwear (check out brands like Speedo and TYR) will keep you comfortable in the water — and you won’t be distracted by loose waistbands and slipping straps.
And don’t worry—this doesn’t mean you have to wear a skimpy swimsuit. There are many more decent options for looking like biking shorts instead of briefs!
2. Quality swimming goggles
Go ahead, splurge on the goggles.
You may be tempted by the price tag of cheap glasses, but a quality pair will prove to be a better investment as they are less likely to break, scratch or leak.
The Speedo Vanquisher 2.0 is a favorite among many swimmers with a reasonable price point.
Many pools have plenty of kickboards lying around, but if you don’t have one, you’ll want to pick up this essential gear.
A kickboard is especially key for beginner swimmers — it can help you stay stable and balanced in the water while you practice your kicks.
4. Chlorine-removing shampoos, conditioners, and soaps
This one is not completely necessary for real swimming It’s part of learning how to swim, but it can help make your time in (and out) of the pool more enjoyable.
To protect your hair from smelling or being damaged by chlorine, choose a special shampoo.
Try this chlorine-shampoo, or SBR Sports Inc. for more products for your hair and body. Browse.