The many people who learned how to swim as a child probably don't think of themselves as "beginners," but when you decide to get in the pool for some serious fitness, it's a fact everyone must accept. Swimming is more than just staying afloat or getting from one end of the pool to the other. Pursuing it seriously, either to improve your health or because you want to compete on some level, means acknowledging the more technical aspects of the sport. Michael Phelps didn't win the most gold medals in history by just "winging it," after all. It took years of hard work and training!
Just like with any other sport, be it running, cycling, or some other type of fitness activity, it's easy to make mistakes when you're just beginning. Sometimes, these mistakes can become the unfortunate foundation for bad habits that plague your exercise efforts for some time to come. Other times, they could push you towards quitting the sport or even risking an injury. To help you skirt around these pitfalls and pursue a swimming regimen that's fun and rewarding, let's take a quick look at some of the most common problems everyone experiences at some point. When you know what to watch for, you can make corrections that much sooner.
You aren't timing your breathing appropriately
Perhaps one of the most challenging mistakes to avoid as a beginning swimmer is also one of the most basic: you aren't breathing correctly. You could mistime the moment of a breath during the freestyle stroke, or you could end up holding your breath altogether. Just because you're in the water doesn't mean you're going to drown, though, so there's no need to keep all that air pent up in your lungs. Instead, you need to focus on developing a regular, consistent breathing rhythm which varies from stroke to stroke, so it can help to practice out of the pool. Spend time developing a better sense of your lung capacity. Know when and how often you need to breathe to maintain your momentum. With practice, it becomes second nature.
Your equipment is a hindrance more than a help
You don't need a lot to get started with swimming, but you do need a good swimsuit and, usually, a good pair of goggles as well. If you grabbed the swim trunks you use for surfing and a pair of goggles off the rack at a convenience store, you're not going to swim anywhere close to your peak ability. Beginners often mistake simple equipment requirements to mean that it doesn't matter what you use. That's not true. Goggles that don't form a good seal, for example, will leave you blinded or fighting against water leaking into your line of sight. Inappropriate swimwear can cause too much drag in the water, slowing you down. Don't make this rookie mistake! Take care when choosing the gear you use in the pool.
You're holding your head too far out of the water
Good form is fundamental to swimming success, but it is also one of the most common stumbling blocks for beginners and even some advanced swimmers. Finding the right position for your body in the water is hard, and harder still is learning how to end up in that space by default. For those just starting out, it is a common mistake to keep your head too far above the water line, which has a twofold adverse effect on your abilities. First, it will fatigue your neck and back tremendously, wasting energy you could use to swim. Second, you will slow down, again due to the increased drag through the water. Ideally, you want to stay almost level with the water line, raising your head only to breathe.
Bending your knees becomes a bad habit
When swimming forward, especially in the front crawl, beginners tend to believe that all their speed comes from the kick. On the surface, it makes sense — ships move due to the propulsion from the rear, and you can often feel the tremendous amount of resistance you push against as you kick. In reality, your arms do most of the work and are primarily responsible for your velocity. With that in mind, it is essential to make your kicks as efficient as possible. Your instinct will be to bend your legs at the knee during each kick, because it "feels" stronger. Work to disabuse yourself of this idea by keeping your legs almost perfectly straight through the kick. You only need a small amount of flex to be effective.
The timing of your strokes is easy to disrupt
Most of us hit the pool in search of better fitness with our original understanding of swim mechanics stemming from classes we took as children. As a result, while you may have a decent sense of what each stroke looks and feels like, you may not understand how to execute them the proper way. As a result, your stroke cadence is easy to disrupt. When you begin to overthink about how short or long your strokes are, it's all too easy to get wrapped up in your head. All this is a recipe for wasting energy and missing out on gains. Use a training partner or count your strokes while also trying to complete smooth, full movements before you start your next stroke.
Failing to use your whole body to swim
Imagine the position of your navel while you swim a lap across the pool. Draw an imaginary line from it down to the pool bottom. Does it stay in roughly the same direction the entire time? If it does, you're not swimming as efficiently as you could be; in fact, you're doing something called "swimming flat," which means you're making it harder to enter and exit your strokes overall. Your imaginary line should move from side to side as you swim. In other words, your body rotates slightly to allow you to move your arm into the motion of the stroke naturally. Check out some videos on YouTube of pro swimmers, especially from underwater cameras, to see how their bodies move in the water.
Pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion in the water
Practice makes perfect, and the only way to build up your body is through repeated exercise sessions. There is a limit to how much you can improve at one time, though, and beginners must be wary not to overexert themselves. It is just as easy to end up exhausted and sick from swimming as it is from running. Create goals for yourself, but be realistic about the time it will take to achieve them. As you practice, recognise the times when you begin to feel tired. Push a little way beyond that point, then stop. As you go forward with training, you'll find that point of exhaustion gets further and further away. Just be patient!
Too much focus only on completing laps
Swim practice doesn't mean just swimming laps. If that's all you focus on, you'll both feel disappointed by the results and frustrated by the boredom. Instead, mix and match your workouts to develop a whole-body regimen. Spend some days practising kicks before you swim laps, while spending others working on breath control or stroke form. If all you do is race the clock, you'll burn out before you ever pass out of the "beginner" phase to become an intermediate swimmer. Variety is not just the spice of life, but of the world of working out, too.
When the swimming gets tough, keep going
Successfully navigating the pool is more difficult than it looks. Watching more advanced swimmers, it can sometimes feel as though you'll never quite reach their level. What's important, though, is sticking with your routine and focusing on ironing out the kinks in your form. Why not ask some of the other swimmers you encounter in the pool to help you correct the problems you might face? Even knowing the right way to do things isn't a guarantee that you'll nail every stroke without a problem. When you do fall into one of the most common traps for beginners in the pool, don't get discouraged! Instead, remember that we often learn more from our mistakes than we do from successes, and incorporate those lessons into your next session.
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