Sink or Swim - Learning to swim in a week

I would describe my ability to swim as more of an ability to not drown on holiday.  I’m comfortable in the water but I can’t cover any distance.  I can swim for survival but not for sport, which has always bugged me.  It’s hard for an adult to learn, you can’t just go to the local pool because what do you do when you get there?  How do you even start?  There is pretty much nowhere that offers adult lessons, there are plenty of swimming coaches, but they seem to only train people who already swim to be better at swimming.  I don’t want to do a triathlon just get a few lengths in.  I’ve just spent a week in France on a family holiday.  The house we were in had a pool, so I set myself the challenge of learning to swim in a week. 

Firstly though, I’ve got two confessions.  One, I did used to be able to swim, I just haven’t done it for 30 years!  I grew up for a bit in South Africa and our house had a pool.  This sounds very posh, but the house came with my Dad’s job and a pool was pretty standard around white Johannesburg.  When I was 4 and my sister was about 2, we escaped our parents and found our way to the pool.  My sister fell in and nearly drowned.  One of my earliest memories is of reaching out to her with a net while my Mum appeared out of nowhere and plunged in to drag her out.  After that we went to swimming lessons every week and up until the age of about nine, I swam every day.  We moved back to the U.K, I stopped swimming and haven’t swam since. 

My second confession is that we’ve been on holiday with family and some friends, one of these friends is a serious, lifelong triathlon veteran and in recent years has been the World and European Champion in the 70 – 74 age categories.  So, I did have some help!   

My plan to practice every day failed on day one when I woke up and just couldn’t be arsed.  If you tried to get 2 kids under 3 and all the bags that come with that on a plane, you probably couldn’t be arsed to swim either!  I started on the Monday and I needed to set a baseline to see where I was at.  Jump in and have a go.  I managed a total of 8 meters.  This was when my breath ran out and I didn’t know how to get more air.  First things first, learn how to breathe!  I did three 40-minute sessions on day one, all of which were taken up by the whole breathing thing.  By end of play Monday, I could breathe on one side and cover a whole, very scruffy, 16.6 metre length. 

Day two.  Learning to breathe on alternate sides.  It is really hard, when you can’t swim, to breathe out under water.  It feels like the complete opposite of what you should be doing, and I really had to force my self to let the air go.  There’s not enough time to breathe out and in all at once so this was a skill to be mastered.  By the end of Tuesday, I was breathing alternately, every third stroke and was up to 30 metres.   

I won’t bore anyone with a day to day swimming diary but once this was in play I could work on my body position in the water, the length and timing of my stroke, my head movement when breathing and try to work out what the hell to do with my legs!  I always thought that your legs propelled you through the water like a dolphin and your arms were just chipping in a bit.  Turns out it’s pretty much the opposite!  Once I stopped thrashing and kicking like a maniac and concentrated on what my arms were doing, it started to make a lot more sense.  As a side note, if your learning and struggling with legs and general body position, I can highly recommend a Toy Story arm band between the knees! 

I set myself the goal of 100 metres by the end of the holiday and although I didn’t make it, I did manage 50 which I’m over the bloody moon with!  From 0 meters on day one to 50 metres only five days later!  I practiced 3 times every day for around 30 to 40 minutes.  The best advice I got was to just stop if things started to get a bit rubbish, that way, as a complete beginner, I wasn’t drilling poor movement patterns.  If it starts falling apart then stop, head back to the start, have a rest and go again.  I also ended every practice on a high note.  So, towards the end I’d start trying to put things together and once I got a decent length in, I would call it a day.  I never left the pool frustrated and this really helped keep me motivated/obsessed.  I think these would be great tips in any sport, any gym work, any area of life when applying new skills. 

So, why did I bother and what did I learn from it? 

I wanted to learn to swim partly because it’s a bit odd to not be able to, plus although I can’t remember it, it sounds like I used to be pretty good.  Also, I’ve got kids and what use is a Daddy that can’t swim!  I want to be able to help them in the pool, I want to be able to play in the pool and I want to be able to keep them safe in the pool.  The best way to keep children safe around water to teach them to swim and both of mine will go to lessons, but the only way I’m losing to one of them in a race is if I let them win, not because I’m a shitty swimmer! 

There are certain movements I perform all the time and as an adult you don’t often find yourself in a position to learn new ones.  Even if I’m not training much, I can put weight on a barbell and move it around safely.  I can put my running shoes on anytime and just head out.  I can hop on a bike and cover enough miles to get a sweat on.  These are all movements that have been drilled and repeated over time, but I can’t remember the last time I focused on something completely new.  Even yoga can be a bit of a variation on a theme if you go to enough classes.  So how can I consider myself part of the movement culture if I don’t explore?  Can I still call myself a mover if I can’t do a basic movement like swimming? 

A factor of general movement is using different muscles in different ways.  New muscles in new ways.  Connecting your brain to a muscle that has done the same thing for years and trying to fire up that connection to get it to do something different.  I love this process!  The first time you call upon muscles in a new movement they don’t always respond but keep calling and keep practicing and they start to kick in. Suddenly your body is capable of something that it wasn’t at the start of the day.  It makes me feel a little bit more alive and it inspires me to keep moving.  To keep learning. 

The other key component of swimming is the breath.  Learning when to hold and when to let go.  Learning not to overreach for a mouthful of air and just to trust the process.  It can feel calm under the water and focusing on breath and specific movement keeps you present.  That is my personal definition of mindfulness.  Movement plus breath is meditation.  Movement always equals freedom.   

The whole thing of setting a goal then getting off your backside and achieving it, no matter how small, will always be a good thing and small victories should be celebrated as much as the big ones.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still barely a swimmer and I can still only do 50 metres but it’s a start!  I like to think I’ll keep it up and get better, maybe get that 100 metres or more.  I’ll make myself a badge if I do!  The new goal is to become a strong swimmer.  I’m not overly keen on the idea of public swimming pools, the idea seems like a bit of a pain and now I’m back in my busy life I think I might struggle to get in the water more than once a week.  Crowds, people, unnatural environment, all that stuff brings me down a bit, but I like the idea of the open water.  Perhaps I’ll get a wetsuit and hop in the marine lake.  I hope I do!   

If you’re an adult and can’t swim I’d recommend having a go, it’s a very satisfying journey and great cardio!  If you can swim and ever think about setting up a beginners swimming group for adults, I think you’d make a fortune because they just don’t exist!