Limbo Exit Strategy

“How’s swimming going?” my coworkers will ask on occasion.

They remember this because they find adult swim classes amusing. When I told them about my classes last year, some of them exclaimed, “My 4 year old is taking swim classes!” I’m pretty sure they pictured me at the pool towering over a bunch of preschoolers.

My answer to that question these last few months is that I’ve been in limbo. I’m beyond adult beginner classes where instructors spend the majority of their time with students who are afraid to put their head in the water. I’d like to improve my technique and become more confident and efficient.

In short, what I’ve needed is a swim coach.

I found myself on Craigslist after one of these conversations a couple weeks ago and came across this:

Yesterday, we had our first lesson.

This is my first swim instructor who takes a drills-based approach to things. It’s probably the result of her competitive swim and water polo backgrounds. I’m a big believer in learning things different ways from different people, and found this new-to-me approach refreshing.

I had said I wanted to learn to tread water, so went over the concept of sculling in various positions. I tried it upright, on my back, on my front. I tried it to keep myself afloat, and later to propel myself forward.

I have a lot to work on here, but I have some drills in mind that will help me get a better feel for the the motion.

We also worked on egg beaters. They’re mostly still a mystery to me, but we did notice that I was leaning too far back trying to do these. I’ll work on them some more with my overall body position more forward.

I had also said I wanted to feel more confident in my freestyle breath, so we worked on having me kick on my side, with one arm extended, my head turned, and chin tucked. The trick to doing this and not having my nose underwater was a combination of arm extension, leaning my head on that arm while tucking my chin, and some other still-subtle-to-me body adjustments. I was eventually able to do this and breathe at the same time.

Related to rotating to my side, it seems I reach too far to the center with my arms. So we worked on having my arms wider on each stroke, more like Superman and less like yoga.

Then there was the concept my arms in general. I’m accustomed to thinking about what my hands are doing, completely neglecting the existence and role of the things they’re attached to. I’m starting to think I can generate a lot more power if I include them in equation. More to experiment with here, especially on the breast stroke.

Because I like lists…

– Arms enter the water wider.
– Try that exaggerated side breathing position on the breaths.
– Don’t pause or slow down for the breath. Think metronome!

Breast stroke:
– Wide arm stroke to propel in addition to rising for air.

– Keep those arms moving! I tend to rest with both arms by my side between strokes. No need for that.

Treading water:
– Work on sculling.
– Don’t lean back while egg beatering.

We worked in the area of the pool where the depth transitions from 4 1/2 feet to 9 feet. I mostly stayed where I could touch the bottom if needed, but periodically floated out to the deeper water and calmly swam my way back to the “safe” zone. Yay me for not freaking out! That’s definite progress.

Moar Random Coaching Plz

Hopped in the pool intending to do 20 laps of freestyle, focusing on exhaling continuously in the water.

Around lap 16, a new neighbor hopped into the lane next to mine.

After lap 20, he asked if he could offer some advice.


His first tip was exactly along the lines of why I need to find non-true-beginner, not-yet-proficient-swimmer coaching. He’d noticed that I lingered with my hands just above the water, and that, in turn, was causing my head to sink.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here, but I often have no idea what my extremities are doing when I’m swimming. If I’m not focusing on it, I have no idea what it’s doing

Standard conversation from swim class:

Coach: Do you know that your _ is _?
Me: I have no idea what my _ are doing.

Next, he noted that I tend to look back instead of to the side when I breathe. I knew I was doing this, but probably because it’s hard to turn my head to the side to breathe when my arms are making my head sink.

I did a few laps focusing on my hands and head. Much better!

After that, another tweak. Apparently I glide my hands just above the water to bring them from back to front. Again, I had no idea! I’m supposed to bring them out of the water, elbows high, and this in turn helps my shoulders rotate.

I tried this for a couple laps as well, but ran out of time.

Things to work on for next time!

Thanks random former swim coach.


Yards, not meters.

Did 60 laps today in 61.5 minutes. Getting better about not exerting too much energy per lap, and understanding how much I actually need to rest before I can do another lap.

I have abandoned breathing on my left side. I did it twice today and both times it felt awkward.

I think what this means is I need to keep what zen I’ve achieved and start working on continuous exhalation underwater. My goal is a breath every three strokes, not holding my breath in between.

Before I wrote that last sentence, my goal was a mile in a single session. But getting this breathing thing down is important. Breathing it is. I’ll come for you later, mile.

Distance is arbitrary anyway.

Played around with hand shape and position on the backstroke today. (I can’t even think about it for freestyle.) There’s more to explore there as well.

Don’t Think About It

To the pool! Some combination of relaxing better and recovering more quickly got me to 52 laps today, which is most definitely the farthest I’ve ever swum in an single session. I’m pretty happy about progress.

In addition to relaxing on freestyle, I’m learning to relax on my backstroke, which is contributing to my quick lap turnaround.

Also, it turns out if I relax I can sneak in some 6 stroke breaths without too much trouble.

Relaxing and stroke counting aside, my best lap was actually when a total spaz of a swimmer jumped in to share my lane. I was convinced he was going to drown, and focused entirely on getting by him cleanly. I didn’t think at all about breathing or counting or kicking or relaxing. It was the smoothest lap I’ve ever swum.

It turns out I swim better when I’m not thinking so hard about it.

In a way, that makes me want to try not to think about it. But I know there’s a lot I can improve in terms of technique, so I don’t want to just swim on autopilot. I see plenty of people with terrible technique at the pool. I don’t want that to be me.

* 52, because I do my laps in sets of 4 (freestyle, freestyle, backstroke, breast stroke), and because I don’t like the numbers 44 or 48.


Back to the pool today. I had some concerns about exposing my bloody shin to the pool, but it turns out Nexcare makes waterproof bandages. And they work. I was super impressed when I took off the bandage after my swim and everything was dry.

Worked on some things…

Swim downhill: I actually felt a difference, like I was doing more in the water. What does “more” mean? I’m not good enough to explain it yet. But I’ll keep working on this one. Today’s swimming downhill was definitely more successful than last week’s.

Focus on kicking: I got sick of counting breaths, so I just focused on kicking better. It was liberating to not count breaths.

Relax: As expected, this has the greatest impact on improving my breathing. It’s hard to relax and still remember to do all the things I’m working on, but it was nice to feel it make a difference.

Progress! I completed my 40 laps faster than in previous sessions. Not sure if it’s because my body is getting used to swimming or because of my attempts to breathe better.

My breaststroke felt great today. Faster and smoother and more powerful. Huzzah.

Breathe Less?

“Swim downhill.” That came out of my online scouring last week. I can’t remember what it has to do with breathing, but it seemed like a decent overall tip for better form. Without looking more into what exactly that meant, I tried to channel that feeling at the pool yesterday.

It seemed okay. But I should definitely look more into how people channel “downhill” into their freestyle.

Experimented with breathing some more. Someone mentioned that maybe they were out of breath because they were breathing too often, so I let go of my fear of forgetting how to breathe on my left side and experimented with breathing on my right side every 4 strokes, 2 if needed.

4 seemed fairly doable, and way less psychologically taxing, since I can get air pretty cleanly on that side. I may stick with this for a bit. I think if I can get my breathing down, I can then work on tweaking other things. It’s hard right now because I need to work on everything, but only have bandwidth to tackle one thing at a time.

I haven’t been timing myself, but I at least felt like I completed my 40 laps in less time than usual.

I could start timing myself, but that doesn’t feel like the right type of pressure to apply at this stage.

No timing. Just breathe… less?


I’m still working on this freestyle breathing thing. In particular, I’m working not getting out of breath. Exhalation is key, they say. That’s a tough one to get through my head. I considered that perhaps if I breathed every other stroke instead of every third stroke, I’d be more willing to exhale.

So today I took a breath every other stroke… half the time. I’m unwilling to not practice breathing on my left side, lest I forget.

It was psychologically helpful to “allow” myself more frequent breaths, but it didn’t fix the root cause.

Part of the problem is, I don’t know the root cause. Am I holding my breath too much? Keeping my lungs too full? Not full enough? Exhaling too soon? Not soon enough? There are countless ways to breathe.

Maybe I just need to relax.

Yes, I need to relax. I definitely get out of breath less when I relax. But that’s definitely not the only factor.

Maybe start there, then tweak? But how do I relax when I’m thinking about things to tweak? I can think and covert into physical action and relax at the same time… yet.

The internet has a lot to say about this. It’s nice to know I’m not alone, and to have a plentiful resource of things I can try.

Off to go scour the internet.


Small observation from top roping Wednesday night: I’m learning to keep my arms straight, position my feet, and reach starting with my legs and body. It feels way more stable and effortless than reaching with my arms. Especially overhangs.

I’m really enjoying how swimming and climbing are teaching me basics of stable and efficient body movement.

I wonder, if I’d learned these concepts before picking up hockey, how much faster I could have improved on the ice.

I suppose I can still try out some of these ideas and use the ones that pan out for coaching.


Had my final swim lesson tonight. I started with a question about how to not forget about my feet when freestyling. I was told to kick when I arm stroke. That helped a lot.

Next, we decided to teach me how to dolphin kick. It’s all in the hips! I started to get the hang of it once I channeled my inner mermaid.

After that, we tried to add the arms for butterfly. I had a pretty comical first couple attempts, but managed to get both my head and my arms out of the water after that. Not terrible!

Played around in the water at the end, tried a somersault on a whim. Nailed it!

Lots for me to work on on my own.

Some notes for freestyle:

  • feet pointed for kicks
  • kick when I arm stroke
  • hands enter the water smoothly (no slapping), then reach forward
  • reach and rotate starting from the hips
  • pull myself forward through the water
  • finish the arm stroke
  • turn head, don’t lift, for air
  • don’t hold my breath underwater, blow bubbles
  • keep a rhythm, don’t let my arms linger too long in one position
  • relax

I should have probably put “relax” at the top.

I wish you could all hear my thoughts as I freestyle. I’m literally going through random items on this checklist, fixing something different every few strokes. For every one thing I fix, I immediately forget something else.

Maybe I’ll work on focusing on one thing per length of the pool. We’ll see.

It’s All In The Hips

My goal for today’s class was to learn to freestyle breathe better.

For my part, I brought with me some tips I learned from YouTube. I’ve been holding my breath underwater, exhaling only just before turning for air. This has resulted in a fairly shallow breath, and I’ve found myself tiring a lot more than I expected to.

I’ve been doing this out of fear of emptying my lungs. What if I turn for air and fail?

Now that my attempts to breathe are succeeding more and more often, I decided it was time to ditch the fear and more fully exhale. Bubbles out my nose the entire time I’m underwater.

This worked great. I felt way less tired after a lap than I did previously.

I also brought with me a question for my instructor. I’ve been breathing fine on my right side, but on my left side I’m lifting my head. He brought back a hip turning kickboard-between-the-legs exercise that went terribly until I realized he wanted me to turn my hips because it’s my hips that drive my arms and body. The reach and rotate, it originates from the hips.

Kind of like shooting a hockey puck.
Or swinging a baseball bat.
Or a tennis racquet.


My left and right breathing evened out quite a bit after I figured this out.

As with any new detail, remembering to drive with my hips messed up my hands and feet and efficiency, but a after a bunch more laps I started to dial things back in. I feel way better about not failing to get air now.

Speaking of air, I found that a constant exhalation kicked me into a faster rhythm than I wanted. I like to breathe every three leisurely strokes, so I’m now experimenting with holding my breath for one or two strokes, then fully exhaling so I can take a full breath by the time I turn. This may or may not be the right approach, but I’ll feel a lot better about whatever I settle on if I’ve tried different variations.

Thursday will be my last swim class. I was thinking about what I would miss most: the facility, the instructor, my classmates? I realized on my way out that it’s the cleaning lady in the locker room. I’ve never seen her with a moment to spare, but despite working nonstop she always takes the time to greet people with a smile. I respect and appreciate that a lot. She definitely makes positive impact on my visits with her great attitude.