Learning to Swim as an Adult

In my 50’s I decided to learn to swim…

Today is my three year Swimiversary!

As a long distance runner and cyclist I should be competing in Ironman triathlons by now and I should certainly have my London Classics medal for adding Swim Serpentine to my London Marathon and Ride London medals, right?

I constantly see social media posts by friends claiming they could not swim and have had a few lessons and now, a few weeks later, they are entering their first triathlon. Learning to swim should be easy for someone who is physically fit, right?

Wrong.

Sadly this has not been the case for me and although I’ve wanted to blog about my progress and inspire others to learn to swim, my attempts to learn have been slow and often joyless.

Adult learn to swim

Learning to swim. My face says it all

Learning to swim is the hardest physical challenge I ever given myself.

I am a land creature at home in woodland and mountain trails but my metamorphosis into a mermaid has just not happened… so far (I’m not giving up!)

Why does an adult who can’t swim choose to learn?

I have a lot of triathlete friends who have inspired me. Triathletes have more choice and get to use their bodies in different ways which means a better work out for the whole body and mind and potentially less injuries. Swimming is the perfect compliment to my chosen sports of running and cycling of which I already have clocked up some serious mileage. My body needed the balance of a non weight bearing form of exercise and one that included the use of my scrawny underdeveloped upper body.

I’m not sure what the actual catalyst to learn to swim was but I recall three things:

  • Watching the Paralympics Games swimmers in 2012 and the likes of fantastic athletes like Ellie Simmonds. I’d been using all of the excuses in the world not to dip my toes in water and suddenly I realised that here were people with arguably real reasons that might prevent them from swimming but they were having non of it. I had no excuse not to try.
  • Seeing photos of my friends having sooo much fun swimming in the sea each summer. I like having fun and I couldn’t go to the party because I couldn’t swim.
  • Someone pointed out that learning to swim could save my life. More about that later…

Surely I learnt to swim as a child?

I recall neither parents encouraging me to swim. Sure, I was taken to the swimming baths where I loved to do handstands in the water and gambol either backwards or forwards, but swimming was nothing more than a doggy paddle or floating on my back for as long as I could. I have pictures in my head of my dad doing a violent thrashing head out of the water front crawl kind of thing and my mom looking a picture of misery with a 1960’s style rubber flowered cap on, attempting some form of breaststroke without a single splash of water on hair or make up.

The few swimming lessons at school involved widths of a very small pool with blown up rubber arm rings on. Each week the teacher would let out a bit of air and you would attempt to get from one side to the other without touching the bottom whichever way you could. Once you’d done this, their work was done. Somehow I managed to get my mile certificate aged around 9 or 10. The pool was really small and we were not to touch the bottom. I did it by swimming on my back using just my legs to propel myself and having an awful lot of floating breaks just to recover from the effort. I was the last kid in the pool and continued for what felt like hours. I completed it but no one was there to congratulate me and everyone else had gone home long ago. At least the teacher waited for me to finish.

Many adult non swimmers have a history of trauma related to water.

I recall two incidents of near drowning.

Aged 11 or 12 at an adult party in a garden with a swimming pool. I was happily doggy paddling and floating in the deep end whilst the adults got drunk. One drunken male adult thought it would be great fun to dive in and swim under me and yank me to the bottom of the pool. He held me there and I quickly began to drown. When you are drowning you use up every single bit of your physical energy in a matter of seconds to try to save yourself. When he’d let me go and I’d fought myself back to the surface and to the edge of the pool I was unable to get out. I hung my arms over the side of the pool and my head lolled on it’s side. I was unable to get out because I had no strength left. I looked to the adults for help, unable to even speak, only to watch them belly laughing at me and the hilarious game I’d had played on me.

As a teenager I was lucky enough to go on a week of youth adventure activities in Wales. During a white water rafting activity my groups boat capsized. I remember being somersaulted through the rapids and not knowing which way was up or down. My life jacket saved me and once again, when the rescue boat came for me they had to fish me out by my life jacket as I did not even have the energy left to raise my arms, never mind lift myself onto the boat.

So I’m scared of water

It took me at least a year to acknowledge it. The deep end of the pool frightened me but I would not admit it. I did notice that I tried to hurry up and so got very out of breath each time I entered that space in the pool. If I try to swim in the sea I start to hear the music from Jaws or fear jellyfish are about to sting me or seaweeds will tangle around my legs and pull me to the bottom. My swim friends say “isn’t it fabulous that there is so much space and no sides to stop you?” For me that is just the worst part of it. No safety. No side of the pool to get to if I start to drown. My sympathetic nervous system and my fight/flight response are easily turned up to full volume when I swim.

I got swimming lessons

I’ve spent £100’s on lessons at various places in Brighton. They’ve all been good and useful in their own ways. One to one lessons are always better than group sessions but with a price tag to match. My issue seems to be my breathing. I’ve had so much advice on breathing and have worked on so many drills it took all of the joy (if there is any) away from me. ‘Bubble bubble breathe’ became my mantra. Changing my timing on my swim stroke has helped a lot as has unilateral rather than the bilateral breathing I persevered with for two years. I’m brilliant at sink down drills and getting the air out of my lungs. I just can’t seem to get the stuff back in again. I’d be really happy to have poor technique but just be able to slowly go up and down the pool or swim in the sea without fear but it seems that I need to fine tune my technique to near perfection in order to be able to swim continuously.

This year I have cut back on my swims and only swim twice a week for half an hour at a time. It’s not ideal but at the moment it’s all I can fit in.

Finally a break through!

In the last two weeks I’ve started to do exactly the opposite to what I’ve been taught. I do a short breath out, hold my breath and then seem to be able to suck in a bigger breath. (I know, it’s so wrong but it seems to be working for me, so I’m just going to go with it for now)

I’ve known almost from the start that my barriers relate to what’s going on in my head. I’m starting to relax more and spend less time at the end of each length regaining my breath. It’s not for me a ‘suddenly I could swim’ thing. It’s a subtle progression with many backwards steps and I don’t know it’s happening but gradually it’s getting better.

I’ve discovered that if I just do breast stroke I can keep going without a need for a break. I mix it up now and don’t worry about not doing front crawl and this is helping my confidence by helping me to keep going without constant stops.

I swim in an often filthy overcrowded local pool. Lane swimming is really stressful here and it’s the worst kind of environment to learn to swim in. I have horror stories about the things floating in the water which gross me out so much, I can’t go back for a week. I complain to the manager and try to tell myself that it’s helping to build a iron clad immune system worthy of a swimmer in the Ganges. People swim in front of you too slowly and don’t let you go ahead of them when they finish their length. Alternatively people are touching my toes and I wait for them and then the next swimmer to swim ahead of me. This wastes time and stops me having any rhythm. Up to nine people in the lane doing a variety of swim strokes and drills is not unheard of and I’ve had the lane to myself on only a handful of occasions and never for more than 10 minutes. I have no doubt that I do things that annoy other swimmers and break their pace but it’s no wonder I myself can’t set a pace and progress is slow.

I’m learning to have zen like patience and calm within that environment. It’s taken three years and I have a way to go but I just do what I can given the circumstances.

I was given two really good bits of advice that have really helped:

  • I was complaining to my triathlete friend Clare about not being able to breath. She said “For f%#ks sake, you’re supposed to be out of breath, you’re doing exercise!” The penny dropped! I run and get out of breath but I don’t think I’m going to die. Maybe I can get out of breath swimming and that’s okay too? I had assumed that all breathing needed to be super relaxed and easy whilst swimming. If I felt my breath get even slightly laboured I would panic and start to hyperventilate. I don’t do that now. I slow down instead.
Learning to swim

Wise triathlete Clare and me

  • Andy from the fabulous Sea lanes told me that the faster you swim, the more important technique is. You simply can’t swim fast with bad technique. Somehow this has helped me to learn to slow down, probably because I know my technique, though improved is very much less than perfect! My one to one lessons in the endless pool here have been so useful. The video does not lie. I was doing all sorts of things I was not aware of. I have much more awareness of what I do and don’t do and my proprioception in water is improved. Here’s a nice little blog on proprioception and swimming by Just Add Water if you don’t know what I mean.

I’m still not ready for the sea. I tried this week and hated it. I’ve missed entry to the pool swim triathlons this year but next year there will be plenty of time for new swimming goals….

I’m going to keep going and I’m sure I’m on the cusp of being able to swim at last. For this year just being able to swim up and down in the pool without stopping is my continued challenge but I’m not stopping yet.

Do you have stories about learning to swim as an adult? What worked for you or not? What are your swimming goals? Has sports massage helped to keep your body in good shape for swimming? Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear!

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