Swimming Magic: Ideas for Adults

Learning to Swim for Health


The approach to swim­ming described in this text has been devel­oped by the staff of Mag­ic, Incor­po­rat­ed. Swim instruc­tion is a com­po­nent of Mag­ic’s Per­son­al Aware­ness pro­gram, the pur­pose of which is to pro­vide infor­ma­tion for health­ful, hap­py living.

This method has evolved over more than a decade of teach­ing in Cos­ta Rica, in Chile, and in the Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia area. We have test­ed it with young and old, rich and poor, excep­tion­al ath­lete and severe­ly handicapped.

For the past four years, a large frac­tion of our stu­dents have been par­tic­i­pants in the Health Improve­ment Pro­gram spon­sored by the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. Since 1981, almost four hun­dred Stan­ford fac­ul­ty, staff, and grad­u­ate stu­dents have learned to swim in these class­es. Enrollees have var­ied in age from ear­ly twen­ties to late six­ties. Many have been for­eign nation­als with lim­it­ed Eng­lish lan­guage flu­en­cy and lit­tle pri­or expo­sure to a cul­ture in which swim­ming was a pop­u­lar, or even a gen­er­al­ly accept­ed, activ­i­ty. Their occu­pa­tion­al and edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds, and their pri­or ath­let­ic expe­ri­ences have been diverse.

We have been grat­i­fied by the rapid­i­ty and ease with which vir­tu­al­ly all of the peo­ple we have instruct­ed have learned to swim well enough to dis­pel most of their fears of the water, and to enjoy the many ben­e­fits of aer­o­bic train­ing. We are at least equal­ly pleased with the many col­lat­er­al pos­i­tive changes in the qual­i­ty of their every­day expe­ri­ence which many of them report.

If you find the meth­ods out­lined here use­ful in your own teach­ing, we will be grate­ful for any eval­u­a­tion you offer, and will appre­ci­ate any acknowl­edg­ment you think appropriate.

Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia D.A.S.,Jr. Octo­ber, 1984



Purpose of this Writing

We think learn­ing to swim can be a joy­ful expe­ri­ence, even for some­one who begins ter­ri­fied of the water. Our inten­tion is to encour­age you, to steer you clear of atti­tudes and prac­tices we have observed to be obsta­cles, and to guide you towards those we per­ceive to be a sound basis for enjoy­able swim­ming. We intend what we say here to be valu­able both to peo­ple learn­ing to swim and to those who teach them.

Gen­er­al­ized con­cepts and spe­cif­ic tech­niques are use­ful to each of us in dif­fer­ent ways. Please read with open­ness and skep­ti­cism. Exper­i­ment with the sug­ges­tions we make to dis­cov­er which of them you can apply in a sat­is­fy­ing way.

We write from our own expe­ri­ence in learn­ing to swim, and in teach­ing adults who come to us able to swim freestyle only with dif­fi­cul­ty, if they swim at all. We per­ceive fear to be the major imped­i­ment to com­pe­tence for most of those whom we teach. While respect for water haz­ards is impor­tant, blind fear is debil­i­tat­ing. Much that we write here is aimed at pro­vid­ing under­stand­ing of how we swim, and insight to the ben­e­fits reaped by those who swim well. With a bet­ter intel­lec­tu­al grasp of a sub­ject and suf­fi­cient moti­va­tion, many of us more read­i­ly aban­don irra­tional fear.

Most peo­ple we teach learn to move eas­i­ly in deep water, swim­ming a com­fort­able crawl stroke with­out fatigue or short­ness of breath for as long as they want to con­tin­ue. If you seek this abil­i­ty per­son­al­ly, or if you teach to this objec­tive, we are writ­ing for you.

Know-how and Know-why

We present many ideas per­ti­nent to tech­nique. The read­er who learns only tech­nique, how­ev­er, will miss our ker­nel mes­sage. In learn­ing to swim, as in any expe­ri­ence, we may find par­tial answers to ques­tions like: “Who am I?” and “To what pur­pose do I live?” More accu­rate per­cep­tion of how we are, and why we are this way, is both a ben­e­fit of, and a pre­req­ui­site to many kinds of change, includ­ing those by which we become bet­ter swimmers.

To learn to swim in the same way that many of us have acquired oth­er tech­ni­cal skills is to learn only at the most mun­dane lev­el. Beyond this lies what may be termed meta-learn­ing, a process for chal­leng­ing and over­throw­ing the habits of a life­time to pro­duce rad­i­cal change. For those engaged in meta-learn­ing, the mas­tery of tech­nique is per­haps bet­ter seen as an inevitable con­se­quent, rather than as a pri­ma­ry objective.

We swim to become more adap­tive, health­i­er in the largest sense. We per­ceive that by doing so, we enhance our capac­i­ty both for per­son­al sur­vival and for ser­vice to oth­ers. We aim to thor­ough­ly inte­grate our swim­ming prac­tices with the rest of our lives, and we encour­age you to do similarly.

We are Animals

Swim­ming is one way of affirm­ing that we are alive. The inter­nal process­es by which we move, and which we actu­ate by self-pro­pelled motion, are essen­tial to our well-being. Despite a few mil­lenia of increas­ing­ly seden­tary human lifestyles,we remain genet­i­cal­ly pro­grammed to behave much like our near­est rel­a­tives of oth­er species. Reg­u­lar, var­ied move­ment is cen­tral to all their lives.

Iron­i­cal­ly, in the past half cen­tu­ry we have steadi­ly and dra­mat­i­cal­ly erod­ed our capa­bil­i­ty for inde­pen­dent move­ment, the result of hun­dreds of mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion, by unre­strained appli­ca­tion of our tech­no­log­i­cal mas­tery. Peo­ple and car­gos of all descrip­tions are now trans­port­ed by con­vert­ing fos­sil hydro­car­bons to mechan­i­cal ener­gy. Tasks per­formed direct­ly by humans for count­less gen­er­a­tions we today accom­plish with pow­er tools and machin­ery. Thus sub­si­dized by stored ener­gy rep­re­sent­ing mil­lions of years of sun­light, we have become abysmal­ly igno­rant of bioen­er­get­ics, the ordered flows of ener­gy by which all life is sustained.

Those of us liv­ing in indus­tri­al soci­eties have large­ly aban­doned phys­i­cal work, the appli­ca­tion of force through dis­tance. In doing so, we have restruc­tured human exis­tence so thor­ough­ly that ours now bears lit­tle resem­blance to that of our ances­tors. This change has been far too rapid to be ful­ly accom­mo­dat­ed by genet­ic adap­ta­tion. By refus­ing to behave more like oth­er ani­mals, we are in effect deny­ing our very genes. The epi­dem­ic of degen­er­a­tive dis­ease now occur­ring is per­haps only a small part of the price we pay for our fol­ly. For the less stub­born, an obvi­ous alter­na­tive exists: move.

Return to Water

Pale­o­bi­ol­o­gists, phys­i­ol­o­gists, and oth­er sci­en­tif­ic researchers have gath­ered sub­stan­tial evi­dence to sup­port the the­o­ry that all life on this plan­et began in an aque­ous medi­um not too dif­fer­ent from the con­tem­po­rary oceans. Human blood shares many elec­trolyt­ic prop­er­ties with the sea, and four-fifths of our mass is water, mak­ing most of us very close to the same den­si­ty as water. For our first nine months we live immersed in flu­id. Only after birth do we draw our first breath.

Dur­ing our ear­ly devel­op­ment, while still in the womb, we pass through stages in which our anatom­i­cal struc­tures bear strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty to par­al­lel ele­ments in both fish and amphib­ians. Even as adults, por­tions of our brain are anal­o­gous to the amphib­ian brain, and pur­port­ed­ly per­form many of the same func­tions in us as they do in our less recent­ly-evolved rel­a­tives. These fac­tors all cor­rob­o­rate the claim that only a short time, evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly speak­ing, has passed since life first ven­tured onto dry land. Swim­ming is an activ­i­ty for which humans remain well-adapt­ed. We might even con­sid­er it more to be remem­bered than learned anew. 

A Different Consciousness

Habit and World-View

By our col­lec­tive belief in the dom­i­nant val­ues of this cul­ture, we cre­ate a kind of social iner­tia. Since every­one appar­ent­ly shares a sim­i­lar world view, we have lit­tle incen­tive to see the arbi­trari­ness of our com­mon myths, or to search for alter­na­tives. Like the major­i­ty of peo­ple in almost every soci­ety, we see our­selves as “The Peo­ple” and our vision as “The Truth”. By accept­ing with­out ques­tion many of the beliefs which we have held since child­hood, we impede suc­cess­ful adap­ta­tion. Thus hand­i­capped, we scram­ble through life, like ani­mals flee­ing the beat­ers’ drums only to con­front the hunters’ guns.

Many of us who live in the Unit­ed States cen­ter our cur­rent world-view on the notion of steady progress through increas­ing manip­u­la­tion and dom­i­na­tion of the earth. This is a frag­ment­ed out­look, pit­ting humans against the rest of nature, and against each oth­er in a mad rush to exploit our exter­nal envi­ron­ment. With this phi­los­o­phy, we empha­size our dis­tinct­ness from all oth­er life, cam­ou­flag­ing and con­ceal­ing much ani­mal nature behind cloth­ing, cos­met­ics, and closed doors. We cel­e­brate brain over mus­cle, and many of us only reluc­tant­ly admit that move­ment is nec­es­sary to health. We need only con­trast the pained ungain­li­ness of the aver­age jog­ger with the grace of a ran­dom­ly select­ed dog or cat to per­ceive how hor­ri­bly muti­lat­ed we have become.

In many soci­eties where seden­tary liv­ing has become com­mon, peo­ple are now rec­og­niz­ing that lux­u­ry and ease are dif­fer­ent from health. Through­out the indus­tri­al­ized world, ever larg­er num­bers of humans are by choice liv­ing more sim­ply, and eschew­ing the dubi­ous con­ve­niences of the petro­le­um age to mesh more har­mo­nious­ly with the rest of the envi­ron­ment. Swim­ming is for some of us a part of the tran­si­tion to a life of greater vital­i­ty, in which we also con­scious­ly pro­tect those qual­i­ties of the envi­ron­ment on which all life depends.

Adopt­ing a reg­u­lar prac­tice of vig­or­ous and self-pro­pelled move­ment can imply enor­mous change for some­one who has passed many years occu­py­ing a seat of one kind or anoth­er for most of the day. As we replace pat­terns of behav­ior deeply embed­ded after decades of con­stant rep­e­ti­tion, with unfa­mil­iar and some­times uncom­fort­able actions, we may become unset­tled in oth­er aspects of liv­ing as well. Ideas we pre­vi­ous­ly embraced uncrit­i­cal­ly may begin to appear more ques­tion­able. Per­son­al­i­ty traits we con­sid­ered immutable may seem eas­i­er to reshape. More than a few peo­ple have report­ed feel­ing com­plete­ly trans­formed after a few weeks of reg­u­lar aer­o­bic exercise.

Swimming for Pleasure

The joys of swim­ming are many. Immersed in water, we are iso­lat­ed from the sights, the sounds, and the tac­tile stim­uli which char­ac­ter­ize life on land. Some dis­cov­er that in such an envi­ron­ment, a new con­cen­tra­tion is pos­si­ble. Buoyed against the pull of grav­i­ty, we become weight­less, and are able to more ful­ly relax mus­cles which remain in ten­sion almost con­stant­ly when we sit or stand.

The phys­i­o­log­i­cal ben­e­fits which gen­er­al­ly accom­pa­ny a reg­u­lar swim­ming prac­tice are well-doc­u­ment­ed. When we swim con­tin­u­ous­ly at a mod­er­ate pace, breath­ing becomes deep and rhyth­mic. Heart­beat accel­er­ates and increas­es in pow­er. Over time, arter­ies and veins expand, pro­lif­er­ate, and gain elas­tic­i­ty. Mus­cles and joints from face to feet strength­en and stretch into smooth mobil­i­ty. We devel­op endurance, strength, and coordination.

Prac­ticed with com­mon sense, swim­ming is gen­tle and rel­a­tive­ly haz­ard-free. The jar­ring and pound­ing inher­ent to run­ning, and the falls, blows, and col­li­sions com­mon in oth­er land-based sports are eliminated.

Beyond such eas­i­ly described rewards lie more sub­tle plea­sures. Ideas about con­scious­ness and aware­ness are now prop­a­gat­ing rapid­ly in our soci­ety. Spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions drawn from diverse cul­tures are being embraced by those who see in them a path to greater joy. Mil­lions have adopt­ed med­i­ta­tive prac­tices empha­siz­ing still­ness or con­cen­tra­tion; mil­lions more now approach sport, dance, and oth­er forms of move­ment with the pur­pose of devel­op­ing awareness.

Inter­est­ing­ly, those who teach such dis­ci­plines very fre­quent­ly use water metaphor­i­cal­ly. Its prop­er­ties are quite extra­or­di­nary, yet it is so much a part of our lives that we have become all but obliv­i­ous to it. Water pen­e­trates, dis­solves, erodes, car­ries, press­es, flows, evap­o­rates, tem­pers, even freezes. A swim­mer comes to know water inti­mate­ly. Evo­lu­tion from the rigid­i­ty and stiff­ness which fre­quent­ly char­ac­ter­ize novice swim­mers to the sen­si­tiv­i­ty and easy pre­ci­sion which are marks of those who have become more at one with the water can con­tribute to, and be facil­i­tat­ed by, impor­tant shifts in consciousness.

Writ­ing this, we coined the phrase “swim­ming zen” to con­vey a sense of total immer­sion in the “now”, of sur­ren­der to the expe­ri­ence of the moment, of being “in the flow.” These are ideas only recent­ly pop­u­lar­ized in Amer­i­ca, yet they are fun­da­men­tal to philo­soph­i­cal and reli­gious tra­di­tions shared by many mil­lions. An inter­lude in a pool, focus­ing upon the sen­sa­tions of swim­ming and leav­ing all else behind, can be a mar­velous way to regain the feel­ings of calm and tran­quil­i­ty that are becom­ing ever rar­er in mod­ern life.

Pre­oc­cu­pied with progress as we are, we are almost con­stant­ly future ori­ent­ed, less intent upon enjoy­ing today, or this instant, than upon using it as a step­ping­stone to a bet­ter tomor­row. We are com­mon­ly full of ambi­tion, and many feel so com­pelled that the days seem too short. We push and shove to some­how pack a lit­tle more liv­ing into each one, all the time feel­ing that we leave count­less “should’s” unful­filled. The fool­ish­ness of these atti­tudes is evi­dent to any­one who paus­es long enough to reflect on the fact that the earth­’s peri­od of rota­tion, which deter­mines our day, is very unlike­ly to change per­cep­ti­bly for the remain­der of human history.

We can make swim­ming a tran­scen­dent state, and dis­card, if only tem­porar­i­ly, the cum­ber­some cul­tur­al bag­gage of notime­hur­ry­hur­ryrushabout. Some days we may swim to expe­ri­ence a feel­ing of relaxed con­cen­tra­tion. Oth­ers we may focus on a sin­gle aspect of being­breath, for exam­ple­and imag­ine that we are entire­ly that, nei­ther more nor less, as we move along. Swim­ming like this can be com­plete­ly engross­ing. When we swim with full atten­tion, all else can appar­ent­ly cease to exist. To learn to swim more med­i­ta­tive­ly, with greater aware­ness, is to move clos­er to see­ing the poten­tial for liv­ing more this way at oth­er times.

Integration of Self

With flour­ish­ing inter­est in con­scious­ness has come re-exam­i­na­tion of the dis­tinc­tions tra­di­tion­al­ly drawn among mind, brain, body, and soul. We balk at even repeat­ing the vocab­u­lary, wary lest doing so rein­force a frag­ment­ed and mis­lead­ing con­cept of self. We intend to describe a swim­ming prac­tice in which the whole per­son, sub­sum­ing all any­one ever imag­ined to lie in the amor­phous cat­e­gories labeled phys­i­cal, men­tal, and spir­i­tu­al, is engaged.

Limits to Number

As we have cel­e­brat­ed sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy above all oth­er ele­ments of West­en Cul­ture, so have we legit­imized the very heavy reliance upon mea­sure­ment which is char­ac­ter­is­tic of these dis­ci­plines. Quan­tifi­ca­tion seems one of the most per­va­sive ele­ments of mod­ern Amer­i­can life. Even if we “hate math” we attach num­bers to human expe­ri­ence so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly that we are rarely with­out them. In learn­ing to swim, most peo­ple begin quite ear­ly to quan­ti­fy: how many laps, how much time, how fast. Hav­ing learned to live with numer­i­cal, exter­nal­ly-estab­lished stan­dards in myr­i­ad oth­er sit­u­a­tions, we doubt our abil­i­ty to swim far, fast, or hard enough by sim­ply rely­ing upon how we feel.

Some use swim­ming as a path to lib­er­a­tion from such notions, and as a means by which to dis­cov­er the free­dom born of con­fi­dence in pure­ly sub­jec­tive, per­son­al stan­dards. That many of us are afraid to trust such a method is per­haps a per­sua­sive rea­son for learn­ing to do so. You may find a cer­tain bal­ance in a prac­tice which includes occa­sions for lap-count­ing and clock-watch­ing, as well as for ignor­ing these things.

Even those whose pur­pose is to swim a cer­tain dis­tance as quick­ly as pos­si­ble often dis­cov­er that exces­sive con­cern for quan­tifi­ca­tion inter­feres with opti­mal per­for­mance. We can eas­i­ly com­pro­mise the aware­ness essen­tial to swim­ming by giv­ing too much atten­tion to exter­nal­i­ties. Fur­ther­more, speed depends upon both ener­gy con­ver­sion per unit time and effi­cien­cy of tech­nique. When rely­ing exclu­sive­ly upon the clock, we are with­out means to dis­tin­guish that por­tion of our speed attrib­ut­able to con­di­tion­ing from that which results from tech­ni­cal skill.

There are quan­ti­ta­tive meth­ods by which some claim to dis­tin­guish these. Count­ing the strokes tak­en in swim­ming one length can be a help­ful indi­ca­tor of how much slip­page is occur­ring between hands and water; how­ev­er, it is also depen­dent upon arm length, and strength, and the swim­mer’s veloc­i­ty over the time dur­ing which the count is made. Even where we use expen­sive sci­en­tif­ic appa­ra­tus to mon­i­tor the air inhaled and exhaled by the swim­mer, and to com­pute oxy­gen uptake (and implic­it­ly, ener­gy con­ver­sion) per unit body mass, as a func­tion of veloc­i­ty, vari­ables like dif­fer­ences in basal metab­o­lism, or inter­fer­ence of equip­ment with ordi­nary swim­ming motion, pre­vent per­fect iso­la­tion of effects due to technique.

An alter­na­tive to the meth­ods of quan­tifi­ca­tion is to learn to feel effec­tive­ness. By look­ing for the gen­er­al prin­ci­ples applic­a­ble to swim­ming and con­sci­en­tious­ly remem­ber­ing them, we can dis­cov­er new economies of motion, new con­so­nances of liv­ing per­son and mov­ing water. For many, this is one of the great­est joys of swimming.

Consideration for Others

Expe­ri­enced swim­mers have devel­oped an eti­quette designed to insure that all of the peo­ple shar­ing a facil­i­ty enjoy it in safe­ty and com­fort. Each of us con­tributes to the main­te­nance of such an atmos­phere by being cour­te­ous and by encour­ag­ing oth­ers to do so. Many will appre­ci­ate us if we are stead­fast in remem­ber­ing and in remind­ing oth­ers to be aware of the following:

  1. We may reduce our own risks and those of our fel­low swim­mers by rec­og­niz­ing, adver­tis­ing, and avoid­ing the haz­ards of swim­ming alone.
  2. Even where a reg­u­lar life­guard is on duty, we can con­tribute to the wel­fare of all by learn­ing the emer­gency pro­ce­dures at the site, and by mas­ter­ing skills like life-sav­ing, first-aid, and car­dio-pul­monary resuscitation.
  3. We can improve the qual­i­ty of pool water by show­er­ing before we swim, espe­cial­ly if we are wear­ing cos­met­ics or oth­er skin prepa­ra­tions, or if we have been perspiring.
  4. Div­ing or jump­ing into the water with­in a body length of some­one unaware of our impend­ing entry is dangerous.
  5. We can increase the num­ber of peo­ple who can com­fort­ably share a lim­it­ed space by cir­cle swim­ming in a lane where oth­ers are mov­ing at the pace we swim. Only two swim­mers can safe­ly split a lane; many more can cir­cle swim in one. If every­one is pass­ing us or if we are pass­ing every­one else, we may improve the sit­u­a­tion by look­ing for anoth­er lane.
  6. Gog­gles pro­tect eyes from chem­i­cals, con­t­a­m­i­nants, and small objects in the water and improve the clar­i­ty of under­wa­ter vision, enabling us to avoid collisions.
  7. If we are about to leave a pool wall as anoth­er swim­mer is begin­ning a closed turn, wait­ing a few sec­onds until that per­son is clear reduces the chance of collision.
  8. If we swim with wide-rang­ing arm or leg motion, being aware of peo­ple pass­ing, and nar­row­ing our move­ment or paus­ing to let them by reduces the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we will kick or hit them.
  9. Slow­ing a bit if some­one is pass­ing us, and accel­er­at­ing if we are pass­ing anoth­er per­son, helps main­tain a safe dis­tance between swim­mers trav­el­ing in oppo­site directions.
  10. If we stop to rest at a wall, stay­ing clear of the lane marks allows swim­mers who rely upon them to turn unhindered.
  11. If we acci­den­tal­ly kick or hit some­one, stop­ping to apol­o­gize and make cer­tain that she or he is unin­jured is a way to main­tain an atmos­phere of congeniality.
  12. When a facil­i­ty is crowd­ed, we may improve the sit­u­a­tion for all by refrain­ing from activ­i­ties which demand more space per swim­mer: swim­ming but­ter­fly or breast stroke, div­ing and jump­ing, play­ing tag or water polo, using flota­tion devices, exer­cis­ing along a wall, and prac­tic­ing snor­kel­ing tech­niques may all fit into this cat­e­go­ry, depend­ing upon circumstances.
  13. By super­vis­ing chil­dren at all times we can aid them in learn­ing water safe­ty and respect for others.

Most peo­ple swim to relax and enjoy. Con­sid­er­a­tion for each oth­er facil­i­tates this. To any­one who swims reg­u­lar­ly, the val­ue of the guide­lines enu­mer­at­ed here is evident.


Peo­ple come to swim­ming think­ing that it is just anoth­er sport, to be learned as a series of ever more care­ful­ly honed tech­niques. This is only a part of the sto­ry. When we enter the water, we change envi­ron­ments quite dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Much nor­mal behav­ior will be com­plete­ly inef­fec­tu­al in the liq­uid medi­um. Fur­ther­more, even behav­iors as rou­tine and auto­mat­ic as breath­ing, though eas­i­ly acces­si­ble in the famil­iar­i­ty of the air/land envi­ron­ment, will be quick­ly for­got­ten by the dis­ori­ent­ed adult novice in deep water.

Rather than feel­ing frus­trat­ed by the appar­ent dif­fi­cul­ty of learn­ing to swim well, we might remem­ber how few peo­ple ever do this. Hap­pi­ly, the path to becom­ing at home in the water often includes con­quest of many of the atti­tudes and beliefs by which we lim­it our sat­is­fac­tion in oth­er aspects of living.

The Pivotal Role of Breath

For most adults learn­ing to swim, breath­ing is the stick­ing point. Chil­dren often take to the water almost instinc­tive­ly, han­dling a few drops in the nose or an unex­pect­ed gulp play­ful­ly. They are per­haps less aware of the risk of drown­ing, or less thor­ough­ly con­di­tioned to be polite in things like nose-blow­ing, spit­ting, and breath­ing. For what­ev­er rea­son, most young­sters soon learn to breathe out with face sub­merged, and to expel unwant­ed water from air­ways with­out dif­fi­cul­ty. Per­haps you find this easy as well. If so, you may want to skim the next sec­tion, or to read it more with an eye to bet­ter appre­ci­at­ing your skill and to devel­op­ing a capa­bil­i­ty to teach others.

A Gentle Warning

To think we know what we have yet to learn is to be tread­ing a path to frus­tra­tion. Please be cau­tious in judg­ing your abil­i­ty to breathe. Test your com­pe­tence by begin­ning to swim freestyle at the eas­i­est pace you can imag­ine. We can swim at a lev­el of exer­tion approx­i­mate­ly equiv­a­lent to walk­ing at a mod­er­ate speed. After a bit of con­di­tion­ing to strength­en the mus­cles of arms and tor­so, peo­ple who breathe ful­ly and swim relaxed­ly are usu­al­ly able to con­tin­ue for at least five or ten min­utes with­out stop­ping, even if their tech­nique is oth­er­wise quite poor. To feel wind­ed after a short­er peri­od is to very like­ly have some­thing to learn about breathing.


Many swim­mers refuse to prac­tice breath­ing, feel­ing bored or embarassed when they do. When we are bored, we are pre­clud­ed from swim­ming our best. We are like­ly repeat­ing habit­u­al behav­ior with­out con­scious atten­tion. Steady change is a con­fir­ma­tion of vital­i­ty. By prac­tic­ing breath­ing we may become more aware of how we move and think and feel, both in and out of the water.

If, while prac­tic­ing breath­ing, we imag­ine that we are an observ­er stand­ing at water’s edge, what do we see? Is this per­son relaxed? Can we see enjoy­ment? What else do we notice? Are there paus­es in rhythm? How does the mouth move? Is the facial expres­sion gen­tle? Are the eyes open and see­ing? If we are shown a film of peo­ple who are in the water prac­tic­ing breath­ing, will we be able to describe the ways in which each of them is sim­i­lar to, or dif­fer­ent from, us?

Embarass­ment also is incom­pat­i­ble with joy­ful swim­ming. We are embarassed when we per­ceive dis­par­i­ty between how we claim to be and how oth­ers see us. To be embarassed is to implic­it­ly reject and deny what we are. Swim­ming well demands that we per­ceive clear­ly and accept. By admit­ting igno­rance, we can shed embarass­ment, and become more open to learning.

The water is with­out the abil­i­ty to be influ­enced by pre­tense. When we swim, the water behaves in a man­ner both def­i­nite and pre­dictable, and quite inde­pen­dent of any impres­sion of com­pe­tence we seek to cre­ate. The integri­ty of this inter­ac­tion is a poten­tial source of very accu­rate infor­ma­tion. As we become less con­cerned with pre­tend­ing, and more atten­tive to how we feel in the water, we can method­i­cal­ly relax each super­flu­ous ten­sion. In so doing we may become ever more effi­cient, and ever bet­ter able to sense what motion will pro­duce the result we intend.

Many of us have learned to be extreme­ly com­pet­i­tive. We feel almost con­stant­ly on tri­al, need­ing to jus­ti­fy our exis­tence, or at least our sta­tus. Only with dif­fi­cul­ty do we relax. Already ubiq­ui­tous and appar­ent­ly still grow­ing reliance upon psy­choac­tive sub­stances like alco­hol, cof­fee, tran­quil­iz­ers, and “recre­ation­al” drugs is evi­dence of our quandary. Adult non-swim­mers often enter the water with a sense of fail­ure, think­ing, “I should have learned to swim as a child.” Like adult begin­ners in many fields, we set our sights high: “I can learn to swim. This won’t take long.” We com­pare our own inep­ti­tude with oth­ers’ skill and imag­ine “catch­ing up” or “being like them soon” with­out the slight­est inkling of the nature of the path from where we are to where they are!

All such think­ing is diver­sion. To learn to swim, we will first learn how we are in the water today. Thoughts of oth­ers, or of our own past or future, are rarely of much val­ue to this process. Of course we are like­ly to be to some extent moti­vat­ed by imag­ined future tri­umphs, but such dreams may be reserved for the moments when we con­tem­plate skip­ping a swim because we are feel­ing lazy or the weath­er is inclement. We may also take oppor­tu­ni­ties out of the water to visu­al­ize the kind of swim­ming to which we aspire, but this tech­nique, prac­ticed with dili­gence and con­cen­tra­tion, is a far cry from undis­ci­plined day­dream­ing and wish­ful thinking.

When we are in the water with the inten­tion of learn­ing, we will ben­e­fit most by being com­plete­ly present, and con­tent with how we are. To be invent­ing dif­fer­ent real­i­ties tied to how we “should”, “could”, or even “will” can be a way of detract­ing from our abil­i­ty to focus on what we are right now. If we are to swim joy­ful­ly and effi­cient­ly, we will cul­ti­vate sub­stan­tial skill. Only after much prac­tice do we gain the capac­i­ty for easy auto­matic­i­ty which is so obvi­ous in accom­plished swim­mers. Rather than feel dis­sat­is­fied and impa­tient with our incom­pe­tence, we might bet­ter focus on each small tri­umph in aware­ness, know­ing that by such an atti­tude we may enhance our learn­ing abil­i­ty, and put more joy both into swim­ming, and into the rest of life.

Life and Breath

Although we live thir­ty-eight weeks in the womb with­out draw­ing a sin­gle breath, we are from birth depen­dent upon a steady sup­ply of gaseous oxy­gen. Recog­ni­tion of this appears to be a uni­ver­sal ele­ment of human con­scious­ness; vir­tu­al­ly all of us rec­og­nize the threat of suf­fo­ca­tion. By adult­hood, those of us who have yet to learn to swim have often devel­oped a real aver­sion to water.

Swim­ming, like most skills, is best learned in a state of relaxed atten­tion. We are able to remain calm in the water only when we are con­fi­dent in our abil­i­ty to breathe at will. In the absence of such assur­ance, we are so pre­oc­cu­pied with very real and imme­di­ate ques­tions of sur­vival that we are with­out the capac­i­ty to focus atten­tion on devel­op­ing an effec­tive stroke and mov­ing in har­mo­ny with the water.

I start­ed swim­ming as a child. I became com­fort­able swim­ming freestyle in the sec­ond quar­ter-cen­tu­ry of my life. Only after devot­ing many hours to breath­ing prac­tice did I learn to: (1) exhale and inhale suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties of air to sup­port the work of swim­ming, (2) always remain close to ful­ly sub­merged, even dur­ing inhala­tion, and (3) syn­chro­nize breath­ing with oth­er move­ment. Like many swim­mers, I failed for many years to rec­og­nize the dis­com­fort and fear I felt when face-down in the water. In my eager­ness to swim, I neglect­ed the kind of con­cen­trat­ed breath­ing prac­tice by which we may lay a foun­da­tion for lat­er devel­op­ment of effi­cient stroke tech­nique. Despite a lev­el of strength and endurance which left me able to run, cycle, or row for hours, I was exhaust­ed and breath­less after a few lengths of freestyle swim­ming in a twen­ty-five yard pool.

This empha­sis upon breath may seem exag­ger­at­ed, but fear is inim­i­cal to joy, as well as to con­cen­tra­tion. To avoid strug­gle in the water, and to keep our swim­ming joy­ful, we learn to breathe. This is a pre­req­ui­site to a swim­ming prac­tice in which we are each day a lit­tle more aware of how we move, and each day mov­ing a lit­tle more flu­id­ly and in one­ness with the water. Swim­ming this way can be rest­ful, rather than labo­ri­ous. By remain­ing always with­in the lim­its of com­fort, we are able to direct atten­tion to the dis­cov­ery of more effec­tive stroke tech­nique, rather than to sur­vival. Calm and focused, we may con­tin­ue indef­i­nite­ly to refine our swim­ming. Before you press onward, learn to breathe!

Frequency and Volume of Breath

Humans use oxy­gen to con­vert chem­i­cal ener­gy from food to kinet­ic ener­gy of mus­cle. The oxy­gen required for this process, and the car­bon diox­ide pro­duced as a result, enter and leave us through the lungs. Fre­quent breath­ing is essen­tial to sus­tain the ener­gy con­ver­sion process nec­es­sary to swimming.

Most dis­tance swim­mers breathe ful­ly every sec­ond or third arm pull (i.e. — left, right, breathe…or right, left, breathe…;left, right, left, breathe, right left, right, breathe…) Begin­ning swim­mers often breathe less fre­quent­ly, despite the fact that their shal­low, fear-con­strict­ed breath and the inef­fi­cien­cy of their stroke tech­nique make rapid breath­ing essen­tial. In fact, breath­ing with every sin­gle arm pull can be a use­ful way to over­come the imbal­ance between work out­put and oxy­gen avail­abil­i­ty that leaves us gasp­ing after only a few strokes.

To devel­op a cycle of breath hold­ing, anox­ia, fear, rigid­i­ty, inabil­i­ty to feel the water, inef­fi­cien­cy in swim­ming, dif­fi­cul­ty in breath­ing, breath hold­ing, etc. is to be swim­ming into a dead end. Learn to breathe often from the out­set. Avoid ever feel­ing des­per­ate for that next breath.

Total oxy­gen avail­able to the swim­mer depends upon vol­ume, as well as fre­quen­cy of breath. Refusal to exhale ful­ly with face in water is per­haps the great­est imped­i­ment to learn­ing to swim joy­ful­ly. Exha­la­tion is pre­req­ui­site to inhala­tion. If you intend to take a real­ly deep breath, you will begin by exhal­ing ful­ly. Oth­er­wise, a sub­stan­tial vol­ume of the gas which fills you after you inhale will be stale air, left over from a pre­vi­ous breath, and already oxy­gen-deplet­ed. Since oxy­gen is absorbed across the mem­bra­nous sur­face of the lungs at a rate which declines with reduc­tions in the con­cen­tra­tion of oxy­gen in the breath, there will be less oxy­gen avail­able in a breath which incor­po­rates exces­sive resid­ual air.

Swim­mers who exhale any amount of air less than the max­i­mum they can force­ful­ly expel suf­fer this hand­i­cap. Yet even after many miles and many hours of swim­ming, most of us are reluc­tant to exhale ful­ly. The idea of being face-down in the water and out Vision

A pair of well-fit­ted gog­gles, adjust­ed so that they exclude water with­out apply­ing exces­sive pres­sure, is invalu­able. Under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, much sen­so­ry input is visu­al. We are jus­ti­fi­ably appre­hen­sive about mov­ing while unable to see. With­out gog­gles, under­wa­ter vision is severe­ly impaired, and relaxed atten­tion to swim­ming may be much more dif­fi­cult to achieve.

There are sev­er­al types of gog­gles, vary­ing wide­ly in shape and con­struc­tion. By exper­i­ment­ing care­ful­ly you can like­ly find some com­fort­able for you. What feels good to a per­son with an angu­lar face may allow water to pour in around anoth­ers full cheeks or wide-set eyes. If you see bet­ter with cor­rec­tive lens­es, con­sid­er wear­ing your con­tacts under your gog­gles, or pur­chas­ing a pair of pre­scrip­tion gog­gles which will enable you to see clear­ly. Hair long enough to inter­fere with vision can be tied back or cov­ered with a cap, which will also improve stream­lin­ing, and con­serve warmth.

Breathing Practices

The fol­low­ing exer­cis­es, designed to devel­op con­fi­dence in abil­i­ty to breathe ade­quate­ly, are based on the ideas that fear can be over­come if con­front­ed grad­u­al­ly, and that com­pli­cat­ed motor skills are fre­quent­ly best mas­tered by small increments.

Begin by find­ing a com­fort­able place to sit qui­et­ly, and become aware of the rhythm and depth of your breath­ing. At the out­set, observe with­out inter­fer­ence. How do you move to breathe? What do you feel? Place a hand over the abdomen and feel the out­ward pres­sure as breath enters and the lungs expand down­ward, and the inward move­ment as lungs col­lapse and breath is exhaled.

Next, begin to con­scious­ly alter your pat­tern, breath­ing in and out quick­ly and shal­low­ly a few times, then quick­ly and deeply, then slow­ly and shal­low­ly, and final­ly slow­ly and deeply. Set up dif­fer­ent rhythms, count­ing either silent­ly or aloud, and alter­ing both the total num­ber of beats per breath cycle and the ratio of inhala­tion to exha­la­tion. Prac­tice breath­ing through the mouth alone (gen­tly pinch the nos­trils closed with two fin­gers), and through the nose alone. Then change the pat­tern to inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose. Invent your own dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of rhythm and vol­ume using nose, mouth, and both. Hold the breath for a sec­ond or two between inhala­tion and exha­la­tion. Then inter­rupt each of these with stops, breath­ing first in, then out, in sev­er­al seg­ments with brief holds between.

Go slow­ly. Be patient. Breath­ing too rapid­ly and deeply can result in unusu­al­ly high blood oxy­gen lev­els, which leave us dizzy or faint. If you expe­ri­ence dif­fi­cul­ty in man­ag­ing the breath as out­lined here, be assured that you are one of many. A very small per­cent­age of adults, aside from those who have devot­ed con­scious atten­tion to breath­ing, can eas­i­ly shift among such diverse pat­terns. Many peo­ple learn to swim with­out attain­ing this capa­bil­i­ty; how­ev­er, some degree of breath con­trol is essen­tial to swim­ming, and lack there­of is very com­mon­ly the weak­est part of a novice’s technique.

After becom­ing more aware of breath in the safe­ty of the land envi­ron­ment, we are bet­ter pre­pared to breathe effec­tive­ly in the water. Enter the water gen­tly at a place where you can stand com­fort­ably with at least head and shoul­ders above the sur­face. If a wall or some oth­er immov­able object is avail­able, hold onto it with both hands, so that you feel as secure and com­fort­able as you can. Remain­ing sta­tion­ary, repeat the exer­cis­es which you per­formed on land. Be aware of ten­sion and anx­i­ety. If you feel uneasy, move to shal­low­er water, or even sit at pool­side with just feet and ankles wet.

You are devel­op­ing a new set of habits. Have fun! See if you can find the point where you shift from ease to dis­com­fort, and prac­tice just to the calm side of it. Most of us dis­cov­er that by per­sis­tent­ly approach­ing sit­u­a­tions in which we are uneasy, with­out actu­al­ly step­ping over the bound­ary between clear-head­ed­ness and fear-dom­i­nat­ed think­ing, we expand the lim­its of what we can do with plea­sure and con­fi­dence. Con­tin­ue the prac­tices out­lined here, grad­u­al­ly mov­ing to shoul­der deep water as you become more com­fort­able and relaxed.

Stop con­trol­ling the breath, and fall into what­ev­er breath­ing pat­tern is most nat­ur­al for you. Imag­ine that you are stand­ing on a hill, over­look­ing some pleas­ant pas­toral scene, feel­ing serene and at peace. Become aware of inhala­tion and exha­la­tion, with­out tak­ing any action to alter them. Flex each leg a few times; then shake each arm then; swiv­el the head from side to side. Tense the shoul­ders; and release them. Tight­en the stom­ach; and then loosen it. Do what­ev­er else seems appro­pri­ate to dis­cov­er and aban­don super­flu­ous tension.

Now, keep­ing rhythm and vol­ume as they are, begin breath­ing in through the mouth and out through the nose. Be cer­tain to close the mouth quick­ly and tight­ly at the end of each inhala­tion, almost as though the lips were cut­ting off the tail of the incom­ing stream of air. Exhale steadi­ly through the nose.

Once you have made this pat­tern auto­mat­ic, start bend­ing, then straight­en­ing, the knees a lit­tle with each exha­la­tion, so that the water lev­el ris­es around the neck, then falls again. Grad­u­al­ly increase the amount of knee-bend­ing until the water cov­ers first the chin, then the mouth, as you exhale. Feel how the air leav­ing the nose dis­turbs the sur­face of the water as you sink deep­er. Prac­tice blow­ing a few bub­bles with each exha­la­tion, being care­ful to begin exhal­ing before the nose drops through the sur­face, and to con­tin­ue breath­ing out until it is well clear of the water again.

As you become adept at keep­ing water out of the nose, bend the knees more ful­ly. Con­tin­ue to increase the depth to which you sub­merge until head is com­plete­ly under­wa­ter. Face for­ward and keep feet under you and firm­ly on the bot­tom. Increase the vol­ume of each breath, and be con­scious of exhal­ing ful­ly. Stop with head above sur­face, and check to be sure that you exhaled ful­ly, by breath­ing out fur­ther if you can. Repeat this sequence until you are con­sis­tent­ly exhal­ing com­plete­ly, that is, until you arrive above the sur­face with­out the abil­i­ty to exhale further.

Although the few drops of water which occa­sion­al­ly roll into the mouth dur­ing inhala­tion may seem dis­con­cert­ing at first, most peo­ple soon learn to expel them eas­i­ly with the next exha­la­tion. After awhile, you will be able to estab­lish a rhythm which you can con­tin­ue indef­i­nite­ly. The abil­i­ty to swim eas­i­ly will come only after you reject the strat­e­gy of breath-hold­ing. Now, while you are safe and com­fort­able, stand­ing on the bot­tom and mov­ing in a way which requires lit­tle ener­gy, is an ide­al oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn to breathe.

We can become more aware of what we are doing by keep­ing eyes open at all times and look­ing around us. Per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, this is for many an aid to breath­ing con­scious­ly and eas­i­ly. Prac­tice by allow­ing aware­ness of breath­ing to dis­place all oth­er sen­sa­tion. Lis­ten to breath. See it by watch­ing bub­bles. We can taste the dif­fer­ence in the air, “fla­vored” as it is by water. Become engrossed with breath­ing. When you feel that you can con­tin­ue for­ev­er, do a hun­dred or so, count­ing. If you find this easy, you’re prob­a­bly ready to learn some­thing else.

Many novice swim­mers find eas­i­est a rhythm in which breath is always mobile. Exha­la­tion and inhala­tion are con­nect­ed ele­ments of a con­tin­u­ous cycle, and the bound­ary between them is all-but-imper­cep­ti­ble. Accom­plished freestylers often adopt a pat­tern of inhala­tion, pause, and explo­sive exha­la­tion. Since the abil­i­ty to remain sub­merged with­out exhal­ing, and with­out tak­ing water through the nose, is a skill use­ful in a vari­ety of con­texts, you will prob­a­bly ben­e­fit by begin­ning to learn it early.

Most of us are famil­iar with the way in which an invert­ed drink­ing glass can be sub­merged with­out fill­ing with water. The expla­na­tion for this phe­nom­e­non is that the air with­in the glass fills the space and pre­vents water from enter­ing. We may think of the nos­trils of a per­son per­form­ing the breath­ing exer­cis­es out­lined above as the mouth of the drink­ing glass. So long as the air pres­sure at the nos­tril is suf­fi­cient, water stays out. If we remain ver­ti­cal in the water, we can main­tain ade­quate pres­sure with­out exhaling.

To learn this, inhale deeply above the sur­face, then set­tle down into the water while exhal­ing gen­tly and steadi­ly. Once beneath the sur­face, slow exha­la­tion to the barest trick­le of air, marked by a nar­row col­umn of tiny bub­bles mov­ing upward past the eyes. Then, stop exhal­ing alto­geth­er for a few sec­onds. Final­ly, resum­ing exha­la­tion, move upwards into the air. With prac­tice, we can learn to stop and start the exha­la­tion repeat­ed­ly dur­ing a sin­gle sub­mer­sion. Once we have accom­plished this, we can move to hold­ing the breath as we enter the water and for a time there­after, and expelling it force­ful­ly as we rise through the surface.

Rotating to Inhale

Accom­plished freestyle swim­mers rotate the head, rather than lift it, in order to inhale. To begin to learn this motion, stand in water a bit more than waist deep, with feet about shoul­der width apart, knees flexed slight­ly and hands on thighs, so that upper body is close, and more or less par­al­lel, to the sur­face. Begin as before, with a full exha­la­tion and a deep inhala­tion. Then bend for­ward with hips and knees until upper body and face are in the water, and start a cycle of exha­la­tion in the water, and inhala­tion fac­ing to the side and slight­ly to the rear.

Pull mouth to the high side of face and shape it to allow you to remain low in the water. With care you can keep one eye under­wa­ter, even while inhal­ing. Turn head first, fol­low­ing with shoul­ders, and bend­ing knee and elbow on the “down” side to facil­i­tate this rota­tion. If, in com­par­ing the motions of breath­ing to each side, you dis­cov­er dis­crep­an­cy, choose the more direct and com­fort­able move­ment and use it to both left and right. Once again, prac­tice until you can con­tin­ue indefinitely.

Visual Cues

While breath­ing this way, you may learn to rec­og­nize the visu­al pat­tern which accom­pa­nies effi­cient head-turn­ing motion. Gaz­ing in the direc­tion you are fac­ing, most­ly for­ward though slight­ly down­ward, with­out actu­al­ly focus­ing on any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, iden­ti­fy the approx­i­mate cen­ter of visu­al field, and observe how you direct it with each breath cycle. As you turn to inhale, this point arcs side­wards and back­wards along the bot­tom, then upwards and back­wards through the sur­face to a point behind you and to the side. After inhala­tion it returns along a sim­i­lar trajectory.

If you cause the cen­ter of visu­al field to jump through the sur­face as you begin to turn, you are lift­ing the head, rather than piv­ot­ing it, to find breath. If you plunge it down­wards to a point near­ly beneath you when you return to the water, you are car­ry­ing it too deeply, and look­ing ahead too lit­tle. To trace the pat­tern out­lined here, rotate the head so that chin approach­es shoul­der, allow­ing you to look rear­ward as you inhale. To face for­ward with head above water while swim­ming freestyle is dif­fi­cult and inefficient.

In some ways, breath­ing to the side while stand­ing in shal­low water is more dif­fi­cult than doing so while swim­ming. When we are mov­ing rel­a­tive to water, we are actu­al­ly bend­ing the sur­face. Like the bow of a boat, the head push­es up a wave as we move through the water. Fol­low­ing close behind is a depres­sion in which we may breathe. Because the sur­face here is low­er than that of the sur­round­ing water, we can expose mouth and nose to air with less turn­ing. Fur­ther­more, in our bent-over posi­tion, few of us can open chest and arch upper back as we do when swim­ming freestyle. We face more to the pool bot­tom and are less able to rotate freely, and we are con­strained in using all the mus­cles by which we expand the chest cav­i­ty to breathe deeply.

Sym­me­try Alter­nate sides with each breath. This may well be essen­tial to the devel­op­ment of a sym­met­ri­cal freestyle. At first almost every­one feels more com­fort­able breath­ing to one side or the oth­er. Learn­ing to breathe to the oppo­site side will only become more dif­fi­cult if you neglect to prac­tice from the out­set. Swim­mers who breathe to either side can ana­lyze each stroke ele­ment in terms of bilat­er­al sym­me­try. Any­one who breathes to only one side sac­ri­fices this mode of learn­ing, and reduces swim­ming from a bal­anced move­ment to one which pro­motes asym­met­ri­cal development.

Lest this seem of lit­tle impor­tance, reflect upon the grow­ing asym­me­try evi­dent as humans age, and upon the fre­quen­cy with which aches and pains are uni­lat­er­al. By overus­ing one side and under­uti­liz­ing the oth­er, we may accel­er­ate the rate at which we weak­en and wear out, and increase the like­li­hood of a wide vari­ety of somat­ic com­plaints. Swim­ming pro­vides a gen­tle way to regain a lit­tle bal­ance in our motor com­pe­tence. Why squan­der the opportunity?

Land Practices

There are ways of sim­u­lat­ing some aspects of the freestyle breath­ing motion while stand­ing on dry land. Begin by stand­ing with feet shoul­der width apart, about two feet from the wall of some room with an eight to ten foot ceil­ing. Fac­ing upwards towards the line where wall and ceil­ing meet and reach­ing as high as you com­fort­ably can with both arms, you are ori­ent­ed as though swim­ming direct­ly away from the ground, towards the ceil­ing. By exhal­ing, drop­ping one arm, arch­ing back­wards slight­ly, and rotat­ing head, shoul­ders, and hips until you can look over the shoul­der of the dropped arm and see calves and heels, you approx­i­mate in an exag­ger­at­ed way the rolling and turn­ing by which to pre­pare for inhala­tion. By inhal­ing, and turn­ing to look at the junc­ture of wall and ceil­ing while swing­ing the dropped arm back over­head, you imi­tate the return to face-in-water swim­ming position.

Lay the foun­da­tion for a relaxed “recov­ery” of the pulling arm to a posi­tion of exten­sion before you, by learn­ing to use shoul­der motion to swing the arm back to the over­head posi­tion, rather than using con­tract­ed biceps to car­ry it tense­ly. By repeat­ing this exer­cise to each side many times, you can ingrain a pat­tern of move­ment by which to remain low in the water and stream­lined, even while inhal­ing. While lack­ing the inter­ac­tion with water of bent-over, shal­low water breath­ing, this prac­tice can be an excel­lent way to become acquaint­ed with the many turn­ing move­ments nec­es­sary to effi­cient breathing.


There is a sim­ple tech­nique for remain­ing at the sur­face which requires lit­tle skill or strength. Dur­ing the 1940’s it was used by the Unit­ed States Navy to “drown­proof” thou­sands of sailors. Before you move out of water where you can com­fort­ably stand, be cer­tain that you can stay afloat eas­i­ly for an indef­i­nite peri­od. If you go into deep water feel­ing appre­hen­sive, you like­ly will be imped­ed in fur­ther learning.


Vir­tu­al­ly every­one floats with lungs inflat­ed. Even those of us who are most­ly mus­cle and bone, and are there­fore rel­a­tive­ly dense com­pared with water, will usu­al­ly remain at the sur­face if we take a deep breath and lie face-down and motion­less in the water. Legs and arms may hang down, but with upper tor­so full of air, shoul­ders and chest are buoy­ant. Waves or cur­rents may bounce us or car­ry us along, but in all but extreme cir­cum­stances we are effort­less­ly sta­ble in this posi­tion. You can con­firm this by per­son­al experiment.

Stand in chest-deep water, take a deep breath, and bend for­ward until you face the bot­tom with head and tor­so com­plete­ly sub­merged. You will like­ly sense weight being lift­ed off legs, and feet ris­ing from the bot­tom. By doing this slow­ly and grad­u­al­ly, you can feel the added buoy­an­cy which comes with each incre­ment of sub­mer­sion. As you become more con­fi­dent, you can learn to allow arms, legs, and head to just dan­gle, sup­port­ed by the water, rather than by mus­cu­lar work. When you are ready for anoth­er breath, you can eas­i­ly enough find the bot­tom, exhale with face still in water, stand, and inhale.

If you have already prac­ticed breath­ing in shal­low water, exhal­ing below the sur­face and inhal­ing above it, you will like­ly be able to repeat the actions out­lined above many times in suc­ces­sion. To refine this prac­tice, and bring it clos­er to what you will even­tu­al­ly do in deep water, you can put feet on the bot­tom, exhale force­ful­ly, as if blow­ing the nose with head still sub­merged, lift head direct­ly, inhale once, and drop back into the water relaxed, hold­ing the breath until ready to repeat the cycle. Prac­tic­ing this, you will dis­cov­er that you sink slight­ly as you enter the water, then float back to the sur­face and remain there, buoyed by the air in full lungs.

Generating Lift

Next, learn to move arms and legs in a man­ner which lets you inhale above the sur­face with­out rely­ing upon the bot­tom. The arm action most peo­ple con­sid­er eas­i­est begins with upper arms pressed to ears, and forarms fold­ed across top of head. In a sin­gle broad sweep with palms angled out­wards and down­wards, bring the hands across in front and out to the sides, press­ing steadi­ly downward.

Many peo­ple instinc­tive­ly know how to “scull” with hands and arms in order to rise from the water. If you pre­fer this move­ment, or if you have mas­tered the sin­gle sweep motion and want fur­ther chal­lenge, prac­tice to dis­cov­er an out­ward-inward-out­ward tilt of palms syn­chro­nized with an out-in-out arm motion to increase the effec­tive­ness of down­ward pressure.

Dif­fer­ent kinds of kick­ing, from flut­ter, to scis­sors, to bicy­cling, to “frog” can aug­ment the lift from hands and arms. The best of these for any of us will be that from which we feel great­est lift with least ener­gy expend­ed. As you become more expe­ri­enced and con­fi­dent, hone these motions until you do only the min­i­mum work necessary.


Care­ful breath­ing is cru­cial to your suc­cess. Only by hold­ing breath until you are float­ing sta­bly, then exhal­ing rapid­ly while employ­ing arms and legs to lift head for a quick inhala­tion, can you min­i­mize the ener­gy nec­es­sary to con­tin­ue the sequence. To wait to exhale until already above the sur­face is to linger too long with head out of water, sup­port­ed by mus­cu­lar work of arms and legs rather than by buoyancy.

The inhala­tion actu­al­ly comes after arm and leg motion is com­plete, while you still have upward momen­tum. As soon as you have inhaled, relax all but the breath-hold­ing mus­cles and fall back into the water. The less you rise from the water, the eas­i­er your task. The pat­tern is one of: brief bursts of arm and leg action accom­pa­ny­ing exha­la­tion, quick inhala­tion, and longer peri­ods of loose inac­tion and breath holding.


At this point, your major objec­tive is con­fi­dence. Repeat the cycle again and again, avoid­ing touch­ing the bot­tom even though you know you can do so if nec­es­sary. After you have con­tin­ued for per­haps a hun­dred rep­e­ti­tions, recov­er­ing from an occa­sion­al gulp of water with­out pan­ick­ing or putting feet down, you are ready to move to water too deep for you to stand with head above sur­face. There, under the watch­ful eye of a friend who is strong enough and well-enough trained to stand between you and drown­ing, you can test your com­pe­tence until you are assured of your abil­i­ty to remain afloat indefinitely.


Why Bob?

One of the keys to joy­ful swim­ming is to be always alert for ways to change by small incre­ments. In this man­ner we can main­tain a sense of calm even as we exper­i­ment with new skills. Many peo­ple find the tran­si­tion to freestyle swim­ming from exer­cis­es where we stand with feet on bot­tom in shal­low water, or from a sim­ple tech­nique like drown­proof­ing, too large to be made in a sin­gle leap. Bob­bing is an exten­sion of eas­i­er prac­tices by which we may fur­ther devel­op our abil­i­ty to coor­di­nate arm and leg motion with breath­ing pat­terns sim­i­lar to those used in freestyle swimming.

As adults, we often approach freestyle swim­ming with very def­i­nite ideas about the move­ments we will use and the order in which we will learn them. With such atti­tudes we can impose severe obsta­cles to swim­ming com­pe­tence. First, the pic­ture-per­fect freestyle many of us seek is acces­si­ble only to those who are excep­tion­al­ly relaxed, strong, flex­i­ble, coor­di­nat­ed, and somat­i­cal­ly aware. Few of us will ever swim to Olympic gold, or even come close. Sec­ond­ly, each ele­ment of stoke tech­nique is affect­ed by the oth­ers. To devote too much atten­tion to any par­tic­u­lar one is to risk ignor­ing the weak link. Final­ly, like walk­ing, swim­ming is a tri­al and error process, even when we learn as adults. Just as we now walk far dif­fer­ent­ly from the way we did as chil­dren, so will we some­day swim far dif­fer­ent­ly from the way we now do. In the inter­im, we can gain much by stay­ing open to new ways of doing things, and by devel­op­ing the kind of aware­ness that lets us change eas­i­ly from one tech­nique to anoth­er as we become more adept.

Begin with Breath

To begin bob­bing, find some­one com­pe­tent to super­vise you in water at least sev­en feet deep, where you are with­out the abil­i­ty to touch bot­tom, even when hang­ing by hands from the gut­ter along the pool wall. Estab­lish a reg­u­lar breath­ing pat­tern, this time hold­ing onto the wall and using arms to rise and fall as you exhale below the sur­face and inhale above it. Remain in a ver­ti­cal posi­tion, fac­ing the wall. As in shal­low water breath­ing prac­tices, pause occa­sion­al­ly out of the water to see whether you can pos­si­bly exhale more ful­ly. Even though you may feel you can sus­tain this motion with par­tial breaths, breathe out com­plete­ly and force­ful­ly. To car­ry a habit of incom­plete exha­la­tion away from the wall is to impose a severe hand­i­cap on lat­er practices.

Be atten­tive to any signs of super­flu­ous ten­sion, and focus upon being loose from head to toe. Do only that work which is nec­es­sary to lift head from water and breathe. Those who are most­ly mus­cle and bone with lit­tle fat will sink more slow­ly and less deeply if we wait to exhale, just as we did when prac­tic­ing drown­proof­ing, until we are ready to bring face above sur­face and inhale. If you adopt this method, be espe­cial­ly care­ful to breathe out rapid­ly as you press arms down­ward to rise, so that you may inhale imme­di­ate­ly upon enter­ing the air, and avoid lin­ger­ing out of the water.

The Arm Pull

After becom­ing com­fort­able in this breath­ing pat­tern release one hand, and turn so that you face par­al­lel to, rather than into, the wall. Float the free hand and arm near the sur­face and to the side as you sub­merge, then press down­ward, flap­ping the arm like a wing until hand meets thigh, to rise into the air and inhale. If you exper­i­ment with sculling, angling palm and fore­arm alter­nate­ly out­ward and inward, and sweep­ing back and forth in the direc­tion they are angled as you press down­ward, you may dis­cov­er greater resis­tance to down­ward motion, and more eas­i­ly rise to breathe. Come up only so far as is nec­es­sary to inhale with­out tak­ing in water, for the less you rise from the water, the more gen­tly you return to it. As in drown­proof­ing, the inhala­tion comes with hand rest­ing at thigh, as you con­tin­ue ris­ing with the momen­tum from the down­ward pull.

Working with the Water

When you sink down­wards again, let buoy­an­cy and the resis­tance of the water aid in mov­ing arm and hand away from side and upwards towards the sur­face. The feel­ing of water push­ing arm out and up as you descend is sim­i­lar to that of air push­ing back­wards on an arm extend­ed from the win­dow of a mov­ing car. Be care­ful to keep hand and arm sub­merged at all times, and to begin the pull grad­u­al­ly so that you avoid cre­at­ing an effi­cien­cy-reduc­ing air pock­et behind the hand. If you hear any splash­ing or plop­ping sounds from the pulling hand, you are like­ly reach­ing above the sur­face or begin­ning the pow­er­stroke too abruptly.

By becom­ing attuned to the grav­i­ta­tion­al and buoy­ant forces pulling you down­ward and upward respec­tive­ly, find a rhythm that enables you to act in syn­chrony with the water and to use your own ener­gy effi­cient­ly. Vary­ing the amount of time you wait before exhal­ing and pulling to the sur­face, dis­cov­er a nat­ur­al rhythm of upward and down­ward motion large­ly deter­mined by the alter­nate dom­i­na­tion of grav­i­ty and buoy­an­cy as you rise from and sink into the water. Like the spring of a clock which gives just a small impulse to the mech­a­nism with each swing of the pen­du­lum, you pull to add just enough ener­gy to keep oscil­lat­ing steadi­ly. By imag­in­ing the lungs to be an inflat­ed bel­lows, and the down­ward sweep of the pulling arm to be what emp­ties them, you can coor­di­nate exha­la­tion with down­ward arm movement.

The pull is a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous motion, always with a down­ward com­po­nent though rarely direct­ly down­wards. Fol­low it with relax­ation and rest. If you are mov­ing the arm in oth­er ways, for exam­ple, in a series of short, quick pulls, you are like­ly doing so to pro­long your time above the sur­face. This will only be nec­es­sary if you have failed to mas­ter an easy, rhyth­mic breath­ing pat­tern, or are yet to become con­fi­dent of your bouyan­cy. Either short­com­ing can be reme­died by addi­tion­al breath­ing practice.

Refining the Pull

After awhile, exper­i­ment with rely­ing almost entire­ly upon the free arm, rather than the wall-hold­ing arm, to bring you above the sur­face. The feel for the water you devel­op here, as you focus on the move­ment of a sin­gle arm while retain­ing the secu­ri­ty of the wall, is a foun­da­tion for sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of an effec­tive freestyle arm­stroke. Now is the time to shift from flap­ping or indis­crim­i­nate sculling to three dis­tinct sweeps of arm motion, for you will use some­thing quite sim­i­lar as you swim.

First, rotate palm and fore­arm to face about 45 degrees to the out­side, and press down­ward and out­ward; next, smooth­ly rotate palm to face about 45 degrees inward, and sweep arm across in front of tor­so, bend­ing elbow to bring hand inward towards tor­so until it is about a foot from navel; final­ly, extend the wrist and angle palms slight­ly out­wards as you press down­ward and to the out­side again. After mas­ter­ing these move­ments with one arm, repeat them with the oth­er. Freestyle swim­ming can be kept bilat­er­al­ly sym­met­ri­cal, and even with exer­cis­es like these, we ben­e­fit by giv­ing equal atten­tion to right and left.

Two Arms off the Wall

When this prac­tice is easy, release your hold on the wall, and remain close to it. Inhal­ing deeply, allow arms to float upwards in front of you, hands close togeth­er, as you descend into the water. Wait­ing until buoy­an­cy has arrest­ed your descent, and brought you back close to the sur­face, sweep both arms down­ward as before. The over­all effect is to trace with fin­ger­tips some­thing akin to the sil­hou­ette of a large, nar­row-necked vase invert­ed before you. Angle palms par­tial­ly, though less than exact­ly, in the direc­tion of motion. Most peo­ple, even those who are rel­a­tive­ly weak, rel­a­tive­ly dense, or both, dis­cov­er that they can come above the sur­face and breathe at will, so long as they inhale deeply, hold breath until buoy­an­cy brings them near the sur­face, and sweep the arms effectively.

The Kick

By learn­ing to exe­cute a sin­gle broad scis­sors kick simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with the arm pull, you can rise more eas­i­ly above the sur­face to inhale. Fac­ing par­al­lel to the wall and hold­ing on with one hand, bend one knee to about a right angle, draw­ing foot of that leg up along the oth­er calf. Then reach out, for­ward and down­ward with the heel of the bent leg, as though you are step­ping up over an object about a foot high and then down onto the ground behind it. While reach­ing, extend the leg ful­ly, even rotat­ing the hip for­ward. Final­ly pull back­wards from the hip, swing­ing the straight­ened leg down­ward until it is again direct­ly under­neath you and along­side the other.

To visu­al­ize this dif­fer­ent­ly, imag­ine that you are beneath the water, to the side of, and look­ing towards, a per­son per­form­ing this motion. The path traced by the heel of the step­ping leg will be an uneven lozenge shape. Going for­ward, the curve is quite round­ed, approx­i­mat­ing a semi-cir­cle of one to two foot radius; com­ing back it is a sixth or eighth of a cir­cle with radius equal to the dis­tance from hip to heel.

If you make this motion smooth and and are atten­tive to reach­ing out gen­tly and pulling down­ward force­ful­ly, you feel the upward thrust gen­er­at­ed each time you bring the legs togeth­er. With prac­tice, you learn to inhale above the sur­face with legs togeth­er beneath you, pick up foot and reach out with leg as you set­tle back into the water, wait patient­ly for buoy­an­cy to arrest your descent and lift you upwards, and then exhale force­ful­ly as you approach the sur­face and again kick down­ward to rise above it and inhale.

When you are able to do this equal­ly well with either leg, go on to the next step, reach­ing back­wards. This time, after bend­ing knee and draw­ing foot up along oppo­site calf, reach to the rear with the toe of the foot until leg is again ful­ly extend­ed, hip rotat­ed back­wards. From this posi­tion rotate hip to the front, kick­ing down­ward and for­ward until both legs are togeth­er below you. As before, if you per­form the kick prop­er­ly you feel a lit­tle upward boost with each down­swing, and can use the sub­se­quent descent as an aid in posi­tion­ing the leg for the next appli­ca­tion of pow­er. The path traced by the toe of the foot mov­ing to the rear and swing­ing down­ward is sim­i­lar to the path of the heel of the for­ward-reach­ing foot, described above.

In both the for­ward and rear­ward leg motions, you can sense the greater effec­tive­ness of reach­ing, rather than swing­ing the legs, as you pre­pare to apply pow­er. Swing­ing legs open exerts down ward force; draw­ing up and step­ping out brakes down­ward motion. Whether mov­ing to front or to rear, step out­wards. To the front, be care­ful to avoid feel­ing the pres­sure of water on shin that indi­cates swing­ing for­ward or upward. To the rear, be sen­si­tive to water pres­sure on the calf that sig­ni­fies swing­ing in that direction.

Two Legs Together

Once you have mas­tered the use of each leg sep­a­rate­ly, both to front and to rear, you are ready to use both legs togeth­er. Bend­ing knees at the same time, and bring­ing feet up togeth­er, reach out simul­ta­ne­ous­ly to front and rear, extend­ing legs and rotat­ing hips. With a sin­gle motion, twist hips to face for­ward, and swing legs down­ward to meet beneath you. Per­formed cor­rect­ly, this kick is pow­er­ful enough that you rise sharply and rapid­ly for some distance.

Here, even more than with the sin­gle-leg kicks, you can feel the advan­tages of using the pres­sure of water you meet as you descend to aid in lift­ing feet and in extend­ing legs ful­ly. In addi­tion to facil­i­tat­ing the motions by which you pre­pare for the next pow­er kick, sep­a­rat­ing the legs as you descend dis­si­pates the grav­i­ta­tion­al forces pulling you down­wards, and reduces the depth to which you sink.

Most peo­ple at first pre­fer to reach for­ward repeat­ed­ly with one leg, rotat­ing hips to the same side per­haps ten or twen­ty times before revers­ing the motion and reach­ing for­ward with the oth­er leg while rotat­ing to the oppo­site side for an equal num­ber of kicks. This can be valu­able at the out­set, but even­tu­al­ly we want to be able to feel com­fort­able with any pat­tern of alter­na­tion. If move­ment to one side seems more dif­fi­cult or less pow­er­ful, we can become more bal­anced by empha­siz­ing this side in our practice.

Arms and Legs Together

Now that you have learned to use arms alone or legs alone, you are ready to coor­di­nate one arm with both legs. Since we apply pow­er with arm and legs simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, this is a rel­a­tive­ly easy step. Begin hold­ing the wall with one hand and fac­ing par­al­lel to it, and prac­tice using one arm and both legs. After sev­er­al dozen rep­e­ti­tions with left arm pulling, left leg reach­ing for­ward, move to left arm pulling, right leg reach­ing for­ward, then to right arm pulling with right leg for­ward, and final­ly to right arm pulling with left leg for­ward. The more dif­fi­cult you find any one of these, the more like­ly you will ben­e­fit by prac­tic­ing it. The sen­si­tiv­i­ty to sub­tle torques and imbal­ances you devel­op here will be invalu­able as you tack­le the more chal­leng­ing motions of freestyle swimming.

Soon enough most of us dis­cov­er that we are hard­ly hold­ing onto the wall at all. Let­ting go, we begin bob­bing eas­i­ly, using both arms as we did before, and employ­ing legs as we learned along the wall. To become even more con­fi­dent, we may con­tin­ue by cross­ing ankles, and pulling with arms alone to pow­er the ascent, or by empha­siz­ing leg move­ment, and kick­ing to the sur­face with arms at sides.

Patience and Ease

Bob­bing is an activ­i­ty with long rests and firm, sin­gle pull/kick com­bi­na­tions. If you feel tempt­ed to clam­ber with arms or to kick repeat­ed­ly to reach the sur­face, you are like­ly attempt­ing to com­pen­sate for pre­ma­ture exha­la­tion which leaves you sink­ing too deeply, for lack of con­fi­dence which results in fail­ure to wait for buoy­an­cy to bring you back close to the sur­face, or for inef­fi­cient arm and leg motions. The rem­e­dy for all of these is the same: more prac­tice on the wall until you become bet­ter aware of what you are doing and how you are feel­ing, and thus bet­ter able to change.

At vir­tu­al­ly every lev­el of swim­ming, we learn best when relaxed. If you dis­cov­er you have lost the easy, con­fi­dent relax­ation you felt at a pri­or stage, you are almost cer­tain to be bet­ter off return­ing to what you do com­fort­ably. To press for­ward in anx­i­ety is to dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce our chances of learn­ing well.

Movement in the Plane of the Surface

Once we can bob in place indef­i­nite­ly, we are well on the way to swim­ming com­pe­tence. We can breathe; we can move both arms and legs in a use­ful way; and we can syn­chro­nize breath with oth­er move­ment. All that remains is to trav­el in the hor­i­zon­tal plane.

Begin by reach­ing for­ward slight­ly as arms float upwards and pulling back­wards as well as down­wards to rise from the water. Keep the tor­so ver­ti­cal! If you flex at the hips, you will slide back­wards each time you return to the water. Mere­ly by alter­ing the path of the arms so that they begin, extend­ed for­ward at shoul­der height or above, and end at the sides, you will like­ly be able to advance a few inch­es with each bob. Empha­size the for­ward reach of the kick to gain even more dis­tance with each rise and fall.

Alternating Arms

Next, pull with only one arm at a time, allow­ing the oth­er to float eas­i­ly before you, hand remain­ing always near the sur­face. Many learn this more quick­ly by pulling repeat­ed­ly with one arm, then chang­ing to the oth­er. Some find util­i­ty in grasp­ing the gut­ter or a kick­board with both hands between pulls, to learn the dis­ci­pline of return­ing to the hands-in-front posi­tion before each ascent. With each arm, prac­tice both right leg for­ward and left leg for­ward in kick­ing. Ini­tial­ly, remain in one place, but as you devel­op con­fi­dence, once again reach for­ward and pull to the rear to travel.

Turning to Enhance the Pull

As you gain a bet­ter feel for the water, you will prob­a­bly dis­cov­er that step­ping for­ward with the leg on the same side as the pulling arm feels eas­i­er. As you do this, turn to face to the pulling side as you rise from the water and inhale. Fin­ish each pull with both hips and shoul­ders turned so that a line may be drawn through them straight along the arm which remains at the sur­face. Wait until you sink back below the sur­face, to face for­ward and again gen­tly bring the arm with which you just pulled back to a posi­tion in front of you and beside the other.

Once this is com­fort­able, tilt the head so that ear moves close to rest­ing arm as you turn to face to the side. Now you prob­a­bly have a greater sense of push­ing back­wards against the water with the pulling arm to dri­ve the arm extend­ed for­ward in the direc­tion it is aimed. Keep the ear near­er the for­ward arm in the water as you breathe. As you exert more force back­wards, you will like­ly begin to angle for­ward more, with legs and tor­so swing­ing upward towards the sur­face. When inhal­ing, look to the side and slight­ly rear­ward, long axis of the head more hor­i­zon­tal than ver­ti­cal. Remem­ber to wait until you have com­plet­ed the arm pull to inhale, and to close the mouth abrupt­ly at the end of inhalation.

Recovering Over the Water

By pulling through ful­ly, you end the pow­er phase with arm behind you and near the sur­face. With a lit­tle adjust­ment, you can recov­er the pulling arm through the air. Begin by lift­ing it from the water behind you. Then swing it around to the side at about a forty-five degree angle to the sur­face as you turn to face for­ward. Final­ly, drop it in front of you beside the oth­er arm before begin­ning the next pull. This is a quick­er recov­ery, so there will be less time between pulls. With stead­ier propul­sive force, you will move clos­er to a hor­i­zon­tal posi­tion. As you gain adept­ness, be increas­ing­ly con­scious of loose­ness and relax­ation in the recov­er­ing arm. Remem­ber that you are alter­nat­ing work with rest.

Though far from the fastest freestyle, this is a tech­nique by which some of us can swim con­tin­u­ous­ly for long enough peri­ods and at high enough lev­els of ener­gy con­ver­sion to achieve car­dio­vas­cu­lar train­ing. Many novices swim like this for dozens of laps, some­times bob­bing at the wall after each length to recov­er a sense of eas­i­ness and relax­ation. The advan­tages of this pat­tern, where we breathe on every pull and bob to recov­er, are that activ­i­ty is con­tin­u­ous, pro­vid­ing greater oppor­tu­ni­ty for car­dio­vas­cu­lar train­ing, that the ratio of breath to motion is high, reduc­ing fatigue, and that the essen­tial ele­ments of freestyle breath­ing, exha­la­tion in the water and inhala­tion above, are uninterrupted.

Developing Awareness

As you move through each stage of bob­bing towards a tra­di­tion­al freestyle stroke, you will encounter myr­i­ad oppor­tu­ni­ties to cul­ti­vate the aware­ness which is the foun­da­tion for con­tin­u­ing improve­ment. At every step you will con­front slight­ly dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, each of which is and invi­ta­tion to acquire some new skill.

The list of items to which we can attend is seem­ing­ly end­less. Are we relaxed? Can we feel loose­ness in feet, calves, legs, bel­ly, back, chest, shoul­ders, neck, hands, arms, mouth, fore­head…? Are we exhal­ing com­plete­ly? Is ver­ti­cal motion con­sis­tent in ampli­tude and steadi­ly dimin­ish­ing? Can we sense the resis­tance of the water through­out our pow­er strokes? Are our recov­ery motions flu­id and easy? Are we at any moment ready to describe what we see? Do we feel buoy­an­cy, and time move­ment to take advan­tage of it?

Bob­bing and its vari­ants also offer oppor­tu­ni­ties to hone skills we can apply to more tra­di­tion­al freestyle swim­ming. Are we rotat­ing shoul­ders both as we pull back­wards and as we swing for­ward to recov­er over the water? Have we syn­chro­nized rolling into prone posi­tion with the swing­ing of arm as we reach? Are we look­ing low and to the side, and slight­ly to the rear, as we inhale? Do we adjust the direc­tion of arm sweeps and the pitch of fore­arms and hands to find still, max­i­mal­ly resis­tant water?

Many swim­mers reach this stage and become eager to just “start swim­ming.” A hand­ful are able to do this. The major­i­ty, how­ev­er, very quick­ly dis­cov­er that they lose the easy rhythm of bob­bing if they attempt to soon to kick up so that their lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis is par­al­lel to the sur­face. Most impor­tant, now as before, is to lim­it your activ­i­ty to that which is com­fort­able. The tran­si­tion from bob­bing in place, to bob­bing in a con­sis­tent direc­tion, to swim­ming freestyle con­tin­u­ous­ly can be very grad­ual. For some of us, ten sta­tion­ary bobs, fol­lowed by two direct­ed bobs is a fine way to begin. As we grow cer­tain that this will be easy, we can shift the ratio, or the num­ber of bobs in the cycle. If at any point you feel appre­hen­sive, you are over­reach­ing, and will like­ly find greater sat­is­fac­tion and more learn­ing by return­ing to what­ev­er is easy.

Physics for Swimmers

Many adults, espe­cial­ly those of us who have come of age in indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties, rely heav­i­ly upon sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge in our dai­ly lives. We have learned that the meth­ods and lan­guage of sci­ence are enor­mous­ly use­ful in under­stand­ing the world around us, and in shap­ing our inter­ac­tions with the envi­ron­ment to achieve pre­dictable results. Even those of us who are some­what intim­i­dat­ed by sci­ence often act on the basis of infor­ma­tion sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly accu­mu­lat­ed. The the­o­ries under­pin­ning con­tem­po­rary swim tech­nique have been elab­o­rat­ed in terms of sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ples by peo­ple who inves­ti­gat­ed the nature of swim­ming in a sci­en­tif­ic way. By remem­ber­ing a hand­ful of these ideas, all eas­i­ly under­stand­able in terms of every­day expe­ri­ence, we may gain pow­er­ful new tools with which to ana­lyze each ele­ment of our freestyle.

Ideas About Force and Motion

The major­i­ty of us are famil­iar with walk­ing and run­ning. To per­form these motions, we push down­wards and back­wards against the earth. As a result we move upwards and for­wards. On those occa­sions when we meet insuf­fi­cient resis­tance to our down­ward, back­ward push­ing, or exces­sive resis­tance to our upwards and for­wards motion, we remain sta­tion­ary. Car­toon car­i­ca­tures of some­one wild­ly run­ning in place on ice or oth­er slip­pery sur­face, or while push­ing against some object too heavy to move offer amus­ing exam­ples of these all-too-famil­iar plights. Less extreme cas­es include those where two peo­ple face each oth­er on skates and push, and both move back­wards, or where some­one jumps or dives from a free-float­ing boat, and it scoots off in the oppo­site direc­tion. In these sit­u­a­tions the force is applied equal­ly, and in oppo­site direc­tions, to the two objects. All oth­er things being the same, the less mas­sive object moves far­ther and faster.

The les­son in all of this is that motion results from the appli­ca­tion of force, and the rel­a­tive size of the resis­tance to this force in each direc­tion along the line of appli­ca­tion deter­mines the mag­ni­tude of the result­ing motions in those direc­tions. The for­ward motion of swim­ming results from the appli­ca­tion of back­wards forces against the resis­tance of the water. If these forces, and the resis­tance they meet, are larg­er than the resis­tance posed by the water to for­ward motion of the body, we swim. Oth­er­wise, we may flail to exhaus­tion with­out mov­ing for­ward at all. Freestyle tech­nique is designed to deliv­er max­i­mal rear­ward force against max­i­mal­ly resis­tant water, to min­i­mize resis­tance to for­ward motion, and to achieve both these ends with efficiency.


By under­stand­ing the con­cept of torque we may bet­ter visu­al­ize the effects of var­i­ous motions. Torque is a rota­tion­al force, which tends to turn an object about its cen­ter of mass. The cen­ter of mass of most humans is a point a few inch­es below and behind the navel, and in front of the spine.

If we imag­ine that we are push­ing a square-topped table on cast­ers across a smooth floor, we real­ize that intu­itive­ly we push from direct­ly behind the cen­ter of the table, know­ing that to push from any oth­er place will pro­duce rota­tion. The far­ther away from a point direct­ly behind the cen­ter we apply our push, the more of our ener­gy is absorbed in table-spinning.

To move for­ward through the water, the ide­al place to apply a force is direct­ly behind our cen­ter of mass. The far­ther from the line trav­eled by our cen­ter of mass we apply a force, the more of our ener­gy is divert­ed to pro­duc­tion of torques. Of course the impos­si­bil­i­ty of apply­ing force with hands and arms direct­ly behind the cen­ter of grav­i­ty while swim­ming is evi­dent. We make many accom­mo­da­tions to human anato­my, and to the flu­id­i­ty of water, as we uti­lize the ide­al­ized prin­ci­ples out­lined here. In fact, swim­mers use rota­tion of tor­so, repeat­ed shifts in the direc­tion of limb move­ment, and coor­di­na­tion of arm and leg action, to bal­ance the var­i­ous torques gen­er­at­ed in freestyle swim­ming. Rather than aim­ing to elim­i­nate all such forces, we learn to sense ways to inte­grate them with the rest of our stroke.

Tak­en togeth­er, the ideas of torque and of equal and oppo­site forces can be invalu­able aids in ana­lyz­ing and per­fect­ing freestyle tech­nique. If we are wind­milling at a fran­tic pace and still going nowhere, we may ben­e­fit by becom­ing more atten­tive to find­ing greater resis­tance to our pulls. If arm swings lat­er­al­ly on recov­ery, shoul­ders are pushed to oth­er side; if head is lift­ed or arm pull made too deeply, tor­so is dri­ven upward or down­ward; pulling to left or right may send us in the oppo­site direc­tion. Effi­cien­cy increas­es, and we swim more eas­i­ly, when­ev­er we find greater resis­tance to rear­ward force, or reduce the pro­por­tion of our ener­gy direct­ed to pro­duc­ing super­flu­ous motion.

Moving Through Liquid

Liv­ing in a gaseous medi­um, and rely­ing upon inter­ac­tion with sol­id ground for most of our move­ments, we have much to learn about motion in a rel­a­tive­ly dense liq­uid like water. Water offers a less secure base from which to apply propul­sive force than does land, and it also offers greater resis­tance to for­ward motion than does air. Sounds ter­ri­ble at first, but there are com­pen­sa­tions, and once we gain a rudi­men­ta­ry under­stand­ing of ideas like buoy­an­cy, drag, and stream­lin­ing, we are bet­ter able to reshape our swim­ming so that we may flow eas­i­ly through the water.


We weigh less in water than in air. This is the result of a phe­nom­e­non called buoy­an­cy. As we enter the water more ful­ly, reduc­ing the amount we are above the sur­face, we weigh less. One of the major advan­tages of the freestyle stroke is that vir­tu­al­ly all of the legs and tor­so, and much of the head remain in water at all times. We swim near the sur­face of the water, and breathe above it. By remain­ing close to total­ly sub­merged, we devote only min­i­mal ener­gy to sup­port­ing mass held above the water.

Almost all of us can float effort­less­ly with head in water; yet vir­tu­al­ly every­one works to stay afloat hold­ing head entire­ly out of water. Inex­pe­ri­enced swim­mers often fight to stay above the water, only to dis­cov­er that they have too lit­tle ener­gy remain­ing to do much else. The dif­fer­ence between swim­ming in the water, and strug­gling to remain above it, is a many­fold sav­ings of ener­gy. Only high­ly con­di­tioned indi­vid­u­als with very effi­cient strokes can swim faster by rais­ing head or tor­so from the water.


Fric­tion is defined as the resis­tance to rel­a­tive motion of mat­ter in con­tact. Fric­tion­al forces resist any motion wher­ev­er the swim­mer is in con­tact with the water; how­ev­er, at recre­ation­al swim­ming speeds, the fric­tion between water and skin or nylon swim­suit is a rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant fac­tor. Fric­tion works ever so slight­ly to our advan­tage when using a hand, or arm, or leg to push against water and move for­ward. Under all oth­er cir­cum­stances fric­tion absorbs ener­gy oth­er­wise avail­able for for­ward propul­sion. The stream­lin­ing and slight com­pres­sion of the swim­mer pro­duced by an elas­ti­cized tank suit mod­est­ly reduces sur­face area, and there­fore fric­tion, as does the head-to-toe shave used by com­pet­i­tive swim­mers. A more broad­ly use­ful method by which to do so, how­ev­er, is to avoid unnec­es­sary motion.


Iner­tia may be defined in part as the ten­den­cy of mat­ter at rest to remain at rest. Iner­tia is both a boon and an imped­i­ment to the swim­mer. By resist­ing the back­ward com­po­nent of the forces applied on the pow­er stroke and kick, the iner­tia of the water gives the swim­mer some­thing to push against in order to move for­ward. By resist­ing all oth­er motion, the iner­tia of water absorbs ener­gy and slows move­ment. The swim­mer is con­stant­ly search­ing for new ways to obtain max­i­mum iner­tial resis­tance to the rear­ward com­po­nent of pow­er strokes, and min­i­mal iner­tial resis­tance to for­ward motion.


Tur­bu­lence is defined as flu­id flow in which the move­ment of flu­id at any point is con­stant­ly chang­ing in speed and direc­tion. In sim­ple lan­guage, tur­bu­lence is approx­i­mate­ly oppo­site to smooth flow. Tur­bu­lence is cre­at­ed as pres­sure builds ahead of any­thing mov­ing rel­a­tive to the water, and falls in its wake, and it is yet anoth­er source of drag forces act­ing on the swim­mer. We may min­i­mize unwant­ed tur­bu­lence by elim­i­nat­ing super­flu­ous motion, by aim­ing always to slip gen­tly for­ward through the water, and by swim­ming smooth­ly and evenly.


Stream­lin­ing is a way to shape an object so that flu­id will flow around it smooth­ly. If we are sen­si­tive to the resis­tance we feel to our for­ward motion when swim­ming, we can learn use stream­lin­ing to sub­stan­tial­ly reduce the neg­a­tive effects of fric­tion, tur­bu­lence, and iner­tia. By extend­ing ful­ly, and by always remain­ing aligned with our direc­tion of trav­el, we become more stream­lined, deflect­ing the water so that it flows around us with mim­i­mum resistance.

Frontal cross-sec­tion­the appar­ent shape seen by some­one direct­ly ahead of us on our line of trav­elin­creas­es in area when­ev­er our lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis is not par­al­lel to our line of trav­el. (The swim­mer’s lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis is an imag­i­nary line run­ning from the fore­most point on the skull, down­ward through the tor­so, between the knees, and between the feet.) Rais­ing the head and shoul­ders, and allow­ing the legs to sink will make for­ward motion more dif­fi­cult, as will swing­ing from side to side. Ide­al­ly, head, shoul­ders, and hips all move through the same nar­row, imag­i­nary tun­nel in the water.

Introduction to Freestyle


Freestyle swim­ming has long been rec­og­nized as move­ment in which we can com­bine some of the best ele­ments of diverse oth­er activ­i­ties. In the eyes of many exer­cise phys­i­ol­o­gists, swim­ming is with­out equal as a means by which peo­ple of ordi­nary abil­i­ty and stur­di­ness may devel­op over­all strength, flex­i­bil­i­ty, endurance, and coordination.

For decades, what is now called freestyle swim­ming was labeled the crawl stroke, con­jur­ing up images of some­one scuf­fling along with back to the sky and bel­ly to the earth. Writ­ers and teach­ers have insis­tent­ly divid­ed swim­ming into an arm stroke and a kick. Par­tial­ly as a result of such descrip­tions, many peo­ple learn to swim lying flat at the sur­face, pushed and pulled along pri­mar­i­ly with arms and legs. Such swim­mers often appear angu­lar and mechan­i­cal in their move­ments, and some­how out of place in the water.

To speak of freestyle swim­ming as com­bined arm and leg exer­cise, or as good car­dio­vas­cu­lar train­ing is to under­em­pha­size what may well be its most salient fea­ture. Swim­ming is an oppor tuni­ty to learn to move and func­tion bet­ter as a whole self. The accom­plished freestyler feels the con­nect­ed­ness of arms and legs with shoul­ders, hips, trunk, and head, and often dis­cov­ers a new aware­ness in learn­ing to pre­cise­ly coor­di­nate all of these. As you read what fol­lows, and as you swim, cul­ti­vate a con­scious­ness of inte­gra­tion, of com­plete per­son with all fac­ul­ties focused to a sin­gle purpose.


Rather than appear­ing as a tor­so with arms and legs mov­ing around its periph­ery, the com­pe­tent freestyle swim­mer streams smooth­ly from fin­gers to feet. Any point that we observe on such an indi­vid­ual will trace flow­ing, con­tin­u­ous curves. With care­ful atten­tion, we can locate the ori­gin of any motion at cen­ter of mass, and fol­low it out­ward to tip of extrem­i­ty, watch­ing it increase in ampli­tude along the way. While cen­ter of mass moves steadi­ly and in a rel­a­tive­ly straight line, tor­so and shoul­ders rotate, and extend for­wards and back­wards; arms and legs cir­cle, whip and sweep.

To swim this way, we become flu­id, like the water itself. Much of the mus­cu­lar con­trac­tion by which we stand erect is super­flu­ous when we are float­ing. Shed­ding this ten­sion, we can bet­ter feel the sup­port of the water, and learn to flow with it. We extend ful­ly at the begin­ning of each arm­stroke, and remain elon­gat­ed from head to toe, even as we apply pow­er. With­out fix­a­tion upon some rigid sequence of thought, we become con­scious of the many dif­fer­ent aspects of our swim­ming in imag­i­na­tive and ever-chang­ing ways. Rather than con­cen­trat­ing always as we might with some rid­dle or math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion, we dance in and out of a vari­ety of awarenesses.


In swim­ming the move­ments of left and right, of upper and low­er, are nec­es­sary coun­ter­bal­ances to each oth­er. Under­wa­ter pull of one side is set against recov­ery and exten­sion of the oth­er to per­mit smooth curvi­lin­ear motions dur­ing each phase. Upward and down­ward move­ments of each hip and leg are bal­anced with action by the oth­er side. Kick­ing is matched with upper body motion to pro­vide max­i­mal for­ward propul­sive force and min­i­mal lat­er­al and dorsoven­tral travel.

Arm and Shoulder Emphasis

Despite the sub­stan­tial size of leg mus­cles, most of us rely more on arm, shoul­der, and tor­so mus­cles when we swim. An aver­age per­son with rea­son­ably effi­cient stroke tech­nique will require far more ener­gy to move a cer­tain dis­tance by kick­ing than by using arms alone. There are sev­er­al rea­sons for this.

First, arms are attached to the tor­so and inter­nal­ly joint­ed to afford a range of motion far greater than that avail­able to the legs. As a result, we can place them and ori­ent them to bet­ter max­i­mize the force we deliv­er oppo­site the direc­tion, and close to the line, we travel.

In addi­tion to being bet­ter suit­ed to apply pow­er, arms can also be recov­ered through the air between strokes. Thus, we may avoid the greater fric­tion­al, tur­bu­lent, and iner­tial resis­tance to our for­ward motion offered by water. Legs remain in the water at all times, hence they drag con­stant­ly against this denser medi­um. As as result, the arm stroke is very clear­ly divid­ed into a pow­er and a recov­ery phase, while the kick is com­pro­mised through­out to gen­er­ate some use­ful pow­er while avoid­ing exces­sive drag.

Limits to Word

Few teach­ers have empha­sized vehe­ment­ly enough the dif­fi­cul­ty of trans­lat­ing a sequence of high­ly ordered, physi­co-mechan­i­cal descrip­tions of motion into beau­ti­ful, effi­cient swim­ming. We who read swim books or are taught “by the book” are like­ly to imag­ine learn­ing much the way we learn his­to­ry or chem­istry. Swim­ming is in myr­i­ad ways dis­tinct from such endeav­ors, and the words used in tech­ni­cal descrip­tions may be as much an imped­i­ment as an aid, if we attempt to real­ize them literally.

Many dif­fer­ent analo­gies have been offered to enable begin­ning swim­mers to visu­al­ize an effec­tive stroke. Each of them is less than per­fect, for in truth, the motions used in the freestyle stroke are a com­plex hybrid of many ele­ments, some famil­iar, and some unique to swim­ming. Suc­cess­ful coach­es and sat­is­fied swim­mers agree that the key to effi­cient swim­ming is devel­op­ing a “feel” for the water. Only a very rare indi­vid­ual will be able to direct­ly trans­late abstract ver­bal instruc­tion, giv­en in terms of some mechan­i­cal mod­el, into a com­fort­able freestyle.

In fact, pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with such instruc­tion may pre­clude a kind of learn­ing essen­tial to swim­ming. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have demon­strat­ed that there exists much spe­cial­iza­tion of func­tion with­in the brain. The cere­brum, in which ver­bal pro­cess­ing occurs, is in many ways inde­pen­dent of the cere­bel­lum, in which much motor and sen­so­ry func­tions rest. Both left-brain ana­lyt­i­cal think­ing and right-brain visu­al­iza­tion and intu­itive­ness are impor­tant in learn­ing to swim. As we prac­tice, we may con­sid­er how to best devel­op a “whole-brain” stroke, one which reflects both the inter­nal­iza­tion of word instruc­tion, and the enhance­ment of our capac­i­ty for word­less­ly imag­in­ing the process­es by which we sense and respond to the water.

The Armstroke

Prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant thing to under­stand about the arm­stroke is that adult intu­ition, root­ed as it is in the expe­ri­ences of a life­time on land, sur­round­ed by air, can serve only as a par­tial basis for con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing how to swim. To learn an effec­tive arm­stroke, we will lay aside many pre­con­ceived notions, and look with fresh vision at the nature of move­ment through water.

Other Animals

Ani­mals which live most of their lives on land gen­er­al­ly use push­ing and pulling motions to move through water. Many of us have seen how dogs pad­dle along with move­ments sim­i­lar to those of walk­ing or trot­ting when they swim. Hors­es, cat­tle, moose, and elk swim similarly.

Some ani­mals with appendages spe­cial­ly adapt­ed for swim­ming employ more or less rotary, sweep­ing motions, like those of a pro­peller, and gen­er­ate for­ward thrust by move­ment across the direc­tion of trav­el. Pen­guins use wings, and sea tur­tles their fins, this way.

Oth­er species are adapt­ed to wave­like motions of limbs, tail, and/or body. Beaver are an obvi­ous exam­ple. Sala­man­ders and sea snakes are oth­ers. Vir­tu­al­ly all fish­es swim this way, as do sharks, dol­phins and whales. These ani­mals sweep upwards and down­wards, or from side to side, actu­al­ly per­pen­dic­u­lar to the direc­tion of trav­el, in order to swim for­ward. While such move­ments may intu­itive­ly seem coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, we can observe that with­out excep­tion, the life forms which employ them swim fastest, and with great­est appar­ent ease.

Ship Propulsion

The tran­si­tion from pad­dle­wheels to screw pro­pellers as the pri­ma­ry means of ship propul­sion marks a turn­ing point in human under­stand­ing of flu­ids, and offers anoth­er per­spec­tive on swim­ming. Ear­ly in the steamship era, pad­dle­wheels were com­mon. These rotat­ed at the sides or stern, along an axis per­pen­dic­u­lar to the line of trav­el. By the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, screw pro­pellers rotat­ing around an axis par­al­lel to the line of trav­el had been improved to the point where they were con­sid­ered superior.

Both designs pro­duced for­ward motion by thrust­ing back­wards against the water. The blade of the pad­dle, how­ev­er, faced in the direc­tion it was mov­ing. The blade of the prop was angled to the side. It moved in one direc­tion, and faced in anoth­er. In this way, rota­tion in a plane per­pen­dic­u­lar to the line of trav­el was con­vert­ed to rear­ward pres­sure, which in turn pro­duced for­ward motion. This is a rel­a­tive­ly sub­tle mech­a­nism. Only with the elab­o­ra­tion of impor­tant ele­ments of the the­o­ry of flu­id mechan­ics did its broad appli­ca­tion to marine propul­sion prove possible.

Idealizing the Armstroke

The freestyle arm­stroke can be ide­al­ized as an anchor­ing of hand in water, fol­lowed by an appli­ca­tion of force by which we dri­ve for­ward past the hand. When this hand is extend­ed close to as far rear­ward as pos­si­ble, the oth­er hand is anchored and force applied. The hand which stroked first is lift­ed from the water and recov­ered through the air to reach for­ward and repeat the sequence.

Visu­al­ize a rope strung from one end of the pool to the oth­er, about a foot or so beneath the sur­face of the water, and imag­ine that you are float­ing prone above this rope. The freestyle arm stroke is a hand-over-hand motion sim­i­lar in some very gross way to that we might use to trav­el along such a rope.

Any arm move­ment rear­ward through the water will reduce the effec­tive­ness of the stroke, since our pur­pose is to swim for­wards, rather than to move arms back­wards. In the worst case imag­in­able, the swim­mer might remain sta­tion­ary while hand and arm move through the water. While this might be accom­plished in a man­ner which requires much exer­tion, and thus might pro­duce sub­stan­tial effects in terms of increased strength or endurance, it is hard­ly swimming.

Feeling Resistance

The kind of unyield­ing anchor point nec­es­sary to the ide­al­ized stroke described above is quite impos­si­ble to find in a flu­id like water. As a result, we scull and sweep with hands and arms to reduce slip­page. Even though we might imag­ine that pulling and push­ing direct­ly to the rear along our line of trav­el will pro­vide max­i­mum for­ward motion, this is incor­rect. If we stand in shal­low water or hold onto a wall in deep water, and push the water down­ward in a straight line, we will very quick­ly set it in motion, and reduce the resis­tance we feel. If, how­ev­er, we sweep an arm from side to side before us, angling palm down­ward and towards the direc­tion of trav­el as we did in drown­proof­ing and bob­bing exer­cis­es, we can main­tain a steady down­ward force.

The propul­sive force we apply is lim­it­ed by the resis­tance we find at the point of appli­ca­tion. Just as a car engine can run at high speed, spin­ning rear wheels wild­ly on ice with­out the car mov­ing for­ward, so can we con­vert much ener­gy slip­ping hands through the water with­out swim­ming for­wards. To devel­op an effec­tive freestyle stroke we com­bine push­ing, pulling, and sweep­ing rotary motions in var­i­ous direc­tions with con­tin­u­ous changes in hand and arm posi­tion. The over­all feel of such a stroke is one of steady resis­tance to rear­ward arm motion, even when lat­er­al or ver­ti­cal move­ments are large, of smooth tran­si­tions from one phase to anoth­er, of accel­er­a­tion of hand and arm through­out the pull, and of sub­stan­tial for­ward motion with each arm cycle.

The move­ments by which such a feel is pro­duced can be dis­sect­ed and care­ful­ly ana­lyzed. Over the past two decades, coach­es and teach­ers have used increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques to mea­sure the direc­tion and dura­tion of shoul­der, arm, and hand move­ments. We may now describe with some accu­ra­cy the essen­tial ele­ments of the stroke used by vir­tu­al­ly all world-class com­pet­i­tive freestylers, and the range of vari­a­tion evi­dent at vir­tu­al­ly any point in the stroke.

Before rush­ing to embrace this par­tic­u­lar tech­nique in its every detail, how­ev­er, con­sid­er the extra­or­di­nary apti­tude and the inten­sive train­ing that such peo­ple bring to their swim­ming. What is appro­pri­ate for them, young, sup­ple, strong, endur­ing, and tal­ent­ed as they are, may be less use­ful to us than a stroke delib­er­ate­ly mod­i­fied to bet­ter acco­mo­date our own abil­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions. Our task is to feel our way to the stroke most effec­tive for us at any stage of our learn­ing, and to be con­sci­en­tious in search­ing for improvement.

Naivete as Virtue

As might be expect­ed, adults learn­ing to swim often rely heav­i­ly upon intel­lec­tu­al­ized con­cepts accu­mu­lat­ed in oth­er con­texts. Accus­tomed as we are to mov­ing sol­id objects in a gaseous medi­um where grav­i­ty is impor­tant, we almost always pad­dle, push, pull, cycle, and tread in the water, to the exclu­sion of rotat­ing and sweep­ing oblique­ly to our line of trav­el through it. Chil­dren more often employ a vari­ety of motions with­out hes­i­ta­tion, and with­out being able to artic­u­late the rea­son­ing or the­o­ry which sup­ports their action. In their less-con­di­tioned state, they are fre­quent­ly more able to feel the water, bet­ter pre­pared to inter­act with­out pre-med­i­tat­ed plan and to exper­i­ment with new move­ments. As you con­cep­tu­al­ize the arm­stroke, remem­ber the screw pro­peller, the sharks, the beaver, the fish, and the whales. Pad­dling is for the dogs.

Armstroke Technique

Because the arm­stroke is a smooth and con­tin­u­ous cycle, any choice of begin­ning point for a tech­ni­cal descrip­tion will be some­what arbi­trary. You will like­ly derive great­est ben­e­fit by read­ing through the entire arm­stroke descrip­tion before prac­tic­ing any par­tic­u­lar por­tion of it. The sequence described here begins with the entry of a hand into the water, and con­tin­ues through an exten­sion under­wa­ter to the place where the swim­mer catch­es water and feels resis­tance to dri­ving force. There fol­lows a com­bi­na­tion of sweep­ing, pulling, and push­ing, first down­ward, out­ward, and back­ward, then inward, upward, and back­ward, and final­ly out­ward and back­ward. As stroking hand reach­es thigh, the swim­mer turns palm inward, releas­es pres­sure, lifts arm and hand from water, and swings for­ward to enter once again. Through­out the peri­od that hand is in the water, fin­gers are extend­ed and close togeth­er, even touch­ing, and hand is flat or gen­tly curved, rather than severe­ly cupped.


The hand enters well ahead of the swim­mer, a few inch­es to the side of the line which the head is trav­el­ing, and short of the point where fur­ther for­ward exten­sion is impos­si­ble. In prepar­ing for this entry, elbow, wrist, and mid­dle fin­ger are aligned so that they aim through the entry point to an imag­i­nary tar­get approx­i­mate­ly a few yards ahead and a foot below the surface.

The entire elbow-to-fin­ger­tip unit slides along this line, each suc­ces­sive part of it slip­ping through the same imag­i­nary hole in the water and towards the tar­get posi­tion described. This move­ment is effect­ed from the cen­ter of mass, with tor­so rolling toward and extend­ing on the side of the arm enter­ing, and with the shoul­der on that side rotat­ing for­ward and then down­ward so that upper arm enters along the same line as low­er arm, through the same imag­i­nary hole in the surface.

A clean, splash­less entry, where arm and hand appear to move with­out effort, are often an indi­ca­tion that a swim­mer is devel­op­ing a feel for the water. One way to lessen resis­tance at entry is to rotate upper arm inward, so that elbow is ele­vat­ed, and to turn palm out­ward, so that index fin­ger and thumb enter before lit­tle fin­ger. By this rota­tion we move the arm away from the plane of the sur­face, reduc­ing the like­li­hood that it will slap or drag into the water. Prop­er selec­tion of entry point, prop­er align­ment at entry, and elim­i­na­tion of arm motion except along the line of entry are all fac­tors cru­cial to smooth­ly exe­cut­ing this part of the stroke. By over- or under­reach­ing, by enter­ing too close to, or too far from the cen­ter­line of the path being trav­eled, or by swing­ing across the line of entry, we cre­ate unnec­es­sary resistance.


After com­plet­ing the entry, con­tin­ue to rotate at the shoul­der and to reach, from cen­ter of mass to fin­ger­tip of extend­ing arm. Dur­ing this reach­ing, glid­ing phase, the entire lead­ing arm, from fin­ger­tip to shoul­der, is aimed direct­ly for­ward, and kept free of upwards, down­wards, or lat­er­al forces. Through­out the under­wa­ter por­tion of the stroke, elbow remains clos­er to the sur­face than hand, and when­ev­er both elbow and shoul­der are in water, shoul­der remains clos­er to the sur­face than elbow. This is impor­tant to remem­ber dur­ing the glide, as many swim­mers “sail” the hand upwards after enter­ing, drop­ping the elbow. With this prac­tice they cre­ate resis­tance to for­ward motion, and leave the arm bad­ly posi­tioned to begin the pow­er stroke.


The glide lasts only so long as the oppo­site arm is deliv­er­ing pow­er. In order to main­tain steady propul­sive force, time the ini­tial appli­ca­tion of propul­sive force at the begin­ning of the pow­er stroke of one arm to slight­ly pre­cede the release at the fin­ish of the pow­er stroke of the oth­er arm. As the hand of the fin­ish­ing arm nears full rear­ward exten­sion and approach­es the thigh, com­mence a new pow­er stroke with the arm extend­ed before you by gen­tly curv­ing it from shoul­der to fin­ger­tips, and press­ing down­ward and slight­ly to the out­side. Good swim­mers learn to make the catch def­i­nite with­out being abrupt. As soon as the arm leaves the stream­lined glid­ing posi­tion of the for­ward exten­sion, apply force. If you catch effec­tive­ly, you prob­a­bly will feel the resis­tance of the water first against fin­gers and palm, and then against fore­arm, as you deflect it out­wards and backwards.

Almost the instant force is applied through arm and hand, water behind them is set in motion. As you feel this hap­pen­ing, now or at any time dur­ing the pow­er stroke, sweep ver­ti­cal­ly or lat­er­al­ly into water more sta­tion­ary, where there is greater resis­tance. Because of both uni­ver­sal and per­son­al lim­i­ta­tions in the range of move­ment avail­able through shoul­der, elbow, and wrist, we are con­stant­ly com­pro­mis­ing any the­o­ret­i­cal­ly ide­al motions which might be described. With all such accom­mo­da­tions our pur­pose is to find a way to apply pow­er smooth­ly and evenly.


Con­tin­ue the pow­er stroke down­ward and out­ward, flex­ing the elbow just enough to give the arm a slight­ly curved shape, to per­mit fur­ther rota­tion of upper arm, and to keep hand from trav­el­ing too deep, wind­mill fash­ion. Rotate shoul­der fur­ther down­ward, keep­ing it always less deep in the water than the elbow, and main­tain­ing a feel­ing of exten­sion all the way from fin­ger­tip to hip. Grad­u­al­ly shift­ing the ori­en­ta­tion of palm from down­ward and slight­ly out­ward to back­ward, point fin­ger­tips less for­ward and more down­ward, and break wrist some­what to the outside.

The feel of hand and arm is less one of push­ing water down and back than one of reach­ing out and over, of press­ing and slid­ing along a firm, fric­tion­less, curved sur­face, as if prepar­ing to gath­er a large, round­ed object, like a fifty-five gal­lon drum, to us. By visu­al­iz­ing this kind of motion we more eas­i­ly keep elbow high, and avoid inef­fi­cient, pre­ma­ture inward turn­ing of hand and forearm.

Stand with one arm extend­ed, palm upwards, direct­ly before you and flex to 90 degrees at the elbow, so that fore­arm and hand point sky­ward. Look for the bony pro­tu­ber­ance on the inner sur­face of the bent elbow. With the oth­er hand, feel this bump, as well as the larg­er one on the sur­face of the elbow which is now away from you. Many begin­ning swim­mers keep the sec­ond of these bumps on the lead­ing edge of the arm as they pull. In doing so, they sac­ri­fice much pow­er. A fore­arm and hand drawn back­wards, elbow lead­ing, cut through the water eas­i­ly, and afford lit­tle pur­chase by which to move the rest of the swim­mer for­wards. By keep­ing the arm rotat­ed so that the small­er of the elbow bumps is fac­ing to the rear and the larg­er to the out­side, away from the tor­so, we improve our abil­i­ty to apply pow­er effectively.

As we move along to the point where head, and hand apply­ing pow­er, are rough­ly even with respect to the direc­tion of trav­el, the motion of the pulling arm becomes more inward, upward, and back­ward. We con­tract the mus­cles of the pulling side, and move the shoul­der on that side back­wards away from the head. Bend­ing more at the elbow, to per­haps a bit less than 120 degrees, we rotate palm inward and upward towards, but short of fac­ing, the over­all direc­tion of arm motion. By the time hand is below lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis, and per­haps even with navel, fin­ger­tips are point­ing towards the bot­tom and slight­ly across the line of travel.

Dur­ing this phase of the stroke, we return the recov­er­ing arm to the water. The under­wa­ter exten­sion of this arm is com­bined with the inward and upward motion of the pulling side, to rotate the shoul­ders through the plane of the sur­face. Entry and exten­sion are accom­plished with a twist­ing reach, dri­ven from the hand of the pow­er-stroking arm. Some swim­mers describe this stage as a simul­ta­ne­ous pulling towards oppo­site hip and rolling tor­so towards pulling hand. The over­all feel­ing is sim­i­lar to that of jump­ing upwards to reach some­thing over­head while giv­ing a boost with the oppo­site arm using a waist-high counter or rail­ing. An impor­tant dif­fer­ence is that the glid­ing arm is kept slight­ly flexed at the elbow, with upper arm rotat­ed to ori­ent large elbow bump to the side, rather than extend­ed ful­ly until elbow locks. Once we become aware of shoul­der rota­tion, we are bet­ter able to see how accom­plished freestylers lie alter­nate­ly on each side, rather than prone, for most of the stroke.

At approx­i­mate­ly the point where hand and arm are direct­ly beneath chest, arm and fore­arm are redi­rect­ed first back­wards, then increas­ing­ly out­ward and upward. Upper arm moves clos­er to tor­so, and forarm brush­es past hip. Wrist joint is hyper-extend­ed to facil­i­tate appli­ca­tion of sweep­ing upward and back­ward forces. When first thumb joint brush­es front of thigh, hand is turned palm-to-thigh and fol­lows relaxed­ly as arm leaves water. The release is smooth, com­ing when the arm is almost ful­ly extend­ed. Dri­ving force is end­ed with­out throw­ing water back­wards or side­ways, and with­out drag­ging hand for­ward against the water. Hand remains always to the side of legs and tor­so, rather than being swung or car­ried above either.

On those strokes when we breathe, head and neck rotate as well, until mouth is clear of the sur­face. This motion begins as hand pass­es beneath head, and is com­plet­ed as hand touch­es leg at the fin­ish. As you inhale, turn chin towards shoul­der, gaz­ing to side and rear, and keep water­line vis­i­ble in the gog­gle eye­piece cov­er­ing low­er eye. Breath­ing is smooth and reg­u­lar. Exha­la­tion is com­plet­ed as nose and mouth leave the water. Inhala­tion is rapid and force­ful, occur­ring just after com­ple­tion of pow­er­stroke, as hand leaves water. Mouth snaps shut sharply after inhala­tion, and face returns to the water just before recov­er­ing arm is thrust for­ward and down­ward on entry.


The recov­ery is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for rest. From the moment that we release water along the thigh until the instant when we catch, the effort nec­es­sary to move the arm for­ward through the air and then extend it through the water is small, almost inci­den­tal to the action of the oth­er side as we exe­cute the pow­er stroke. By mov­ing from the cen­ter of grav­i­ty, using body roll, shoul­der lift, and side exten­sion, we can main­tain a very loose, relaxed arm and hand, even while con­trol­ling the recov­ery care­ful­ly. Rather than car­ry­ing hand and arm and guid­ing them through­out their tra­jec­to­ry, we move them as pas­sive ele­ments con­nect­ed to shoul­der and upper arm, and steer them only with fine adjust­ments as we ready for the entry. By min­i­miz­ing the time arm and hand are out of water, we suf­fer only small loss of bouyancy.

Direction of Recovery

Only elbow and upper arm need be swung high to avoid push­ing for­ward against the water and cre­at­ing unnec­es­sary drag. Because we have rotat­ed upper tor­so to extend the oppos­ing arm and fin­ish the pow­er stroke of the recov­er­ing arm, the motion of the upper arm as we ini­ti­ate the recov­ery can be almost direct­ly away from the side of the tor­so, rather than back­wards rel­a­tive to it. Thus the arm will always be for­ward of an imag­i­nary flat sur­face placed against back and hips and extend­ing outwards.

Rota­tion of upper arm, so that elbow moves out­ward, away from side, rather than back­wards along it, is cru­cial. A way to feel this is to stand with arm at side, palm against out­side of thigh. With­out mov­ing hand along or away from thigh, rotate elbow out from side. Then, allow­ing hand and fore­arm to hang loose­ly, con­tin­ue mov­ing elbow upwards to the side and slight­ly to the front. The feel­ing is more akin to stand­ing with back to a wall and rais­ing arms from sides to over­head, keep­ing tri­ceps against the wall and allow­ing fore­arms to extend out from it, than it is like elbow­ing a friend behind you and to the side. If you feel tight­ness around the shoul­der and upper arm on the recov­er­ing side, you are prob­a­bly mov­ing the upper arm to the rear, rather than allow­ing the elbow to remain for­ward of the mid­line of the side through­out the recovery.

Prac­tice the motion of lift­ing and rotat­ing the upper arm from the side by stand­ing on land, with hands about six inch­es away from chest, palms down and fin­gers inter­laced. Press elbows to sides, then wing arms out and up as far as is com­fort­able. Next, place both arms at sides, and reach across abdomen with one hand to cup oppo­site hip in palm. Lock­ing elbow at this angle, and mov­ing arm and hand from shoul­der as a sin­gle rigid unit, swing upwards until armpit is wide open, and you are look­ing fore­ward under the fore­arm. Repeat, grad­u­al­ly open­ing elbow angle and mov­ing hand down­wards towards the point on the leg where it lies at the com­ple­tion of the armstroke.

Fore­arm and hand hang loose­ly and swing pen­du­lum-like from exit until just before entry. Hand remains low and near the sur­face and may be rel­a­tive­ly close to tor­so. Palm is ori­ent­ed first towards the swim­mer, then to the rear dur­ing the first half of the recov­ery. As hand is swung past shoul­der, palm faces more down­ward and then rotates out­ward in prepa­ra­tion for descent. This com­pletes the upward, mus­cle dri­ven phase of the recov­ery, a por­tion which is rel­a­tive­ly slow and even, which is dom­i­nat­ed by rota­tion­al motion from the shoul­der, which ends almost with a pause, and dur­ing which the swim­mer remains more or less lying on the side.

Working with Gravity

In the sec­ond, grav­i­ty dri­ven phase, fore­arm and hand, all the way to fin­ger­tips, are mov­ing along the same line, angled slight­ly down­ward and inward. We tran­si­tion from swing­ing, rota­tion­al move­ment orig­i­nat­ing at shoul­der and elbow, to trans­la­tion­al move­ment from the cen­ter of mass by which we dri­ve hand, arm, and shoul­der for­ward and down­ward, into and through the water. This is a smooth and well-inte­grat­ed move­ment, with hips, shoul­ders, arms and hands all flow­ing togeth­er to pro­duce a steady accel­er­a­tion of recov­er­ing arm from the time trans­la­tion­al motion begins. Set against the inward and rear­ward sweep­ing phas­es of the oppo­site arm, the sec­ond phase of the recov­ery embod­ies a fair­ly rapid roll from lying on one side, through the prone posi­tion, to lying on the other.

Imme­di­ate­ly before enter­ing the water, hand flat­tens and fin­gers extend, with elbow, wrist, and mid­dle fin­ger per­fect­ly aligned. Palm faces some­what to the out­side, so that thumb and fore­fin­ger enter the water first. An imag­i­nary wire con­nect­ed at the far end of the pool a lit­tle below the sur­face pulls tip of mid­dle fin­ger until arm and shoul­der are ful­ly extend­ed. As the same time, oppo­site arm and shoul­der are pulling through to rear­ward exten­sion so that the line from lead hand through both shoul­ders to trail­ing hand is rel­a­tive­ly smooth and with­out sharp angles. When we per­ceive a stretch in the mus­cles of the for­ward-reach­ing side, we know that we have shift­ed ribcage for­ward, away from hip to max­i­mize reach.

Using the Torso

Dur­ing the pull and recov­ery, we uti­lize the tor­sion­al capac­i­ty of the spine and much of the mobil­i­ty avail­able at the shoul­ders and neck. Each shoul­der is alter­nate­ly some­what in front of and below the head at the catch, and almost as high as, and behind the head at fin­ish. Many novice swim­mers keep shoul­ders in the plane of the sur­face, sac­ri­fic­ing a large frac­tion of their poten­tial reach and pow­er. By mov­ing ful­ly through shoul­ders and upper back we are also bet­ter able to breathe eas­i­ly from the pock­et along­side the head, cre­at­ed by our motion, and to avoid water resis­tance against upper arm as we reach to the catch of the next stroke.


The recov­ery is a test of con­fi­dence and ease. Many swim­mers learn to go fast and far with­out ever devel­op­ing a relaxed recov­ery. Because of this, they work hard­er than nec­es­sary, and risk shoul­der injury which in some cas­es may become severe­ly lim­it­ing. If you feel less than total­ly flu­id as you recov­er, prac­tice straight-arm for awhile. Imag­ine that the arms are like soak­ing wet tow­els, limp yet dense enough to remain extend­ed if swung through the air. Instead of aim­ing for a neat, splash-free entry, become accus­tomed to the feel­ing of arms falling into the water. Most peo­ple dis­cov­er that adding a bit of con­trol to a ful­ly relaxed arm is eas­i­er than selec­tive­ly sub­tract­ing con­trol from a tense one.

Prac­tice out of the water. Start by stand­ing with both arms relaxed at sides. Rotate eas­i­ly to left and right, so that arms fly slight­ly out­wards and wrap around to front and back. Once you feel loose, stand with one arm extend­ed upwards and slight­ly in front of you and the oth­er hang­ing along­side. With­out mov­ing shoul­ders, swing the hang­ing arm upwards until hands are togeth­er and arms rough­ly par­al­lel over­head. Place thumb-fore­fin­ger side of mov­ing hand in palm of over­head hand. Watch the sta­tion­ary hand! Once you can do this eas­i­ly, prac­tice using motion of the tor­so to swing the arm. Begin with shoul­der on hang­ing arm side depressed and rotat­ed to the rear. Then straight­en up and turn for­ward to swing the arm over­head. Swing freely, so that the arm keeps mov­ing if you miss the wait­ing hand. Even­tu­al­ly, you will learn to swing a relaxed arm with accu­ra­cy. This is the essence of the recovery.

If you have mas­tered the land exer­cise described here and still feel short of a rest­ful recov­ery, you may be strain­ing to breathe, and thus adverse­ly affect­ing all else that you are doing. Check to be cer­tain that exha­la­tion is com­plete, and that inhala­tion is rapid and force­ful. Inhale at the fin­ish of the arm­stroke, just as the recov­ery begins. Be espe­cial­ly care­ful to close the mouth as soon as you have fin­ished inhal­ing. Some swim­mers feel as if head is in the way of the recov­er­ing arm. This is often a result of delay­ing the roll to prone posi­tion until too late in the recov­ery. See if you can sense a con­nect­ed­ness of head, shoul­der, and arms so that all three move togeth­er as they return to the water.

Remem­ber that the motion arm is mov­ing inward, as well as down­ward as it enters the water. If you enter direct­ly on the cen­ter­line of the path you are trav­el­ing, the arms will drift across in front of you as they con­tin­ue for­ward through the water. Think of eleven o’clock and one o’clock, rather than high noon, as the entry points for the hands.

Confronting Habit

Many peo­ple learn to swim with very lit­tle rolling. Lying prone at the sur­face, bel­ly to the bot­tom, we are able to recov­er only by draw­ing the upper arm back­wards with respect to the tor­so. This motion is incom­pat­i­ble with a relaxed recov­ery, and will almost cer­tain­ly pose an obsta­cle to easy freestyling. If you have swum this way for a long time, you may have devel­oped a very deep-seat­ed, dif­fi­cult to change habit.

If you are com­fort­able lying on one side and kick­ing, either with or with­out fins, you can prac­tice the recov­ery in slow motion, watch­ing the upper arm to be cer­tain that you swing it in the direc­tion you are fac­ing. Inhale before ini­ti­at­ing the recov­ery, and allow the face to sink back into the water, at least par­tial­ly, while fac­ing to the side and rear. Then lift upper arm from side, dan­gling fore­arm and hand so that fin­ger­tips trail along the sur­face. Con­tin­ue swing­ing arm until hand hangs in front of face, about a foot away from it. Kick along in this posi­tion, check­ing to be sure that armpit is open wide, fore­arm relaxed. Then return arm by the same path and repeat.

Once you have mas­tered this, add anoth­er ele­ment. Kick­ing along with hand hang­ing before face, roll into the prone posi­tion and drop the recov­er­ing arm into the water. With prac­tice, the fall of the recov­er­ing arm can be guid­ed just enough to per­mit a clean entry, with­out intro­duc­ing unnec­es­sary ten­sion. Now pull through with the oppo­site arm, rolling onto the oth­er side, and repeat. Final­ly, alter the tim­ing so that roll, entry, and exten­sion over­lap with pull, and you are swim­ming smoothly.


The arm­stroke is far from the wind­milling many novices use when first learn­ing. The path of each hand, rather than being a cir­cle cen­tered at the shoul­der, is a some­what ellip­ti­cal curve in three dimen­sions with many smooth defor­ma­tions. Instead of remain­ing oppo­site each oth­er through­out the stroke cycle, hands alter­nate­ly play catch-up dur­ing the recov­ery. Each hand enters the water, con­tin­ues reach­ing for­ward, and catch­es while the oth­er is still apply­ing pow­er. Recov­ery and exten­sion of one arm are set against pow­er stroke of oth­er. This rhythm feels quite nat­ur­al since the water offers much resis­tance and the air, lit­tle. Most swim­mers breathe at or near the moment when hand is leav­ing the water, and begin each pull short­ly before fin­ish­ing the pre­vi­ous. Many peo­ple with inef­fi­cient strokes and tense recov­er­ies begin pulling too soon, com­plete the sec­ond phase of the recov­ery too slow­ly, and glide lit­tle dur­ing exten­sion. Sin­gle stroking, the final stage of bob­bing described ear­li­er, can be a use­ful exer­cise for cor­rect­ing these errors.

Freestyle Kick

Why Kick?

We kick: (1) for propul­sion, (2) to stay more or less lev­el with the sur­face, and (3) to con­trol rolling and sway­ing. The propul­sive force of the most com­mon­ly used freestyle kick is gen­er­at­ed by alter­nat­ing wave­like motions of the entire left and right sides of the low­er body. Three jointship, knee, and ankle­flex and extend with each full down­ward and upward leg cycle. The range of motion increas­es steadi­ly from hip to toe, with low­er leg and foot being force­ful­ly whipped.

The legs are in many peo­ple a rel­a­tive­ly dense part of the body, and tend to sink. Also, by car­ry­ing the head, which is for­ward of the cen­ters of grav­i­ty and buoy­an­cy, at least par­tial­ly out of the water in order to be able to inhale above the sur­face, we exert a down­ward force on the legs. The effect of this is sim­i­lar to that pro­duced by lift­ing one end of a float­ing stick, and thus fur­ther sub­merg­ing the other.

Even if you are reluc­tant to expend the ener­gy nec­es­sary to derive much propul­sive force from the kick, you may ben­e­fit by kick­ing just enough to keep legs from sink­ing below the lev­el of tor­so. By decreas­ing the cross-sec­tion of the “tun­nel of water” through which we move, we can dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce resis­tance to for­ward motion.

To under­stand how swim­mers use kick­ing to bal­ance the forces gen­er­at­ed with the arm­stroke, visu­al­ize a per­son walk­ing or run­ning. Remem­ber how left shoul­der and arm move for­ward and back­ward togeth­er with right hip and leg. The rela­tion­ship between kick and arm­stroke in the water, while less than per­fect­ly anal­o­gous, is sim­i­lar. Down­ward and upward move­ments of each leg coun­ter­act simul­ta­ne­ous move­ments of arms and tor­so to min­i­mize sway­ing and unnec­es­sary rolling.

Leg Action

The actu­al move­ments of the kick are dif­fi­cult to describe, because some parts of the leg are mov­ing down­wards while oth­ers are already mov­ing upwards. Action at each jointhip, knee, and ankle­fol­lows that at the joint above. With the kick, as with many aspects of swim­ming, few peo­ple are able to direct­ly trans­late ver­bal instruc­tion into effi­cient, plea­sur­able move­ment. As you read, remem­ber that the kick is flow­ing and wave­like over­all, much like the action of a rope or gar­den hose set in motion with a large, ver­ti­cal snap of an arm to loop it clear of some obsta­cle. Use your imag­i­na­tion to inte­grate and meld all the actions described here into a smooth, con­tin­u­ous kick.

Down­ward leg move­ment is ini­ti­at­ed by rota­tion at the hip, and con­tin­ued with thigh, calf, and foot. Knee bends soon after hip begins mov­ing down­ward. This is because low­er leg and foot are still mov­ing upwards! Ankle plan­tarflex­es at the top of the kick, in response to water pres­sure on dor­sal sur­face of the foot as its motion shifts from upwards to down­wards. From this moment, straight­en­ing of knee and atten­dant move­ment of low­er leg are the dom­i­nant down­ward motions. By the time ankle dor­si­flex­es at the end of the down­stroke, hip has already begun mov­ing upward, pulling straight­ened leg along. As upper leg approach­es sur­face, hip again moves down­ward to begin the next cycle.

The motion of the leg, espe­cial­ly on the down­swing, is very sim­i­lar to that of a per­son kick­ing a foot­ball or soc­cer ball. Through­out the kick, how­ev­er, ankles remain rel­a­tive­ly loose, so that we may feel the water and allow foot posi­tion to adjust to its pres­sure to give max­i­mum for­ward thrust and min­i­mum drag. Legs and feet are always in the water. The resis­tance of air is neg­li­gi­ble at the speeds swim­mers move; use­ful dri­ving force can be gen­er­at­ed only by kick­ing against water.


Kick­ing rhythms vary. Some swim­mers kick once, oth­ers kick three times, with each arm pull. The lat­ter usu­al­ly empha­size the first kick of each triplet. Kick how­ev­er you are more com­fort­able. Learn to feel effec­tive­ly applied pow­er, and to care­ful­ly appor­tion ener­gy between arms and legs. If leg motion feels effi­cient, kick; if you pro­duce lit­tle for­ward trav­el with much labor, do only what is nec­es­sary to remain stream­lined and stable.

By kick­ing along with arms stretched before you in the water, or while hold­ing a kick­board, you may obtain some indi­ca­tion of your effi­cien­cy . With the kick iso­lat­ed like this, exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent tech­niques, using vary­ing ranges of motion at each joint, and alter­ing both cadence and timing.

Alternative Kicks

Some swim­mers use a sin­gle scis­sors kick with each arm pull. The leg action in this kick is very sim­i­lar to that employed when bob­bing. While this tech­nique is less com­mon, it is both sta­bi­liz­ing and propul­sive, and is an alter­na­tive for those who find flut­ter kick­ing dif­fi­cult or uncom­fort­able. As with every aspect of a health­ful swim­ming prac­tice, each indi­vid­ual is ulti­mate­ly the best judge of what is appro­pri­ate to her or his par­tic­u­lar circumstances.


Many adult swim­mers attempt a bicy­cling or run­ning motion while swim­ming freestyle. This can detract sub­stan­tial­ly from swim­ming effi­cien­cy. If you expe­ri­ence dif­fi­cul­ty in kick­ing, con­sid­er wear­ing fins for awhile. With fins, we ampli­fy the feel of the water and become bet­ter able to rec­og­nize those leg motions which are worth­while. Fur­ther­more, with fins we are able to trav­el well with even a gen­tle kick. Thus we can be more atten­tive to remain­ing relaxed, and send­ing wave­like motions down each leg.

Begin to learn how to use fins by prac­tic­ing along a wall. Hang­ing ver­ti­cal­ly with head above water, hands shoul­der width apart on gut­ter, upper sur­face of fins against wall, and tips point­ing to the bot­tom of the pool, rotate one hip to the rear, draw­ing the leg on the same side slow­ly and direct­ly back­wards. Knee remains straight, and ankle dor­si­flex­es in response to water pres­sure on bot­tom of fin, so that tip of fin moves upwards until sole is tan­gen­tial to the arc being traced by foot mov­ing to the rear. In this posi­tion, the fin offers very lit­tle resis­tance. Some peo­ple focus on press­ing away from tor­so with heel, to avoid bend­ing knee, and to allow foot to respond to water pres­sure rather than be fixed in posi­tion by delib­er­ate action.

Next, reverse direc­tion with the hip, rotat­ing it towards the wall even as foot and low­er leg con­tin­ue to swing to the rear. When heel is three to four feet from the wall (depend­ing on per­son­al size and strength), begin to swing the leg for­wards, main­tain­ing a steady pres­sure at the foot. As the tip of the fin catch­es the water, ankle plan­tarflex­es and knee bends slight­ly. With foot in this posi­tion, kick for­ward with leg, straight­en­ing knee until feet are once again togeth­er along the wall, toes point­ed to the bottom.

The most com­mon errors in this prac­tice are: tens­ing the ankle so that the fin fails to move in response to water pres­sure, and bend­ing exces­sive­ly at hip and knee while swing­ing for­ward, allow­ing the knee to move upwards towards the tor­so and los­ing the feel­ing of steady pres­sure on the fin and foot. The first of these can some­times be reme­died by delib­er­ate­ly dor­si­flex­ing the ankle on the back­swing and plan­tarflex­ing it on the kick for­ward. To stop bend­ing knee and hip more than is opti­mal, con­cen­trate on extend­ing the leg as you kick, and reach­ing far from the hip with the toes.

After prac­tic­ing with one leg at a time until the kick feels smooth and flow­ing, begin scis­sor­ing the legs, mov­ing one for­ward as the oth­er comes back. As you learn to coor­di­nate these move­ments bet­ter, the alter­ation of foot and fin posi­tion will become effort­less. With each prop­er­ly exe­cut­ed scis­sors, you gen­er­ate enough thrust to rise from the water. Once you have attained an easy, flu­id auto­matic­i­ty, use the kick to trav­el. Exper­i­ment with bel­ly to the bot­tom and both hands ahead (hold­ing a board before you if you like), or lying on either side, with low­er arm extend­ed for­ward in the water, arm near­er the sur­face trail­ing along­side tor­so and thigh, and face turned to look to the side and some­what rear­ward over trail­ing arm.

Dolphin Kick

If you find the freestyle kick dif­fi­cult, even with fins, con­sid­er learn­ing the dol­phin kick, where the motion of each leg is very close to a freestyle kick, but legs move in uni­son instead of in oppo­si­tion. This is sub­stan­tial­ly eas­i­er for some peo­ple than is flex­ing one ankle while extend­ing the oth­er, or mov­ing one leg up and the oth­er down. In addi­tion, once you have felt the wave­like motion of an effec­tive dol­phin kick, you may more eas­i­ly mas­ter the coor­di­na­tion and tim­ing of freestyle kick­ing. Stand on dry land with feet togeth­er and arms at sides. Bend knees to about 120 degrees, arch back, thrust abdomen for­ward, and look up slight­ly, so that you are bowed for­ward from head to foot, and inhale. Then straight­en legs, flex at hips, push but­tocks back­wards and shoul­ders for­wards, face slight­ly down­wards, so that you are bowed back­ward from head to foot, and exhale. This is the essence of the dol­phin kick.

Move into the pool and don a pair of fins. Hang from the with both hands, fac­ing the wall, bel­ly to it. Let the fins hang, and keep the ankles loose. Move the legs rear­ward by arch­ing the back. Con­tin­ue this rear­ward motion by bend­ing the knees to about 120 degrees. Grip­ping the wall firm­ly, straight­en the legs and flex at the hips until upper sur­face of fins is against the wall and hips are about a foot from it. Now relax the abdom­i­nal mus­cles and allow hips to swing back down to the wall while extend­ing legs back­wards to begin the next cycle. Note how the water pres­sure against the fins dor­si­flex­es the feet on the back­swing and plan­tarflex­es them on the foreswing, just as in freestyle kicking.

After you have become well-coor­di­nat­ed enough to exe­cute these moves smooth­ly along the wall, inhale deeply and push off in prone posi­tion with arms extend­ed over­head. Exhale while bow­ing abdomen down­ward and bend­ing legs to bring feet towards sur­face. Then plunge head into water and look down­ward while extend­ing legs and flex­ing at hips as before. Kick both down­wards and back­wards, aim­ing once again to reach away from hips with toes. Repeat the cycle. If you are flex­ing hips suf­fi­cient­ly, but­tocks will sur­face at the end of each down­ward kick. Remem­ber, head and feet move down­wards as but­tocks move up; head and feet move upward as back arch­es and but­tocks move down. To an observ­er at pool­side, you appear to be sin­u­ous­ly snaking along, dor­so-ven­tral waves mov­ing from head to toe and car­ry­ing you above and below the surface.

Shedding Fins

Begin­ners some­times resist using fins, fear­ing that they will become depen­dent upon them and unable to swim with­out them. Like train­ing wheels on a bicy­cle, fins can pro­vide a mea­sure of secu­ri­ty which many find valu­able. If you are at the stage where you swim only by using every bit of skill and ener­gy avail­able to you, you may be unnec­es­sar­i­ly con­cerned with sur­vival. By wear­ing fins, you take the pres­sure off. Then, in a more relaxed state, you can be more atten­tive to improv­ing stroke efficiency.

When you feel ready to shed the fins, do so grad­u­al­ly. Swim with only one for awhile, chang­ing it from one leg to the oth­er. Then swim a sin­gle length bare­foot. Slow­ly increase the ratio of fin­less to finned swim­ming, until you feel com­fort­able with­out using them at all. Even then, you may want to wear them some­times, either to work the leg mus­cles hard­er than usu­al, or to facil­i­tate arm­stroke prac­tices in which you gen­er­ate too lit­tle propul­sive force to keep moving.

Freestyle Technique Summary

The sug­ges­tions on these pages are reminders of things we often men­tion when teach­ing. Some of them are gen­er­al, and oth­ers more spe­cif­ic. The for­mer you may want to remem­ber each time you swim. The lat­ter you will per­haps use the way some med­i­ta­tors use mantras, select­ing one or anoth­er to repeat as you swim each lap, or each series of laps. Please read them care­ful­ly. Con­sid­er mem­o­riz­ing them. Think of them as tools by which you will give greater direc­tion to the tri­al and error by which you become more effi­cient and relaxed mov­ing through the water. To become inde­pen­dent of texts and instruc­tors, you will inter­nal­ize the infor­ma­tion for which you now rely upon these.

Imag­ine how each of the hints here will feel as you apply it, and devel­op the abil­i­ty to mea­sure the degree to which your own swim­ming evi­dences the qual­i­ties you are cul­ti­vat­ing. As you focus on one or anoth­er aspect of your stroke, study the appro­pri­ate parts of these pages.


Relax­ation is pri­ma­ry. Before you begin to swim, take a moment to become calm and relaxed. Leave behind the cares of the day. Antic­i­pate the joy of swim­ming. If at any time you feel tense or fear­ful, return to a prac­tice which is com­fort­able for you. Invent new ways to take small inter­me­di­ate steps from one lev­el of com­pe­tence to the next. Be patient. Enjoy the moment. For­get what oth­ers are doing. Learn to appre­ci­ate what you are right now! When you are ready to leave the pool, reflect upon what you learned. List your tri­umphs. Con­trast this swim to your first. Be pos­i­tive. Rec­og­nize the chal­leng­ing nature of swim­ming and resolve to learn at every lev­el. Feel the sat­is­fac­tion of your prac­tice. Be glad that you are becom­ing a health­i­er animal.


Full exha­la­tion is cru­cial. If you feel tired swim­ming, inad­e­quate exha­la­tion is like­ly a part of the rea­son. Rotate the head to the side and rear, and look slight­ly back­wards and low to the water, towards and under the recov­er­ing arm. See as you turn! Shift your visu­al field in a smooth arc to the side and rear. Syn­chro­nize turn­ing to breathe with rolling of shoul­ders and tor­so dur­ing the lat­ter part of the pull. Breathe on the recov­ery, after you have fin­ished pulling. Feel the water on one cheek and in one ear as you inhale. See if you can keep one eye under­wa­ter even as you breathe, by open­ing the “high” side of the mouth and pulling it upwards on the face. Exper­i­ment with breath­ing to each side so that you may com­pare your move­ments to left and right and choose the more effi­cient motions for use to both sides. Learn to inhale quick­ly and deeply, clos­ing the mouth before turn­ing face back into the water. This min­i­mizes the inter­fer­ence of breath­ing with oth­er actions. Remem­ber to turn and roll the head, rather than lift it.

Body Position

You can be long in the water. With­out grav­i­ty pulling along spine and legs, you grow! Imag­ine being dragged by extend­ed fin­ger­tips direct­ly to the far wall. Look for­ward, rather than down­ward. Arch upper spine and thrust chest for­ward to avoid a kinked neck. Open chest to keep breast­bone vis­i­ble to an imag­i­nary observ­er a foot under­wa­ter and a few yards ahead of you. Avoid lat­er­al bend­ing of neck or tor­so. Remem­ber that exces­sive lat­er­al arm motion will con­tribute to such bend­ing. Avoid flex­ion at hip and lock­ing of legs. Roll gen­tly and rhyth­mi­cal­ly from side to side with each arm pull. Think of swim­ming first on one side, then on the oth­er, mov­ing through the prone posi­tion quite rapid­ly as one arm enters and extends and the oth­er fin­ish­es. Stay low in the water. Only the strongest, most endur­ing, most tech­ni­cal­ly pro­fi­cient swim­mers can afford the loss of buoy­an­cy atten­dant to swim­ming high in the water.


The arms and hands are to be anchored in the water, rather than pulled back­ward through it. The force which dri­ves you for­ward is exert­ed oppo­site the direc­tion you trav­el. We some­times move arms in oth­er direc­tions to max­i­mize this force because of the need to accom­mo­date human anatom­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, and to find still water in which to anchor after we have already set oth­er water in motion by pulling. Enter the water clean­ly, with min­i­mal splash­ing and bub­bles, by align­ing arm in the direc­tion you will extend it. Extend ful­ly towards the point on the far wall towards which you are swim­ming. Pull firm­ly, but gen­tly enough to feel the resis­tance of the water and to accom­mo­date the shift­ing locus of max­i­mum resis­tance. Sweep the arms in smooth and chang­ing curves rather than wind­milling or pulling only with the hands. Feel the side-to-side, up-and-down “sculling” by which you find still water against which to pull. Remem­ber to flex, extend, and rotate all three arm joints: shoul­der, elbow, and wrist, to apply max­i­mum rear­ward force. Fin­ish the stroke with a push until you feel first joint of thumb against front of thigh. Release the water by turn­ing palm to thigh and relax­ing arm and hand. Recov­er with a loose arm pro­pelled more by shoul­der rota­tion than by arm mus­cles. Swing, rather than car­ry, the upper arm at about a 45 degree angle to the water. Allow fore­arm and hand to hang loose­ly, and to trail behind elbow until the lat­ter pass­es for­ward of the shoul­der. Use roll and shoul­der rota­tion to allow you an easy recov­ery with­out feel­ings of strain or pinch­ing in upper back and arm.


Imag­ine the legs to be like the tail of a kite, or like algae in a stream. Whip them flex­i­bly rather than kick­ing stiffly. Kick from the hip and let the impulse trav­el down the leg the way you can send a wave down a gar­den hose by snap­ping one end. Avoid tread­ing, run­ning, walk­ing, or cycling motions. Feel the ankle dor­si­flex as feet come up and plan­tarflex as they move down­ward. Visu­al­ize the ver­ti­cal motions of a whale’s or a dol­phin’s tail. Use the legs gen­tly, first with the idea of sim­ply keep­ing them aligned with the rest of you, then with thoughts of propul­sion. Find a rhythm com­fort­able for you, either one or three kicks for each arm pull.


Prac­tice turn­ing in some reg­u­lar way. See if you can touch the wall with one hand, draw legs and tor­so to it, take a sin­gle breath, and push-off. Learn to push-off from a com­plete­ly sub­merged posi­tion. Stay aligned, so that hands, shoul­ders, hips, and feet all move through the same imag­i­nary tun­nel in the water. A con­sis­tent turn will fit right into your swim­ming rhythm.


Main­tain the sense of pull and glide that you prac­tice with sin­gle-stroking. As you become con­fi­dent, pull a lit­tle soon­er with the extend­ing arm, so that you are always apply­ing pow­er with one arm. As you pull inward towards the oppo­site hip in the sec­ond of the three arm­stroke sweeps, use the roll into the prone posi­tion to dri­ve the recov­er­ing arm for­ward into and through the water. As you fin­ish the arm­stroke, extend for­ward towards the catch on the oth­er side. Remem­ber that the recov­er­ing arm will catch up as it moves through the air. Syn­chro­nize breath­ing with the roll of the pull. Inhale after the fin­ish, dur­ing the recov­ery. When in doubt, return to sin­gle stroking.

Pushing Off from the Wall

Turns and push-offs are essen­tial to pool swim­ming. We can accom­plish both with pre­ci­sion and econ­o­my, con­nect­ing them smooth­ly to oth­er swim­ming move­ments. A well-exe­cut­ed push-off, in which the pow­er of legs and tor­so is effec­tive­ly applied, can feel exhil­a­rat­ing. With limbs ful­ly extend­ed, and water rush­ing by on all sides, our sen­sa­tion is almost that of fly­ing. Swim­mers usu­al­ly reverse direc­tion at the wall in one of two ways: (1) by clasp­ing the gut­ter with one hand, and maneu­ver­ing legs and tor­so into posi­tion, or (2) by som­er­sault­ing just before reach­ing it.

Open-Turn Push-Offs

The first of these tech­niques we often employ when start­ing from a stand­still at the begin­ning of a swim, or as part of an open turn, where face remains clear of the water to per­mit an extra breath. Hold the gut­ter with one hand, plac­ing both feet against the wall, close togeth­er, direct­ly below that hand, and about thir­ty inch­es beneath the sur­face. With legs flexed at hip, knee, and ankle, bal­ance pull of arm and push of legs at a lev­el of force just ade­quate to keep feet to the wall. Feet, hips, shoul­ders, and face are ori­ent­ed as much to the side as to the bot­tom of the pool. Free arm lies at the sur­face, aimed towards the far end of the pool, so that a fair­ly straight line can be drawn from hand on gut­ter, through shoul­ders and free arm, to the point on the far wall where you will arrive.

In final prepa­ra­tion for the push-off, rise slight­ly from the water, inhale, and then release the hold­ing arm and swing it over­head and for­ward, while relax­ing legs to sink down­ward and back­ward into the wall. The grav­i­ta­tion­al force upon you, which you feel more strong­ly as you rise from the water and dimin­ish your buoy­an­cy, and the reac­tive force exert­ed as you swing one arm over­head, act in con­cert to press you back to the wall even after you have released the gut­ter. By relax­ing the legs, you are able to ful­ly flex hips, knees, and ankles while keep­ing feet to the wall. Thus coiled, you are ready to apply pow­er through the entire range of leg motion.

The swing­ing arm comes to rest par­al­lel, and close, to the arm which has remained extend­ed towards the far wall. Head is direct­ly atop spine, with both upper arms pressed to skull just behind ears. Feet, hips, shoul­ders, and hands are posi­tioned so that a straight line extend­ing through all of them meets the sur­face at the point, per­haps two body lengths from the wall, where you will begin stroking. You are lying more on a side than prone, the arm you have swung now sub­merged, but clos­er to the sur­face than the oth­er, with an imag­i­nary under­wa­ter observ­er ahead of you see­ing fin­ger­tips and arms par­tial­ly obscur­ing top of skull. Head is about a foot under­wa­ter and the plane in which back and shoul­ders lie is fac­ing more to the side than to the bot­tom or the surface.

Maximizing Glide

The glide path of the push-off ris­es from the time we leave the wall until after we begin the first arm pull. Hands, pressed togeth­er with palm of one to back of the oth­er, part the water eas­i­ly. Palm is exposed on the hand with which will make the first pow­er stroke, and the swim­mer atten­tive to sym­me­try uses each hand half the time. Accom­plished swim­mers often kick before begin­ning the arm­stroke, to extend the peri­od that they glide with arms out­stretched. By very slight adjust­ments of hands and arms, and by impart­ing a slight twist as you push from the wall, you can rotate to the posi­tion from which you will take your first arm­stroke. With atten­tion, the moment to begin stroking, when glide speed has slowed just to swim­ming speed, is easy to deter­mine. Most swim­mers breathe after the first or sec­ond arm pull.

Exten­sion and align­ment are cru­cial to push-offs. If we are as long as pos­si­ble, from fin­ger­tips to toes, and from crown of skull to base of spine, we min­i­mize frontal cross-sec­tion, and increase aspect ratio (length to breadth). By opti­miz­ing these fac­tors, we are able to reach greater veloc­i­ty per unit of ener­gy con­vert­ed. When feet, hips, shoul­ders, and hands are all aligned, we deliv­er force through the legs to a point pre­cise­ly behind our cen­ter of mass, and direct it along the lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis of head and tor­so. Thus we elim­i­nate unwant­ed torques, and leave vir­tu­al­ly all the pow­er we apply avail­able to pro­duce for­ward motion. Stretched and straight­ened we slide through the water, hard­ly dis­turb­ing it, as if pulled by fin­ger­tips to the far wall. Be alert to feel­ings of pres­sure and resis­tance and to the sounds of water eddy­ing about a pro­trud­ing part so that you steadi­ly refine your technique.


A com­mon error is to jump for­ward over the water from the moment hand releas­es the wall. If you do this, you are fail­ing to relax and sink down­ward to full leg flex­ion. By push­ing off pre­ma­ture­ly, you com­pro­mise align­ment and pow­er, and increase tur­bu­lent drag. To learn more effec­tive tim­ing, prac­tice the first part of the push-off alone, stop­ping at the point where you are coiled at the wall with both arms over­head. Once you can move eas­i­ly into this posi­tion, go on to learn how to dri­ve stream­lined from the wall.

Open and Closed Turns

Open Turn

To ini­ti­ate and open turn, glide gen­tly to the wall, with one hand along the thigh where you fin­ished the last pow­er stroke, and the oth­er extend­ed ahead, ready to grasp the gut­ter. You are lying on one side, hands as far from each oth­er as you can com­fort­ably hold them. With prac­tice you can become adept at gaug­ing dis­tance, and at dis­trib­ut­ing force to each arm pull even­ly and con­sis­tent­ly, so that you may avoid find­ing the wall an awk­ward half-stroke away.

Catch the gut­ter with the lead­ing hand, and pull towards the wall. Con­tin­ue trail­ing the oth­er arm behind, extend­ed towards the far end of the pool, and main­tain it in this posi­tion through­out the turn. Ris­ing from the water slight­ly, swing legs and body under­neath to reverse direc­tion, place feet on wall direct­ly beneath hand, tilt top of head towards far end of pool while still fac­ing to the side, and pre­pare to push-off.

Closed Turn

The closed turn is chal­leng­ing, but once we mas­ter it, the wall seems more a treat and less an obsta­cle. All our fears of drown­ing are inten­si­fied by doubt about the direc­tion in which the sur­face, and air, lie. Closed turns offer anoth­er way to uncov­er and elim­i­nate such uneasi­ness. Because the closed turn incor­po­rates a for­ward som­er­sault and half twist, and takes place in an envi­ron­ment where grav­i­ty is felt bare­ly if at all, many swim­mers expe­ri­ence some dif­fi­cul­ty main­tain­ing bal­ance and orientation.

The cen­ter of visu­al field can be a cue to head motion and posi­tion. By imag­in­ing what you will see as you move through the turn, and actu­al­ly look­ing for these things when you prac­tice, you can pre­serve a more accu­rate sense of direc­tion. As with oth­er aspects of swim­ming, the abil­i­ty to visu­al­ize clear­ly how you appear to a pool­side or under­wa­ter observ­er, is fun­da­men­tal. To devel­op this skill, stop at var­i­ous points in the turn and think care­ful­ly about your posi­tion and ori­en­ta­tion. Even­tu­al­ly, as you fit more and more pieces in place, you will be able to exe­cute the turn smooth­ly and confidently.

The Somersault

Begin with one arm remain­ing at the side after fin­ish­ing a pow­er stroke. As you com­plete the next pow­er stroke with the oth­er arm, drop chin to chest, bring­ing the entire head under­wa­ter, and putting it on a semi­cir­cu­lar path, first down­ward, then back­ward. At this point you are flexed ful­ly at the hip, legs straight and close togeth­er at the sur­face, head close to knees and below them, and hands just out­side calves with palms turned to the bot­tom of the pool. Face is direct­ed more or less skyward.

Com­plete the som­er­sault by exe­cut­ing a two-legged “dol­phin kick”, the rough equiv­a­lent of left and right leg per­form­ing a freestyle kick simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and press­ing down­ward towards pool bot­tom with fore­arms and hands to dri­ve hips for­ward over head and tor­so towards wall. While som­er­sault­ing, tuck knees in towards chest and and bring heels close to but­tocks so that legs trav­el low over the water. With knee flex­ion here we accom­plish two pur­pos­es: accel­er­at­ing rota­tion about the cen­ter of mass (just as a skater spins faster by fold­ing arms inward), and enter­ing a crouched posi­tion before arriv­ing at the wall, so that we are ready to push-off with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Con­tin­ue press­ing hands and arms toward the bot­tom to pro­vide the resis­tance nec­es­sary to bring head and tor­so upwards and into line ahead of the point on the wall, about two feet below the sur­face, where feet will make contact.

For­ward momen­tum now has been con­vert­ed large­ly to angu­lar momen­tum, in which head, tor­so, and legs are all rotat­ing about a cen­ter of mass which con­tin­ues to drift toward the wall. As feet touch, align them with hips, shoul­ders, head, and hands to aim at the point where you will break the sur­face as you com­plete the first arm pull. Imme­di­ate­ly apply pow­er with the legs to push-off.


Most swim­mers accom­plish in sev­er­al stages the half twist nec­es­sary to emerge from the closed turn in freestyle swim­ming atti­tude. By tuck­ing head slight­ly to the side on which you deliv­ered the last arm pow­er stroke when enter­ing the turn, gen­er­at­ing torque to that side with unequal arm pres­sure as the rota­tion­al move­ments of the turn are under­way, and car­ry­ing the legs to that side as they move through the air, you com­plete almost a quar­ter twist by the time the feet touch the wall. The shoul­der on the side of the arm which pulled last is low­er, and you are lying more on the side than the back as you push-off. Face is direct­ed to the side and some­what to the rear.

As you dri­ve with legs, con­tin­ue to twist so that you are mov­ing towards prone posi­tion as feet leave the wall. Dur­ing the glide, employ hands and arms as steer­ing sur­faces to com­plete the twist and move into prop­er posi­tion to begin stroking. Gen­er­al­ly, peo­ple stroke first upon leav­ing the turn with the arm which pulled last going into the turn.

Locating the Wall

In pools designed for lap swim­ming, cross-bars inlaid or paint­ed on the bot­tom and on each wall offer guid­ance in deter­min­ing when to ini­ti­ate a closed turn. Because chin is dropped to chest, lim­it­ing frontal vision, ear­ly in the turn, many swim­mers use bot­tom mark­ings to judge dis­tance from the wall. Those who face the wall after ini­ti­at­ing a turn are hin­dered by high head posi­tion as they move to con­vert trans­la­tion­al momen­tum (for­ward motion) to angu­lar momen­tum (som­er­sault­ing).

Pru­dent peo­ple prac­tice closed turns slow­ly and cau­tious­ly. One of the few trau­mat­ic injuries pool swim­mers suf­fer is the bruise to heel or Achilles ten­don which occurs when a closed turn is made too near a wall. One way to avoid this as you first begin to learn this turn is to prac­tice far from the wall, even in the mid­dle of the pool. Here, with­out fear of hit­ting any­thing, con­cen­trate first upon flex­ing at hips and bring­ing head and tor­so around towards thighs and knees. Then focus upon per­form­ing the dol­phin kick and flip­ping legs up and over while som­er­sault­ing com­fort­ably. Final­ly, prac­tice using hand and fore­arm pres­sure to bring head and tor­so into line with feet. Once you have mas­tered the turn itself, you can move pro­gres­sive­ly clos­er to the wall, until you con­sis­tent­ly cou­ple it to a sol­id push-off.

Learning by Watching

We can learn much by watch­ing oth­er swim­mers, and by imag­in­ing how they feel and what they see as they turn. Since the turn is com­plet­ed quite rapid­ly, you will like­ly learn best by observ­ing one ele­ment at a time. Focus sep­a­rate­ly on each hand, each arm, head, back, and legs, look­ing some­times from pool­side, and at oth­ers from beneath the water. To keep swim­ming enjoy­able, learn this skill like all oth­ers: at your own pace. Once you mas­ter it, you will approach the wall with eager­ness, view­ing it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to tum­ble and jump, to rest arms and feel the full strength of legs, rather than as an unwant­ed interruption.



After learn­ing to stay low in the water with­out appre­hen­sion, a swim­mer appre­ci­ates bet­ter the weight­less­ness pro­duced by buoy­an­cy. Because humans are near­ly the same den­si­ty as water (i.e. — a per­son weighs about the same as an equal vol­ume of water), the grav­i­ta­tion­al pull felt when swim­ming is but a small frac­tion of that felt when sur­round­ed by air. Most of us, even with lungs deflat­ed, sense hard­ly any grav­i­ta­tion­al force at all in the water. We float. Even very large, very lean peo­ple rarely weigh more than fif­teen or twen­ty pounds sub­merged. An upward force this small will keep them at the surface.

Float­ing is so uni­ver­sal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with relax­ation and ease that the word has been extend­ed far beyond its sci­en­tif­ic def­i­n­i­tion. Expres­sions like “float­ing on air” and “buoyed spir­its” are but a few of the many ways we con­nect the delights of weight­less­ness to oth­er pos­i­tive occur­rences and feel­ings. The calm which is pos­si­ble when weight­less and sur­round­ed by water is one of the great joys of swim­ming. We can relax mus­cles with which we labor almost con­stant­ly on land to resist the pull of grav­i­ty. Com­pres­sive loads on spine, and on hip, knee, ankle, and foot joints dis­ap­pear. Exten­sion beyond nor­mal range becomes easy.

Even a bed or a com­fort­able chair offers less uni­form sup­port from all direc­tions than that pro­vid­ed by water. Evi­dence of the stress­es we bear in resist­ing grav­i­ty is appar­ent if we com­pare the skele­tons of large land ani­mals with those of marine species of sim­i­lar size. Record-break­ing fish weigh­ing more than one thou­sand pounds have bones much small­er and lighter than the aver­age human, who weighs a frac­tion as much. Oh, the advan­tages of life in the water! Fur­ther evi­dence can be seen in the steady loss of height which accom­pa­nies the human aging process. Though we are often obliv­i­ous to it, life is an almost con­stant strug­gle to keep from being pulled to the ground.

Swim­ming can be gen­tle, and rel­a­tive­ly unde­mand­ing. If we feel we are work­ing hard just to remain near the sur­face, we may return to bob­bing until we dis­cov­er a tem­po which we can con­tin­ue indef­i­nite­ly. Slow swim­ming requires lit­tle more ener­gy than bob­bing, and can be sus­tained by the same kind of reg­u­lar breath­ing and mea­sured motion.

Swim­ming is a game of exten­sion. To be as long as pos­si­ble, from tip of mid­dle fin­ger of one hand to tip of big toe of oppo­site foot, just before com­menc­ing each arm pow­er stroke, is to feel mus­cles at back of arm, and under it along the side, all the way to the hip. Ribcage is lift­ed off low­er tor­so. With this, as with all the oth­er cues offered here, remem­ber to enjoy. A painful stretch is worth­less. To be ful­ly elon­gat­ed and slip­ping through the water can feel delightful.


Rhythm is essen­tial to easy swim­ming. Reg­u­lar alter­na­tion between work­ing and rest­ing per­mits us to flow eas­i­ly and effort­less­ly through the water, to become one with it. Your rhythm may be short and quick or long and slow. Con­tin­u­ous­ly exper­i­ment to dis­cov­er what you like best at any par­tic­u­lar time. As you become more effi­cient and bet­ter con­di­tioned, alter your tem­po. Remain­ing open to new ways is cru­cial. To feel great cer­tain­ty can be an invi­ta­tion to per­sis­tent error.

We can learn to match exer­tion to avail­able ener­gy. If one breath every two strokes seems insuf­fi­cient, per­haps soft­er strokes will redress the imbal­ance. Some­times change will be slow, at oth­ers dra­mat­ic. By remain­ing focused on swim­ming, we are alert to the new and unex­pect­ed. If we accept each new rev­e­la­tion with grat­i­tude, we are more like­ly to feel con­tent. To want to be dif­fer­ent now is to swim dissatisfied.

To swim to exhaus­tion or frus­tra­tion seems fool­ish. To swim reg­u­lar­ly for a life­time is poten­tial­ly to swim many thou­sands of days. This life­time swim can be joy­ful, with each occa­sion in the water a con­tin­u­a­tion of the pre­vi­ous, and a pre­lude to the sub­se­quent. So often we over­reach today and suf­fer the mor­row. With ambi­tion and igno­rance we fuel such behavior.

The patient swim­mer rec­og­nizes that, “How far, how fast today?” can be asked with­in the con­text of, “What is appro­pri­ate for a life­time?” To swim each stroke with full atten­tion, to feel and rel­ish each motion, to leave the water refreshed, these are ele­ments of joy­ful swim­ming. The Bali­nese say, “Our life is our art.” We can swim with this attitude.


Every time we enter the water we dis­cov­er the strength and bal­ance, the coor­di­na­tion and endurance, that we bring to this prac­tice. Each of us is unique, and in swim­ming there is so much room for indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ence that gen­er­al­iza­tions about dis­tance and time, like those per­tain­ing to tech­nique, can eas­i­ly be made into so many false rewards and pun­ish­ments. To swim enough to raise the heart rate to a lev­el where we gain car­dio­vas­cu­lar ben­e­fit is the goal of many. To feel the pow­er of reg­u­lar, deep breath­ing can feel enliven­ing. To float and extend sup­port­ed by water may be among our great­est relax­ations. To do these things long enough to find a med­i­ta­tive rhythm, and short enough to leave the water invig­o­rat­ed can be a hap­py balance.

The clock is an exter­nal stan­dard. The clock knows noth­ing of how we feel. What else mat­ters, real­ly? Why ask the clock if we are swim­ming well? Each of us can enjoy swim­ming, just as we do it today. Why rely on an exter­nal stan­dard for per­mis­sion to enjoy? Too far, too fast seems lit­tle dif­fer­ent from too short, too slow­ly. Swim­ming can be an hia­tus from the ubiq­ui­tous quan­tifi­ca­tion of our cul­ture. If only for the sake of vari­ety, per­haps you will use it as such.

To swim eas­i­ly for as long as we want is pos­si­ble for most of us. To learn this, we prac­tice reg­u­lar­ly, per­haps so reg­u­lar­ly that few days pass with­out our being in the water. How often we swim depends upon our own val­ues. Remem­ber that learn­ing requires atten­tion. As we become more at ease in the water, we often want to swim more. Each of us can use the qual­i­ty of our own expe­ri­ence as our guide.

Staying Motivated


Peo­ple learn in dif­fer­ent ways. What is easy for some comes slow­ly for oth­ers. Some­times we focus on appar­ent inabil­i­ty, or on some aspect of our prac­tice with which we are dis­sat­is­fied. At these times we may cease meta-learn­ing, and become obsessed with desire for progress in the form of tech­ni­cal mas­tery. Swim­ming thus can be pure drudgery.

At such moments inspi­ra­tion can be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful. Many find this in world-class swim­mers and water polo play­ers, or in oth­ers who per­form feats of tremen­dous speed or endurance, like swim­ming the Eng­lish Chan­nel. Oth­ers are spurred onward by those who swim joy­ful­ly despite some lim­i­ta­tion: the blind peo­ple, the ones who come in wheel­chairs, those whose shoul­ders or hips move only min­i­mal­ly. A few min­utes watch­ing such swim­mers, or chat­ting with them at pool­side can be a reminder of how much each of us can achieve.


There may be times when we may facil­i­tate our prac­tice by rely­ing on the pres­ence of anoth­er. Mov­ing up and down a pool stroke-for-stroke, side-by-side, is a dif­fer­ent dance. How­ev­er, grace­ful swim­ming is pos­si­ble only at our own pace. Swim­ming togeth­er, each com­fort­able, is dif­fer­ent from chas­ing and/or wait­ing. Often friends just trav­el to and from a pool togeth­er, or share insights. The obser­va­tions of a sym­pa­thet­ic fel­low-swim­mer can be invaluable.


Swim­mers use a vari­ety of aids to focus atten­tion on some part of their stroke, or oth­er­wise facil­i­tate learn­ing. Kick­boards, hand pad­dles, pull buoys, flota­tion belts, fins, wet suits, snorkels, face masks, and sundry oth­er devices all have their advo­cates. If any of these are avail­able to you and seem appro­pri­ate to your cir­cum­stances, exper­i­ment. By using such tools we may prac­tice spe­cif­ic skills with­out dis­trac­tion, or just gen­er­al­ly reduce the demands of swim­ming. This per­mits us to direct our prac­tice more nar­row­ly. Those who find the tran­si­tion from bob­bing to swim­ming dif­fi­cult often expe­ri­ence break­throughs in arm­stroke effi­cien­cy when using mask and snorkel to make breath­ing eas­i­er. Oth­ers find that fins are the dif­fer­ence between floun­der­ing at the edge of pan­ic and swim­ming with con­fi­dence. Remem­ber that all extra­so­mat­ic devices remove us to some degree from the direct inter­ac­tion with the water which the unen­cum­bered swim­mer enjoys.


Vari­ety in swim­ming comes in myr­i­ad forms: on some days we may just bob and breathe; on oth­ers the motion of an arm or the posi­tion of a hand will be all-engross­ing. We may start and stop fre­quent­ly, or swim an unchang­ing rhythm. Dif­fer­ent strokes, alter­ation of speed or dis­tance, train­ing aids, and swim­ming at dif­fer­ent times of day or in dif­fer­ent places can all be ways to vary our practice.


We soon dis­cov­er that what we eat affects our swim­ming. To feel light and emp­ty in the water is a good begin­ning. Few of us swim well with­in an hour or so of eat­ing. Most of us even­tu­al­ly rec­og­nize that fresh foods, processed min­i­mal­ly, are appro­pri­ate to an active life. Sug­ar beyond that found in fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles seems unnec­es­sary, and heavy, fat­ty foods almost always leave us feel­ing slug­gish. Food is fuel and build­ing mate­r­i­al; to eat any­thing beyond what is required to meet these needs is a poten­tial abuse.


After we have swum with atten­tion and reg­u­lar­i­ty for awhile, we begin to notice changes: a stronger, slow­er heart; deep­er, more relaxed breath­ing; firmer, stronger mus­cu­la­ture; gen­tler, more flow­ing move­ment; a new bal­ance between activ­i­ty and fatigue, between hunger and eat­ing, per­haps even between fear and con­fi­dence, frus­tra­tion and patience. For many, these dif­fer­ences are sur­pris­ing, but move­ment is gen­er­al­ly a part of the life of a healthy, well-adapt­ed ani­mal, and a reg­u­lar, inte­grat­ed swim­ming prac­tice as described here can have pos­i­tive effects on a sur­pris­ing vari­ety of aspects of being.

Beyond Words

Liv­ing in a cul­ture dom­i­nat­ed by word con­scious­ness, we turn to ver­bal instruc­tion almost by habit. Learn­ing to swim joy­ful­ly requires more than just inter­nal­iz­ing ver­bal instruc­tions. We can watch oth­ers, imag­in­ing how they feel, mov­ing as they do. When observ­ing oth­ers, we can learn to see afresh, for­get­ting our pre­vi­ous ideas and expec­ta­tions of what we will see, and look­ing with open­ness to dis­cov­er some­thing new. We can notice the parts of their strokes which are bilat­er­al­ly sym­met­ri­cal or dis­parate. We may com­pare and con­trast our way of swim­ming with theirs. We can exper­i­ment, and feel the dif­fer­ences. By repeat­ing this cycle of obser­va­tion, imag­i­na­tion, and exper­i­men­ta­tion we learn.

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