Adult-learned swimmers, or those who take up performance-focused swimming as adults, face a unique set of challenges. In the triathlon community, these swimmers often enter the sport with anxiety, a lack of understanding about what it takes to swim well, and (in some cases) anatomical limitations that call for an adjustment in what many consider a “textbook swim stroke.” Addressing the challenges facing this unique swim demographic is just one of the reasons I co-wrote Triathlon Freestyle Simplified with Rob Sleamaker—a resource wherein we distilled our coaching experiences and gathered insight from some of the world’s best coaches and athletes.
The following are four essential principles for effectively coaching adult-learned swimmers.
1. Build Comfort in the Water First
For new swimmers, the highest priority is gaining comfort in the water (i.e., feeling at ease while floating and swimming). New swimmers often feel tense in the water, whether that’s due to fear of not breathing, concern about fish friends, or simply a lack of confidence and experience. This lingering discomfort leads to swimming inefficiencies, an inability to feel the water and adjust to one’s stroke accordingly, and a general dread of swimming. The latter negatively impacts the consistency of training, thereby stifling progress.
So, how do you build comfort among your athletes? The key is having them spend time in the water doing technique-focused drills (especially those that encourage balance and body awareness) and short intervals. By keeping the intervals short (i.e., 25-50 meters), athletes will be less intimidated and more engaged. Short intervals also allow for more frequent rest and less fatigue accrual, which will enable swimmers to maintain a superior feel for the water for the majority of the workout.
Great drills for building comfort include those that isolate a particular part of the stroke while “taking care of the rest” of the stroke. For example, swimming with a pull buoy and snorkel will enable an athlete to focus on his or her pull without worrying about sinking legs or efficient head turns to breathe. Another great drill is side-kicking with fins, where an athlete focuses on maintaining a long, taut bodyline with one arm extended out ahead and his/her mouth out of the water (ideally while keeping one goggle in the water.). This drill teaches kick technique, balance and body position It will foster comfort and eliminate the need to string all phases together (a complicated and potentially counterproductive exercise for anxiety-riddled, true beginners).
2. Encourage Frequent and Effective Breathing
An extension of the first principle, the concept of constant and effective breathing is a special consideration for adult-learned swimmers that’s essential for competency and comfort. Through coaching hundreds of athletes to their first triathlon, I’ve found that many new swimmers believe that they should ALWAYS be breathing bilaterally in a 3:1 pattern (i.e., breathing once every three strokes). Although I am an advocate of teaching athletes how to breathe to both sides as it makes athletes more versatile (especially in open water conditions), I’ve found that very few beginner swimmers can swim more than a few strokes when they limit their breathing in this manner — the breath control simply isn’t there. Therefore, in the early learning phases, I encourage athletes to breathe as often as they feel compelled to, which typically means a 2:1 or even a 3:2 pattern. As a result, they do not feel obligated to a potentially unnatural breathing pattern, relax a bit more as they do not feel deprived of air, and can avoid CO2 buildup and the subsequent panicky feeling that results.
To clarify, this does not mean that the end goal is not eventually building comfort swimming with a 3:1 breathing pattern in training. Rather, it’s a matter of phasing. The overarching priorities for adult-learned swimmers should be building comfort in the water and developing stroke fundamentals. A breathing protocol will be most impactful and productive after these swimmers develop the fitness, breath control, stroke rate and comfort to swim with a limiting breathing pattern confidently.
3. Understand Anatomical Limitations and Adjust the Stroke Accordingly
We often see the same traits in top swimmers. They frequently boast tall builds, with long torsos and short legs. Their wingspans are broad, and they commonly benefit from larger hands and feet. Perhaps most importantly, they almost always enjoy (genuinely, at the elite level, I can think of no exceptions) flexible shoulders and ankles.
Unique flexibility allows lifelong competitive swimmers to achieve certain movement patterns that adult-learned swimmers simply cannot. Problems and frustration often arise when beginner swimmers (especially those with running and cycling backgrounds and the biomechanical byproducts of those sports – often, inflexible shoulders and ankles) are told to emulate the stroke technique of elite swimmers.
Pragmatically, few adult-learned swimmers will achieve the great early vertical forearm (EVF) that Grant Hackett and other great swimmers pull off. Yes, beginners should strive to place their hand and forearm vertically in the water as far out in front of their head as their shoulder flexibility allows. However, most beginners cannot internally rotate their shoulders in the same way as their seemingly double-jointed, advanced swimmer counterparts can. Because of this, it is often productive to encourage a less radical EVF whereby an athlete maximizes the propulsive benefit of their pull from the top of their head backward, rather than stressing to grip the water farther ahead. This can be achieved with a slightly deeper “spear” after entry, where the hand and forearm reach ahead and down at a deeper angle to set-up a more reasonable catch position. This is often a superior approach because, if an inflexible swimmer reaches straight out and is not able to keep his/her shoulder and elbow high when dropping the hand and forearm into the catch position, they end up pressing down on the water as their entire arm drops. This wastes energy and generates drag as it drives the legs down. Over time as shoulder mobility improves, a swimmer can adjust the approach with a focus on achieving an “earlier” EVF effectively; however, forcing this prematurely is usually counterproductive.
Another standard anatomical limitation in adult-learned swimmers is an inability to plantarflex their ankles (i.e., point their toes), which generates drag and severely limits their ability to generate propulsion while kicking. In this way, certain stroke styles, such as a catch-up style stroke that requires a propulsive kick, might not be the most effective method for athletes with stiff ankles. Prioritizing a higher stroke rate that eliminates dead spots and stalling in the water can be beneficial for these athletes, as can striving to increase ankle flexibility through stretching — such as through sitting on one’s heels with the feet/ankles plantarflexed for a few minutes at a time, and swimming with fins.
4. Do Not Neglect the Importance of Fitness
Water is 800 times denser than air, so minimizing drag and maximizing propulsion through excellent technique is essential. However, many athletes prioritize technique over fitness, believing a beautiful stroke alone will make them great swimmers. While proper technique is crucial for fast swimming, strength and fitness allow athletes to maintain good technique over distance, so it is essential to develop both. Strength and fitness can enhance proprioception in the water, which will enable a swimmer to fine-tune his or her technique more efficiently in training and maintain it when racing. For adult-learned swimmers specifically, building fitness also enhances technique as it enables them to “feel” the water better during training and consciously engage with a more significant number of strokes per session.
For adult-learned swimmers, the key to developing fitness while also fostering good technique is prioritizing short, high-intensity sets that encourage athletes to swim fast, yet fully maintain a feel for the water between intervals. Workouts like 3X(6X50) at a strong Z4/Z5 effort with rest intervals of 20-30 seconds are productive, as are pull sets (with or without paddles), where athletes can focus on building pull strength without worrying about their body position. These workouts efficiently develop strength (especially in the lats and shoulders) and cardiorespiratory fitness while still allowing athletes to focus constructively on form. If an athlete has access to a Vasa SwimErg or other land-based tools (such as swim cords), they can further develop pull strength in a hyper-targeted manner out of the water — an approach particularly relevant for time-strapped athletes or those concerned about heading to the pool in the midst of the current pandemic.
Traditional training methods may not be the most effective approach for adult-learned swimmers to gain proficiency. However, acknowledging and responding to athletes’ anxieties, prioritizing building comfort in the water, adjusting for anatomical limitations, and strategically fostering strength and fitness early on will enable adult-learned swimmers to progress more quickly, allowing them to swim stronger, better and faster.