This post is all about the elusive “feel” in swimming and some ideas about how to nurture it in different types of swimmers – with big thanks to all the clients who put their trust in me and to Swim Smooth, the world leaders in swim coaching that my approach is grounded in.

For me, feel has at least three key elements:

  • feel for the water – a sense of holding the water, pressing it back and surging through;
  • feel in the water – an alertness to all the right muscles engaged and working and the body being long and streamlined;
  • at one in the water – a flowing sense of everything coming together, each part of the stroke in tune and rhythm.

How brilliant when a new swimmer begins to experience these for themselves.  So how can they be nurtured and enhanced in swimmers – particularly those who are new to front crawl?

True to the Swim Smooth approach, first thing to say is that there isn’t one single method or set of tricks that will work for everyone as we are all different – not just physically but also the past we bring in terms of good and bad experiences in the water, how we might have been taught, fitness levels, time to swim...

In my attempts to attune novice swimmers to these feelings I am seeing at least three distinctive types of challenge that require different approaches and subtly different emphases.

Instinct versus Feeling

Following the Swim Smooth approach, everything starts with the breathing – developing a relaxed, continuous exhaling in the water so that when you come to turn to breathe the lungs are empty and all you do is take in air.  Getting to that point, though of being relaxed enough to breathe out underwater, doesn’t come naturally – at least at first!  All our instincts will be yelling “hold your breath!”

For this reason almost all my first one to one sessions with new clients include having a go at sink downs.  We try a relaxed bubbling out, allowing the body to sink to the pool floor so as to overcome the instincts and begin to be comfortable with a new ‘natural’ sense of releasing the air (in fact its CO2 so needs to be expelled anyway).

I’ve found this takes a special kind of patient perseverance for most people as it rarely happens first off.  There's also a risk of it becoming a mental block of its own.  Imaginative use of imagery and a relaxed, no-rushing rule seem to help.

The following illustrates that it's not a matter of easy tricks.  I am currently working with a very impressive, active lady in her 60s who came to me to learn front crawl for her very first triathlon earlier this month.   Like many other novice swimmers, her breathing tended to shallow gasping and snatching at the air, creating a pause in her stroke – but I found I wasn't able to get her relaxed enough to do the sink downs.  At one point she vented her frustration, berating herself that as a music teacher and oboist surely she knows all about breathing out.  That gave the clue!  We now make breathing out from the nose a new, nuanced skill to master whilst I hold an imaginary conductor’s baton and signal for a continuous, steady sighing out.  We’re getting there, with the best to come.

Force versus Feeling

A second challenge to develop swimmers’ feel for the water belongs to those who Swim Smooth call the Arnies – typically people who come to swimming from a background of heavy gym work and a mentality of pushing through pain, water... in fact anything foolish enough to get in their way.  They tend to look like they are in a fight with the water, expending a lot of energy without much to show for it other than breathless frustration.

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Getting on top of the breathing is again a fundamental and unavoidable step before worrying about technique.  But how to cultivate the in-tune feel for the water that will unlock all that effort?

A big challenge is to try to slow everything down – often I’ll need to ask someone to swim at half the speed they’ve just done what was meant to be their easy warm up.  Swim Smooth call this “taming the Arnie”.

I also try to be very conscious of never answering their question of how something looked before I first find out how it felt.  But initially at least going on about feel for the water is unlikely to cut much ice with these guys (and they do seem to be mainly men).  So I tend to focus more on the feel of the muscles – which ones are engaged and whether they feel a surge as they haul themselves through the water.  Doing it wrong – half a length with clenched fists or deliberately hitting the water flat – then half a length doing it right also seems to help develop the feel of the stroke working.

To have some fun in Club sessions I sometimes finish with a Splashless Challenge in mixed ability relay teams.  The winning lane is the one with the smoothest, most splash-less, stealth like hand entry, not the fastest.

Over-thinking versus Feeling

The final type of challenge is with novice swimmers who are perhaps the complete opposite of the Arnies – those swimmers who look as if they don’t want to disturb the water as they carefully, almost gracefully, place their arms.  Like serene swans, below the water inevitably they will often be kicking frantically to make up for the loss of propulsion at the front of their stroke.  Swim Smooth call these the Bambinos.

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My sense is that some of this comes from over-thinking – of being too mindful of placing their hands in the water, one after the other with a big pause when its time to take a breath.  Ironically, for all that careful placement, the hand entry position often needs correcting.  But even when that’s done, there doesn’t seem to be the momentum and efficient movement we want.  How to develop a freer, more fluent and effective feel of continuous, rhythmic movement in the water?  And a bit of oomph?

Some of this has to be about swim fitness – of just getting in enough regular, effortful, as opposed to thought-filled, swims to build up swim endurance and strength.

My sense is that there are also other things that help.  Distractions and shifting the focus can help.  I sometimes ask the swimmer to think of a favourite piece of music – then imagine their stroke is powering a radio playing the music.  Any pause in the stroke breaks the rhythm.  Always looking at their hands just after entry (instead of examining the pool floor) to ensure there is always one in sight also seems to work.

Another client had been struggling to overcome the urge to stop at the end of the lane after only a few lengths.  She would give herself a hard time, telling me it was as if her mind was dictating that so many lengths could not be achieved without a break.  So we devised some swim sessions based on a main set of first doing a fixed number of lengths that was just within what she knew she could do at a stretch, every 50m grabbing her pull buoy to alternate two lengths swim two lengths pulling.  Then she would do some consciously un-numbered lengths, focusing purely on her feel in the water.  Then back to the alternate swim/pull for a few more lengths than before.  Then some more un-numbered feel lengths.  And so on, with the following week's session taking the numbered lengths up just a notch.  It seemed to work.

Class of 2015: on the legendary Swim Smooth Coaches' Education programme

Class of 2015: on the legendary Swim Smooth Coaches' Education programme

A final note:

You may have picked up a theme of swimmers getting frustrated and angry with themselves.  We're not really a very patient bunch or kind to ourselves sometimes!  Unfortunately learning a new technique, even more so coming to be relaxed and at ease in the water, is something that can't be rushed.  Patient persistence and being open to try are the keys.  Have a look back at the blog post about growth and fixed mindsets.

And for now, once again big thanks to all my swim clients and to Swim Smooth for creating and sharing the foundations of great practice.

Below are the principles that appear on every Swim Forward Plan and Swim Analysis I provide to clients.  Follow the Swim page link if you'd like to give it a go yourself and experience the joys of feeling smooth!

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