But What If You Can't Swim Freestyle Continuously?

If you're new to swimming freestyle you might be suffering from a very common problem - you feel like you can swim the stroke more or less but you have no stamina, needing to stop and get your breath back every 25m or 50m.

Many many swimmers get stuck at this point and it can be really discouraging. It can take a lot of persistence to break through this barrier but the good news is that once you can swim further than 50m without stopping you'll quickly move on from there to swimming hundreds (or even thousands) of meters without a break.

The first thing to appreciate is that whilst swimming technique is very important, so to is swimming fitness. You can be as fit as you like in land based sports but if you don't have fitness specific to swimming you will struggle, even with great stroke technique. It's the combination of technique AND swim fitness that makes a great swimmer.

Persistence pays off: This time last year Marietta couldn't swim 25m
without stopping, yesterday she swam 1000m in Lake Como!
Thanks sending in the photo Marietta and keep up the great work!

Below are some tips on the fitness side of learning to swim freestyle - you don't need to have the body of an elite athlete to swim continuous laps but you do need to develop a basic level of fitness. Many strong swimmers forget they have this basic level of fitness and might say swimming is all about technique but we need to make sure that yours is in place - it's so important when you are building things up.

Keep working on your stroke technique using all the advice Swim Smooth offers you (don't forget exhaling in the water and kicking gently with a nice straight leg) but make sure you are giving your swim fitness the attention it deserves too.

Here's our swim fitness tips:

- If at all possible swim at least three times a week and perform as much freestyle as you can in those sessions. Going from twice to three times a week makes a big difference to your fitness.

- Be determined! Unfortunately fitness improvements don't happen overnight, your fitness improves slowly and incrementally over time, normally in such small steps we're not aware of it. However, if we stop swimming we start to lose that fitness again so not only do you need to be determined over a long period of time but you need to be consistent over that period too. See this post.

- Don't start too fast! If you're feeling a little anxious in the water then it's very easy to push off and start swimming too fast for your level of fitness - you can be effectively sprinting without you realising it. Try and relax, and find an easy rhythm to your stroke - you should be swimming at a steady pace, not racing to the other end to get it over with as soon as possible.

- Once you feel you are improving try and break the habit of stopping every length for a rest - after a while this becomes more psychological than physical! Try keeping it going for another half length or so, and then another full length after that - stay relaxed and you may be surprised what you can do. It's key to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone!

- If possible get together with some friends or other people you meet at the pool and swim together. You will push each other along and you'll be less likely to miss a swim. If they are actually slightly better than you then don't be put off but see that as a good thing, they can help pull you along and you'll definitely learn something from them about swimming.

- After swimming you may feel your arms are so heavy you can barely lift them - don't worry this is perfectly normal and a good sign you're promoting those fitness improvements. You may feel like your arms aren't strong enough but that isn't the case, you are just limited by your aerobic fitness in those muscles and that's why you're feeling sore after. No problem, just recover for a day or two and get going again next swim.

- Try to take the pressure off yourself. OK you need to push yourself along physically but don't beat yourself up psychologically if it takes a little time to get the improvements you are looking for. Fitness comes based on what you have done over the previous weeks and months - you can't force it.

- Keep a log! One of the most motivating and revealing things you can do is keep a training log, simply recording each session, what you did and how you felt. If you record some of your swimming times and distances (no matter how slow or short) you'll start to see your progress over time which is very motivating. Plus you'll start to see the big picture of your training - have you been as consistent as you think?

So there we go, focusing on your stroke technique when you're learning freestyle is vital but don't neglect the fitness side too. How long will it take? That depends a little on exactly where you are but with 2 to 3 months of persistent consistent swimming you should break through that '1 length only' barrier.

Swim Smooth!


Unknown said...

This was me not so long ago! Was taught freestyle from February 2014 and was able to get round a 1km open water course but very 'stop start' in November 2014. No doubt perseverance and swim fitness helped but my coach also spotted when I got into open water I kicked my legs furiously, making me very out of puff quickly. Once we sorted this out and found some calm conditions the 'keep swimming' started to happen. 1.5km no stopping or and continuous freestyle in March 2015. Very happy and now even enjoy swimming!

Unknown said...

This was me not so long ago! Was taught freestyle from February 2014 and was able to get round a 1km open water course but very 'stop start' in November 2014. No doubt perseverance and swim fitness helped but my coach also spotted when I got into open water I kicked my legs furiously, making me very out of puff quickly. Once we sorted this out and found some calm conditions the 'keep swimming' started to happen. 1.5km no stopping or and continuous freestyle in March 2015. Very happy and now even enjoy swimming!

Anonymous said...

Hi. I have just come home from a swim at my local pool and have exactly this problem and wondered what to do about it as my dream would be to swim freestyle continuously - at the moment I do one length 25m freestyle and one length backstroke. I will now endeavour to break this barrier - would look forward to hearing from others how they do it.

Anonymous said...

Nice tips. I recently got myself a Type 3 Shoulder Separation injury. Do you have any tips on how to get back into freestyle?

Unknown said...

Thanks for this article! I have made some real progress in my swimming over the past few months but I'm at the point where I need to get a breath or two every 25 or 50. My long term goal is to be able to do a mile effortlessly and I was starting to think that would never happen. So thanks for the tips and encouragement!

Frank Walker said...

Getting enough air on a continuous basis is usually the key.

If you can't swim more than 50 yards or meters continuously, but are OK if you stop at the wall, probably you are running out of breath, since your muscles aren't that fatigued.

You can train to get enough breath by swimming slowly with a pull-buoy and hand-paddles, to make it easier. The goal is not speed, it is time (go as long as possible), with flip-turns if you know how. You shouldn't need to kick. The goal is to relax and feel like you are full of breath. Relaxing your neck and exhaling fully are essential. Think like "yoga in the water". Keep doing this until you can go at least 1000 yards or meters, then try it with just the buoy, and then just swim it.

Good Luck!

Jonas said...

Great post from Swim Smooth. Yes, I think the '1 length only' barrier can be more psychological than physical. When I swim 50, 60 or 100 m, I say to myself: I have to stop, I'm tired, but actually I'm not ! Of course, it's not good to push yourself too hard but once you have overcome the '1 length only' barrier, the following lengths are psycologically less tiring.

Unknown said...

It wasn't that long ago that I can remember being a "1" length at a time swimmer, I've entered a 5k Open Water swim in June and totally comfortable doing it, and although it might sound corny its all down to the swim smooth system. Please persist because you can overcome it, I would strongly suggest getting the video analysis that swim smooth coaches use.

Unknown said...

Eliminate wasteful energy cost (usually kicking too much), breathe often enough to satisfy your body's need for fuel, pick up a few useful technique pointers. Doesn't take 2-3 months. How about 2 days? Swimmer 1 from a weekend class I taught went from 50 yards to 45 minutes of nonstop freestyle. Swimmer 2...well, this was his follow up email: "Just wanted to let you know, I swam 2500m in a lake today, with two 800m stretches. 3 weeks ago I had to get pulled out the lake by a canoe. 2 weeks ago I could go no further than 200m. In short, thanks!" You guys offer some good advice, but I don't think I've ever met a non-swimmer who was stuck at 1 length for more than a week or two.

Estengel said...

Great to see Swim Smooth piece for those of us not close to or interested in doing triathlons or competing in 3 mile open water events! Slow and easy with lots of full exhales and returning air to your body with comfortable breathing - you will get there (wherever "there" is for you).
Also remember diet is important to giving you energy and endurance: don't leave home without eating something light but energy building: yoghurt, banana or other fruit, even a piece of toast with jam. After you swim, have a larger meal that restores energy: cereal - hot or cold with fruit, small whole wheat pancakes, fruit bars, and even a milk shake that you might add protein powder to. Sticking to a healthy diet will give you energy you may be missing now. Good luck - it will happen!

Anonymous said...

Very encouraging advice for us aspiring adult swimmers. I know I would be helped immensely by a Swim Smooth clinic, but I am in the United States. Any plans for clinics here?

Pawl said...

As usual, great post. Another thing to try is to mix up freestyle and backstroke: follow one length of free by one length of back. Then see if you can do one length of free, some back, more free.

Also pay attention to what's causing you trouble: are you truly winded after one length, or are you just panicking a bit that you will get winded? If it's the latter, give yourself a goal of doing one length plus (say) two strokes -- anything you do beyond that is a bonus. Get comfortable with going beyond a length.

One more issue maybe the coaches can weigh in on: turns. Doing a good flip turn involves more breathing issues (and really requires you to be going faster, further implicating swim fitness), so my own suggestion would be just to start with open turns.

Anonymous, when I started swimming (about age 50), I had to work up to doing one length of freestyle. One good thing, though, was that I wasn't worried about going fast; I just wanted to do it well. So focus on relaxing. As part of that, make sure you have a continuous, steady exhalation -- and you're breathing alternately. Those things make a huge difference in how much work it is to do a length.

I gradually worked up to doing more than one length at a time. I remember how big a deal it was to do two or three, and how astounded I was one day to do 20. You'll get there.

Anonymous said...

I was in the same boat when I first started swimming for exercise a little over 5 years ago. My approach was to swim continuously for whatever my target number of laps was, but to alternate the freestyle with breaststroke as "recovery".

When I first started, I would do one freestyle lap followed by three recovery laps, then I built up to 2 freestyle followed by two recovery laps, then 3 freestyle followed by one recovery lap and then finally continuous freestyle.

This worked well for me I believe because I was always swimming rather than just resting at the wall.

mama_swims said...

In response to dconnors: "My approach was to swim continuously for whatever my target number of laps was, but to alternate the freestyle with breaststroke as "recovery"."

I am currently taking the same approach with the goal of eventually swimming freestyle the whole time. I alternate 1 lap (50 yds) freestyle with 1 lap breaststroke for recovery, stopping for 15 to 30 seconds in between each set of 100 yds.

There's a woman at my gym with only one leg and she swims the mile. I decided that if she can, than I should try it too. After working on it for 4 months I can swim the mile but it takes me 40 to 45 minutes, depending on how much resting I do in between sets.

It doesn't sound like much, but in the beginning I could only swim 1 25-yd. length and had to stop to rest. I am nearly 50 yrs. old and each week it gets easier. My chronic lower back pain is gone, I sleep better at night, my metabolism has increased and since I started, lost 25 pounds. Stick with it; keep swimming at least three times a week and you'll surprise yourself when you exceed your goals!

Adam Young said...

Inspirational stuff mama_swims - keep up the great work!


Cola said...

I had this problem for about half a year, it was extremely discouraging. It's all about breathing, particularly when I did flip turns as it disrupted my breathing pattern and I was always gasping for air when I surfaced. The key is persistence. Take a lesson in freestyle (I only took one and it was well worth it, huge eye opener) to learn proper form, and begin with intervals. I started with 50 yard intervals, increased it to 75, then 100. I'd do sets like that for at least 1200 yards total. Then one day, about half a year later, I decided to see how many I could do without breaks, without breaks. About 1000 yards. Hmmm, but I honestly felt I could keep going had I not got bored. So one week later, I made 2500 yards my goal and I did it. Once again, felt I could go longer but got bored. The point is, your body will adapt to distance swimming very quickly. During my time I only swam once per week because I treat swimming as a cross training tool, so just imagine how good you could get if you swam 3 times a week and treated it as one of your workout foundations.

Adam Young said...

Thanks for posting Brian - really great advice!!

Anonymous said...

not sure if this blog is still active , but wanted some advice and words of encouragement ..
I started learning swimming as an adult and have been at it for couple of years now. It took me a long time to learn side breathing and I was doing it only on one side and got pretty comfortable at it and one of the swim instructors told me to go for bilateral so I started and again took me a loong time to start breathing on both sides.
but I still don feel comfortable going into deep end (unless some is watching over me like a hawk). and part of the reason is I get tired with half a length and for my usual practices I do half length in shallow and turn back and 5 feet mark. But I get very tired and after every length (half was going and back) and need to stop .I go to pool 2-3 times a week and last week I could do 8 lengths without much stopping and thought I have gone past by 50 m block as someone mentioned in post here and should be able to do lengths now. but that day was exception, after that I have gone to pool multiple times and feels like I have regressed..:(

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