I swim a lot … but I’m not getting faster …?

Ten tips to beat The Swimmer’s Plateau

Do you swim a lot but have stopped improving? You’re no longer getting faster?

This is a common issue for swimmers of all levels of ability – learners, people who are training for an event and elite competitive swimmer – and is called The Plateau.

Even elite swimmers can hit The Plateau and despite training for hours each day, they are not recording faster times, sometimes they are even getting slower times than they have done in the past.

The solution is not training more. The solution is to train differently, even just small changes can bust The Plateau and get you improving again.

If you aren’t getting fast anymore, despite lots of swimming metres and hours, think about these ten tips to beat The Plateau:

  1. Make sure you are having fun: Swimming is fun, that’s just science. Swimming only works if you’re having fun. Moving fast through the water, diving in, feeling strong in the water. These are all 100% enjoyable. If you have hit The Plateau go back to doing the stuff that drew you to the water in the first place and have a bit of fun every time you dive in. Don’t get out of the water if you’re not smiling and feeling amazing.
  2. Ask someone to watch you: A coach or an experienced swimmer may be able to see something small that you can improve to help you through The Plateau. You might be making a small mistake, every stroke that is keeping you from improving. The trick then is to act on the advice and feel the difference.
  3. Change things: Change the way you train. Go to a different venue. Complete a different set of reps. Swim for longer reps, or shorter sprints. Do more backstroke, breaststroke or some stroke that you rarely use.
  4. Be Patient: Think positively and stay conscious and in charge of your body every single stroke. If you are just going through the motions, you are not maximising your potential to swim well and swim effectively. Every single movement of every part of your body is important. Feel your way through and stay attuned to how your body is moving through the water.
  5. Go to the physio: If you have aches and pains and niggling little shoulder injuries, go and get help, get a massage, get fixed up. Little aches and pains might disappear from your conscious mind when you’re swimming but they don’t go away and could be impacting on how you move.
  6. Do some dryland training: Change things up a bit and move your body in different ways. This can help you get out of the rut and break through The Plateau. Go running, cycling or head to the gym.
  7. Use some swim gear – Fins (flippers, paddles, snorkel) to get you moving differently and using your systems more effectively. What is really happening is you are focussed and making more of an effort with specific muscle systems.
  8. Just do sprints – Do some sessions of short sharp superfast sprinting. Maybe you have adjusted t the hard endurance training and the long-distance reps. Break through The Plateau by just going flat out.
  9. Swim with friends: Ask a friend to come train with you or find a group to swim with. Sometimes we hit The Plateau because we have made our swimming a isolated, lonely activity. Make it a social exercise and don’t be concerned if you are not as fast as other people.
  10. Take a rest: have a rest week away from the pool or the open water and get recharged and reenergised. Maybe you’ve been pushing it too hard. During your week off, do plenty of stretching and other activities.
Photo by Jennifer Polanco on Pexels.com

Swimming – It’s a brain exercise

Sometimes swimming can make me feel really dumb. We think swimming is a great physical exercise and will make us really fit, right? But yes and no to that idea….

Because only people who can do it fairly well can get fit from swimming. The rest can’t get their breathing and rhythm together long enough to get fit.

Freestyle swimming (and the other strokes) is a brain exercise, a mental puzzle that you FAIL if you don’t stay focused and consciously thinking all the time. 

The puzzle is that your body must be in the high floating buoyant position to start with – that’s takes skill and an experience of your own centre of buoyancy. Then you have to master your breathing. Then all your body’s limbs and levers have to do what you tell them, when they’re told and while you monitor how they are doing it and you must be able to adjust with small movements and modifications as necessary. 

Even experienced swimmers can fall into the trap of ‘going through the motions’ and not concentrating on what they are doing. That’s when they FAIL at swimming.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

You need to mentally solve the puzzle to make it work for you. So here’s some mental tricks – some questions to ask yourself – that will change the way you manage your own body when you’re swimming. Get back in charge by thinking your way through it. 

  1. Freestyle is not arm strokes 

You might have heard the freestyle swim style called ‘overarm’ or ‘crawl.’ 

Stop thinking of freestyle as a cycle of arms – stroke after arm stroke. Just think about the stretch forward. Think about freestyle as just a stretch and pull. Forget about strokes and think stretch forward while you pull back with the other arm. 

Look forward to that reach forward because this is the fun gliding part of swimming freestyle, the rest is work. If you think of freestyle as an endless process of one arm stroke then next arm stroke etc you risk losing focus. Then you will run out breath for sure. 

  1. You don’t need air 

Breathing is important but try forgetting about it and you’ll swim easier. Think of it as unimportant, even though. in distance freestyle, you actually need more air so you probably will inhale every stroke cycle – so every right arm or every left arm and that’s OK.

BUT you can’t let it dominate your thinking. You have be confident both in your ability to breathe and confident in your ability to go for a few seconds without breathing. 

So – focus on exhaling. Forget about inhaling. Get your exhale long, steady and in control, then your inhaling will largely look after itself. The best way to exhale is via a steady stream of small bubbles out of your nose. The best way to inhale while swimming is via a large, deep, quick breath in through your mouth. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  1. Breathing and bubbles.  

If you are losing your timing or losing your breath, choose one side to be your favoured side for breathing and stick to it. Then look at your hands and label one hand the hand you move when breathing and the other hand is the hand that is stroking while blow bubbles. One hand/arm for breathing and one for bubbles. Breathing and bubbles. When you’re getting anxious or really pushing yourself in a swim, you fall back to calling your hands Breathing and Bubbles. This reminds your brain that you are soon going to inhale and to stop worrying. 

  1. Kick or don’t kick, make up your mind. 

I’ve written about kicking a lot over the years and I’ve coached a lot of swimmers with a bad kick and plenty with great ability to kick. Good swimmers can either kick very well, probably from a childhood spent in swim squad, or they hardly kick at all. Bad swimmers always think they are kicking but are probably just wriggling their legs around or making a cycling type of motion. That means a lot of splashing and movement without getting much go-forward at all.  

Kicking is a cardio activity so use it sparingly or not at all if you want to conserve energy over a long distance. Don’t fool yourself, if you don’t have a good kick, stop moving your legs around. Can you actually stop kicking? Do you have control over your legs or are they just moving out of habit? 

  1. It’s your body, so take control. 

Can you order your arms to do what you want them to do? And when to do it? What about your legs? Really?

Many swimming drills, like catch-up, 1-arm freestyle and others, are mostly about making you, your brain, take control of your body, your legs, your arms. If you can’t do the full range of swimming drills and skill exercises you are not in full control of your body. Everyone is either left or right brained. Everyone is better at controlling and working on the right or the left side of their body. But in swimming everything has to be balanced. You have to be able do exactly the same movements with the same strength on both left and right side.  

That’s one part of it but there’s more. You have to be able to tell your body when to move and when not to move. Sounds easy right? Most people can’t do it. Swimmers can do it. A good swimmer’s arms and legs never fall into an automatic cycle of actions, they are always in active control. 

Did you know that your arms and legs don’t have their own brains? Yes it’s true, that’s just science so they can’t be trusted with ‘muscle memory’ to get the job done correctly every time without you in control. 

Do exercises like catch-up, fingerdrag and one-arm freestyle regularly as a way of telling your body that you are in charge.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How to train to swim fast – 13 tips that will make you faster

Speed and time is the traditional metric for measuring swimming ability.

Yes, it seems a bit arbitrary but then again, no, it’s not.

Sure, we all want to swim a long way in a relaxed and sustainable fashion and that is great but all that is easier and more obtainable if you have developed the technique to swim fast.

Speed through the water is mostly technique with fitness thrown in as a bonus, not the other way around like many other activities. 

Swimming as a sport and industry has come to appreciate long-distance swimming only in the last 20-odd years. But speed and times have always been number one. A fast swimmer can transition to distance swimming pretty readily. A slow swimmer can easily get in trouble in open water events. 

Anyway, now is the time of year for plenty of events, triathlons, races etc so how do you train to build your speed?

Photo by Jim De Ramos on Pexels.com

13 tips to swim faster 

  1. Go to the pool. Yes, we love swimming in the ocean but it’s not making you quicker. Laps of the pool make you quicker. Interval training makes you quicker.
  2. Train fast to get faster: Don’t train at 50% or even 90% max effort – you can’t get faster doing that. You have to train at 100% effort. You have to swim faster than you have swum before to increase your speed in the water. If you are not pushing yourself to top speed in training, you won’t be able to go fast in a race or event. This might mean you have to swim shorter distances – down to 25m at a go – to really ensure you are pushing yourself to maximum pace. 
  3. Quality of metres, not quantity of metres, is what counts if you want to increase your swim speed. Lots of kilometres, swum relatively slowly is the training you do if you want to swim slowly for a long distance. If you want to increase your speed, do this: swim fast, rest, then swim faster, rest again, repeat. If you want to swim fast for a long distance in the open water, you have to mix things up. Swim fast intervals a couple of times per week at the pool then do one long swim each week. 
  4. Relax to swim fast. All this info is not designed to stress you out. You can’t grit your teeth and pull hard through the water and get faster. Everything has to be fluid. Your technique has to be better than ever before if you want to travel through the water faster than ever before. The water is unforgiving of bad technique. The water loves you if you do things correctly.
  5. Be firm in your core, don’t wiggle and snake through the water. Reach out in front until your elbows are straight. Be long. Develop a feeling of reaching so far with your shoulders and back that you are stretching yourself longer and taller. Maintain a firm spot just under your belly button.
  6. Get narrow and straight. Like a streamlined torpedo. Legs close together. Arms coming straight through under the water and straight back through the air, close to your body. That means high elbows.
  7. Rock, don’t roll. When you reach forward, rock using your abs in your stomach. Your shoulder will move forward and your other shoulder will turn so it’s out of the water, allowing your recovering arm to cleanly get back to the front for the next stroke. Your hips though need to stay fairly stable, not rolling from side to side.
  8. Faster stroke rate? Yes. Shorter stroke length? No. The best way to tire yourself out is to take lots of strokes. Every stroke has to count and be worth the effort you’re making. Don’t give up on your stroke halfway – keep pushing until your thumb flicks past your hip or thigh. 
  9. Your kick has to be pretty good. Keep legs close together, pretty straight and toes pointy. Your legs can undermine all your upper body effort. A good kick can even give you some go-forward speed but the first consideration is to keep them up behind you, at the top of the water. 
  10. Fingers get wider apart – The faster you swim, the wider apart your fingers need to be. You have to be grabbing more water.
  11. Elbows need to be high, forearms vertical really early in your stroke and your hand has to get ‘behind’ your elbow asap.
  12. Breathing – Your head can’t lift up to breathe if you want to go quickly. You need to keep it low and have faith that your speed will make a bow wave and a pocket of air behind it with the top of your head – if your head is low when you breathe in. One goggle in the air and one goggle in the water is the key.
  13. When you start to get it – it all clicks, you rise up just slightly in the water, there’s a bow wave, you can feel the rush of the water and you are superhuman. The water loves you and you will want more of that, it’s addictive. Ian Thorpe said: “Swimming is my art.” This isn’t endorphins flowing from physical activity, recent science has debunked a lot of that anyway. This is a technical masterwork you have created yourself by being relaxed, in control of your physical self and able to spend serious energy without things falling apart. You’re a junky. Be proud.  
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Should I use swim training equipment like flippers, paddles, pull buoys, boards etc …?

You want to improve your swimming so should you use equipment to give your training a boost?

You use equipment like weights and bands and machines and gloves and all sorts of other things in other sports so what about swimming equipment? Does it really make you better?

The answer is Yes …. and No 😊 haha, you knew I was gonna say that.

If you want to improve, there’s one piece of equipment every swimmer NEEDS and that is a pool buoy (sometimes called a pull buoy).

Pool Buoy

You use it between your legs to focus on your strokes, where most of your go-forward comes from. Plus you can hold it in your hands as a kickboard as well.

A pool buoy raises you into the correct body position. Don’t kick when using it, not even a little bit. Cutting out kicking means you won’t get puffed out and you can focus on the strength element of swimming – the upper body movements, the arm strokes. Make each stroke count, make each arm stroke long and strong. Use the pool buoy regularly if you are serious about swimming.

Mostly it should go between your thighs, but for more advanced workouts place the buoy between your knees and even ankles for a really good strength workout.

Flippers / fins

These are more controversial because although they are very useful they can become a negative training tool – turning into a crutch or even making your kick worse.

Good swimmers need shorter fins

The best flippers/fins for swim training are short and relatively stiff, not long and bendy snorkelling flippers. The long flippers can lead to too much bending at the knees and that’s a negative when you take them off again. The long flippers can help with ankle flexibility for learners but the goal for good swimmers is a small strong kick so shorter fins are usually best.

Firstly flippers/fins can help ease the pounding your shoulders take when you swim regularly, so that’s a positive, particularly if you have sore/injured shoulders or muscles in your upper body.

Secondly, they increase your leg strength and endurance if you exert some kicking effort when using them.

Thirdly they help with ankle flexibility – and this is all-important. Focus on the down kick and use them until your ankles start to ache.

Overall, yeah, give them a go but don’t use them all the time and use them properly, don’t put them on just to swim fast without trying hard.

The other thing flippers/fins do for swimmers trying to improve is raise their speed and their body position, so everything feels right. This is fun and a good learning opportunity. This is the feeling you want when you don’t have flippers on your feet, so feel it, then work towards it, but don’t be fooled by it.

Kickboard

Yes, you need to do some kicking and you can use a board or your pool buoy to assist. You don’t need a flotation device to practice kicking but it can help.

There’s two ways to hold a kickboard. Hands at the top and hands at the bottom. When your hands are at the top (front) of the board, your head is up, looking forward. This means you have to bend (arch) your back more to keep your feet at the surface of the water.

When your hands are at the bottom of the board, you can put your head down, look at the bottom of the pool and get into the correct swimming body position. You can even take an arm stroke to breathe on the side.

Paddles

Hand paddles can be large or small, and come with straps or without. Paddles can help developing swimmers learn to catch and pull the water more efficiently.

Swim training paddles – without straps and with straps

Paddles can help good swimmers get stronger and use their swimming as a strength workout. I like the paddles that have NO straps because you have to use a correct technique or they will fall off.

The problem with swim training equipment

All swim equipment can be overused and can lead to us not having a clear idea of where our swimming is at.

In short, use all these toys, some of the time. But swim with no toys every time. So, you might put fins on for part of your workout sometimes, but never for all of your workout.

It’s easy to use fins/flippers too much. Beware of the strain they place on your knees and ankles and the false impression they leave you with about how fast you are.

I like to always use the pool buoy for a few hundred metres in the middle of my training sessions, but I never use it in the warm-up when I am stretching and not straining anything or the main set, when I am focusing on swimming at ‘race pace.’

Paddles are an occasional add-on to give me an extra workout.

The only equipment you REALLY need are goggles, towel and speedos. Have fun everyone.

Yes children can learn to swim in the sea

What is old is new again and there’s nothing older than kids learning to swim in the open water. For generations parents have taken their kids to the local pool for swimming lessons. Now the outside open air, the space, social distance and the healthy salt water are appealing to parents looking for swim lessons for their kids.

And the kids are loving it.

Children who learn to swim in the sea are not fazed by the smallest wave, seaweed or jellyfish. They learn to love the outdoors and be a just a bit more resilient to the challenges of the natural environment. Very soon, after just a few lessons, the kids are asking when can we go back to the beach for swimming?

Learning swim skills in the open water

Relaxing and enjoying yourself is the number one item on the learn to swim agenda. Swimming only really works when you aren’t freaking out, scared or panicking. So learning to love the beach and all the flora and fauna is important.

Human bodies float just a bit easier in the salt water so getting that all-important high horizontal body position is just a bit quicker for the children swimming in the sea. You have to be able to float before you can swim so this step is achieved faster in the ocean than in a pool.

Blowing bubbles under the water is the next step and this means learning to live with a bit of water occasionally getting in the nose and mouth. For kids who are sensitive to chemicals like chlorine this can be an issue. But the salt water is healthy and getting used to sea water in and around your face is important for water safety. If you fall off a boat or jetty, you want to be confident of being able to swim back, not in shock from the strange feeling of water on your face.

At Williamstown Beach we set up floating marker buoys for the kids to swim around, so we can do ‘laps’ just like at the pool.

In addition to freestyle we teach breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, survival backstroke, sidestroke, swimming under the water and treading water.

But more than that – in the sea we can teach straight swimming and group swimming more easily from the beginning, while kids are still developing their stroke technique. We also teach sighting, surfing, diving under waves and dealing with the chop and rough water. Kids learn about currents, rips, tides and sea creatures.

In just a few classes kids who have never before been comfortable in the open water are loving the whole experience and they are already showing signs of more resilience.

Even small kids learning the basics can do it in the sea. We are teaching kids as young as 6 in groups at the beach. These kids will enjoy the water for a lifetime. They are learning to love the great outdoors and be safe at the beach.

If you are interested in your kids learning to swim at the beach, follow this link to our booking page for information about our Junior Dolphins for under 10s and Junior Dolphins LEVEL UP for Over 10s groups.

OW swimmers & triathletes need to train in the pool – with a squad & coach

If you are planning on a great summer of swimming in open water events, triathlons or just enjoy getting out in the sea, you need to be at the pool each week.

But many swimmers waste their time, money and effort going for a swim by themselves. Nothing replaces the workout, the skills, the technique and the rapid improvement you get from swimming at the pool with a squad and coach.

And because it’s a great social experience, you’ll come back again and again, and reap the long term benefits of an active lifestyle. You’ll be encouraged to work and push your boundaries because everyone is sharing the same goal – of improving our swimming and fitness.

Making a commitment to train with a group is the step up that many triathletes and swimmers need to enjoy their swimming and perform when it counts.

Pool Squad for OW Swimmers and Triathletes is Tuesday, 7.30pm. And the venue is the beautiful Victoria University Aquatic Centre, Building L, Footscray Park campus (drive in from Farnsworth Ave).

We swim 2.5 – 3km of solid aerobic and anaerobic swim sets combined with our tried and tested OW skills sets. We have lane space for swimmers of various speeds.

Just $10 and you get free entry to pool and sauna!