Learning How to Swim as an Adult

Your story might be that you spent last year’s beach vacation sunning on the sand, reading, napping or passing out snacks while your kids splashed in the waves, even though cooling off sounded inviting. Perhaps your high school son joined the swim team and is encouraging you to learn how to swim, even as an adult. Or perhaps your joints aren’t what they used to be and you are seeking a low-to-no-impact workout to keep your muscles strong.

Whether it is one of the above reasons or another, there are plenty of people in the United States who want to learn how to swim as an adult. This guide from Bionix Health at Home will address some common obstacles and give encouragement for overcoming them as an adult. We point out some tips for getting started, assess recommended gear, and list out the first few steps you can take to get used to the water before seeking swimming lessons.

Motivation for learning how to swim as an adult

There are many diverse reasons why adults learn to swim. In addition to the examples above, perhaps you had a bad water-related experience as a kid and want to get over it. Perhaps you celebrated a milestone birthday and what to pick up a new hobby. Maybe you have always wanted to learn and just never had the chance.

Whatever your personal reason is, there is also a solid practical side to knowing how to swim. According to the CDC’s Leading Causes of Death Report for 2015, unintentional drowning was the fourth highest cause of accidental injury death for adults between the ages of 18 and 65 in the United States. 2,198 people in this age range died by unintentional drowning; that was 2.4% of all unintentional injury deaths in 2015.

Many of these accidental drownings are thought to be influenced by a lack of ability to swim. While adults learn to swim to finally be able to play with the kids or grandkids in the pool without fear or apprehension, it also means you gain one more ability that could potentially save your life.

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Common obstacles to learning how to swim and how to overcome them

Personal motivation to learn how to swim can be strong. However, there can be obstacles that get in the way of this desire.

  1. Fear of water (aquaphobia) – Fear of water can have a variety of causes: a bad experience in childhood, parents who passed their fears on to you, past swim teachers that used inadequate or stressful methods of instruction, or it could simply be an instinctive fear related to drowning. Do not worry: fear of swimming can be conquered, as evidenced by Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal winner Adam Peaty of Great Britain. Peaty was afraid of water as a child, but he worked to overcome it and became a champion.

If you need some more encouragement, watch this video story from The New York Times. It follows the journey of a 33-year-old man who overcame his fear of swimming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgKGizGLxoA

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others – While many other people your age already know how to swim, that does not mean that you should feel shame that you don’t know how. You might be a talented baker, a skillful musician or an excellent manager at your company, but others in a similar life situation are not; same idea with swimming. Also, once you start taking lessons, do not get discouraged if the others in your class seems to progress faster than you do. Playing the comparison game can hinder you from moving forward and doing your best.
  2. Not practicing – As comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” The more time you spend in the water, the more comfortable you will be. The more you practice swimming, the more natural it will become and eventually will require less thought. It can certainly be a challenge to carve time out of your schedule every week. We recommend setting appointments with yourself and keeping them. (This step can be much easier with official swim lessons for which you need to show up.)
  3. Lack of patience – Learning takes time. Diana Goodwin, Founder and CEO of AquaMobile tells a story on the blog of a runner and cyclist who showed up to a swimming lesson. He had beginning swimming knowledge, but wanted to be able to do a full triathlon, including a 1,500 meter swim in open water, after only six lessons. This goal was not only unattainable, but also ridiculous. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to swim a full set of laps after six lessons when you have barely been in the water for the entire first part of your life. If such a lengthy timespan seems daunting, you can set “mini” goals and work toward those one at a time.

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Practical swimming tips

Now that you’ve convinced yourself that it is your time and that you will learn how to swim, it’s time to tackle some logistics.

Find a pool

This seems like a no-brainer, but make sure that you have access to pool that you can use regularly that is within a reasonable driving distance. Remember, in order for you to warm up to the water and/or practice regularly, you need a water source that you can access on your schedule. The distance could either be a great help or great hindrance to your progress. The closer the pool, the less likely you will make the excuse that you “don’t feel like going today” because it is too much effort.

Find a class

Yes, a class is necessary for you to learn. A YMCA, a private company, or even a city pool could be good places to look. A quick Google search should point you on the right track for swimming lessons in your area.

Gear

Having the right swimming gear can increase your comfort level with swimming and, with some items, provide tools that will help you to learn some aspects of swimming.

  1. Goggles – You’re going to have water in your face if you want to swim with any sort of efficiency. Getting a good pair of goggles will prevent water from being splashed in your eyes and will enable you to see underwater without the irritation. You’ll probably want to find a pair that is not too tight around the eyes, as this can lead to headaches. As you advance in your lessons, you’ll want to make sure the goggles stay on even when you dive into the water. Please note that if you are swimming in a chlorinated pool, the chlorine will deteriorate the material and make them leak so you’ll need to replace the goggles on a regular basis.
  2. The right suit for the job – The swimsuit can make a big difference in the efficiency of your swimming. Of course, there are variations in swimsuits depending on your ultimate purpose for taking swimming lessons.
    1. Casual swimming
      1. Men: Swim trunks are fine for lessons.
      2. Women: A one-piece swimsuit is a must. It will maximize your comfort and security while learning and exerting yourself.
    2. Athletic swimming
      1. Men: Get a form-fitting swimsuit for more speed and less drag. The swimsuit does not need to reveal as much as the Speedos that are frequently the butt of jokes (unless you are comfortable wearing that style). There are other streamlined styles that cover as much as compression shorts.
      2. Women: Again, a one-piece swimsuit is a must. You can do further research on specific athletic swimsuits that fit your needs.

Please note: if you swim in chlorinated pool you’ll want a polyester swimsuit. Nylon/Lycra fabric will look bleached and will start to deteriorate much sooner than polyester.

  1. Swim cap – If you have long hair, a swim cap is a good idea. Chlorinated water will strip hair of its natural oils to create dry, brittle hair. Also, light-haired people who swim regularly without a cap might start to see a green tinge in their hair. According to Kate Dries, author on the Adequate Man blog, silicon is best since it does not pull at hair as much as other swim cap materials.
  2. Water noodle and kickboard – These floatation devices can help you learn certain aspects of swimming, such as how to float on your back and how to practice kicking properly to propel yourself forward. Water noodles can be looped under the armpits and around the back as students learn how to tread water. Some swim instructors might have even more advanced swimmers use a kickboard to isolate leg movement and improve technique. Chances are good that the pool of your choice will have kickboards and pool noodles for you to use.
  3. AfterSwim® Water Removal – One potential side-effect of learning how to swim is getting water in the ear. When water gets trapped in the ear canal, it can hinder hearing and provide a cozy environment for bacteria to breed, leading to swimmer’s ear or other infections. Thankfully, Bionix Heath at Home makes an inexpensive ($5.99 for a pack of 20), effective device for removing water from the ears: AfterSwim. Unlike cotton swaps or alcohol drips, AfterSwim is safe and fast without any negative side effects.
  4. Towel – For drying off afterward, of course!

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Swimming basics

Even before you start taking formal lessons, you can start with these basic swimming tips to get you on the right track.

Developing Comfort in the Water

  1. If you have aquaphobia or a fear of swimming, you might need to start with literally getting your feet wet. As you develop comfort with this action, gradually get deeper in the water until you can stand in it up to waist, then chest level. Walk around in the water to learn how it feels to move through resistance and maintain your balance.
  2. Splash your face as if you are washing it. Think positive thoughts as the water touches your face.
  3. Place your entire face in the water. Again, continue thinking positive thoughts.
  4. Blow bubbles: hold your face underwater and breathe out. If exhaling right away is tricky to imagine, think about humming and breathing out through the nose.
  5. Hold your breath. Take a breath and hold it, then submerge your face.
  6. Submerging yourself completely and stay underwater for a second or two. Once you are comfortable doing this, try short sets of holding your breath and submerging, then immediately bobbing back to the surface. Work your way up to doing it 10 times quickly.
  7. Get in the pool as frequently as possible to conquer any last remnants of fear.

Floating and Kicking

  1. Hold onto the side of the pool and practice floating on your stomach. You might need to ask a friend to support your hips as you lift your legs off the bottom of the pool. In this position, submerge your face in the water.
  2. Add a kicking motion while holding onto the side of the pool. You can place a noodle under your hips to help support you if you feel uncomfortable.
  3. Next, hug a kickboard to your chest, lean back gently and lift your feet off the ground to practice floating on your back. You might need a friend to hold your shoulders up for the first few times until you get comfortable. Relax your neck and look toward the ceiling. Keep your hips up; the middle of your body and where most of the weight lies, so if this portion of you floats on the water the rest will too. You can arch your lower back slightly and bend your knees slightly to keep the hips high. As you are ready you can try the skill without your friend supporting your shoulders. Then, practice the skill without holding the kickboard.
  4. Now you can practice propelling yourself forward in the water with kicking. Starting with your feet on the ground, hold the kickboard against your chest or in front of your body as you practice floating on your stomach and kicking. Try to submerge your face in the water and blow bubbles. Turn your head to the side to breathe.

Arm Strokes

  1. Begin by holding onto the edge of the pool and kick your legs behind you. Let go of the wall with one hand. Reach down through the water with your arm, drawing a big circle up and out of the water. After a full rotation, repeat with your other arm, continuing the forward crawl stroke.
  2. Once you are comfortable with the basic arm motion, grab a kickboard and practice it while propelling yourself forward in the water. Alternate arms so that the non-circling arm is holding the kickboard.
  3. Combine the entire stroke without assistance. Kick your legs, stroke your arms, submerge your face and voilà! You’re swimming!

Formal swimming lessons will instruct you in formal technique and a variety of other strokes.

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Water Safety Tips

Even if you know how to swim, it is still crucial to follow water safety rules. Bodies of waters always pose risks, even to the most advanced swimmers. Here is a compilation of quick tips from Water Safety USA and the American Red Cross.

General rules for all bodies of water

  1. Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone.
  2. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  3. Avoid underwater breath-holding activities and games.
  4. Never leave a young child unattended nearwater and do not trust a child’s life to another child. Teach children to always ask permission to go near water.
  5. Have young children or inexperienced swimmers wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets around water, but do not rely on life jackets alone.
  6. Maintain constant supervision; designate a water watcher. Avoid distractions when supervising children around water.
  7. If a child is missing, check the water first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability.
  8. Have appropriate equipment, such as reaching or throwing equipment, a cell phone, life jackets and a first aid kit.
  9. Know how and when to call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number.
  10. If you are swimming outdoors, protect your skin. Limit the amount of direct sunlight you receive between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and wear sunscreen with a protection factor of at least SPF 15.
  11. Drink plenty of water regularly, even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine in them.

Natural Bodies of Water (Lakes, Rivers and Oceans)

  1. Only swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards. Check with the lifeguards before swimming.
  2. Obey posted signs and flags.
  3. Keep the beach and water clean.
  4. Learn rip current safety.
  5. Enter water feet first.
  6. Wear a life jacket.

If you wish to receive additional training in how to prevent and respond to water emergencies, enroll in Red Cross home pool safetywater safetyfirst aid and CPR/AED courses.

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Conclusion

Swimming is an activity that nearly anyone can learn at any age. Choosing to learn how to swim will provide a fun pastime for you to enjoy by yourself or with others. You will gain a skill that could potentially save your life. Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment you get from improving or even mastering a new skill will give you confidence and satisfaction. Enjoy the water and be safe!

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