11 biggest mistakes swimmers make

What to avoid when building up your swim fitness

If you’re new to swimming, or simply brushing up on what you already should know, here’s what not to do in the water.

Beginner and pro swimmers alike face stumbling blocks. But there are certain mistakes that tend to crop up time and time again. For a smooth, streamline swim that sees you increasing speed without gasping for breath, stop making these 11 mistakes in your swimming training. 

Training when ill                                                        

Training when ill is a tough call, and one that may require a medical opinion. If you’re suffering with a cold or flu but are determined to do your training regardless, spare a second for the poor, unsuspecting swimmers that are sharing the pool with you. Not only can training with an illness potentially harm your health, but there’s also the risk of infecting others. 

If you’ve a slight sniffle, moderate exercise in most cases is fine – there’s little research to suggest that a light workout makes cold symptoms better or worse. However, if you’re suffering from a fever or a stomach upset, then skip your morning swim. Feeling under the weather is usually a sign that you need some downtime; so take a rest day instead.

Neglecting your warm-up

Despite being a low-impact sport, swimming is a total body workout, so it’s still wise to warm-up. Take 10 minutes to stretch before stepping into the pool, focusing on the major muscle groups: triceps, biceps, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Or alternatively, try walking up and down the pool to gently work the legs, coupled with a few easy swims before powering down the lanes.    

Inconsistency

If you’re swimming with goals in mind and not just for leisure, try to keep track of your timing and pace. This is especially important for long distance swimmers who want to build stamina as they train. Keep an eye on the clock and don’t put all of your energy into the initial push-off. Focus on maintaining a quick but consistent pace, gradually increasing your number of lengths with each session. This will help to improve your overall time and stamina.  

Over-kicking

Another mistake many swimming newbies make is over-kicking to hit a new PB. Kicking as hard as you can, coupled with poor technique, will only slow you down. When it comes to swimming, the aim isn’t to kick as hard or as fast you can, but to perform an effective kick. 

Not surprisingly, this varies from stroke to stroke; for instance, if your chosen style is the front crawl, try not to kick from the knees as this increases drag. Instead, try to keep the legs straight and kick from the hip. Matched with rhythmic, well-timed breathing/strokes, you increase your speed and use energy more efficiently. 

Lazy arms

A common misconception is that swimming is very much a leg sport - it isn’t. Upper-body strength is equally important when it comes to driving your swim, and neglecting your arm work can really hold you back. If you find that your legs are tiring quickly above anything else, chances are you haven’t quite perfected your stroke technique. 

Get to grips with the ins and outs of arm turnover in freestyle swimming with our guide, ‘Front crawl swim smarter and efficient - Gliding versus stoke rotations.

Bad breathing

Effective breathing is everything when it comes to maximising your swim. Without it, it can result in poor form/technique, and ultimately slow you down. One major mistake beginner’s make is holding their breath, which isn’t healthy. What’s more, bad breathing is often teamed with a second mistake; lifting your head as you swim, which causes the lower body to drop (and a stiff neck!)   

Beginners learning to breathe as you swim: keep your face in the water (ideally wearing some good swim goggles) and exhale completely. When inhaling turn your head to the side, take a quick, sharp breath, and repeat. Unless you are swimming breaststroke/butterfly, in which case you’ll time your breaths as your body rises with each stroke. 

Swimming flat

Whilst it’s important to keep your body relatively flat when swimming to minimise drag, a key component of successful swimming is rotation. Rolling your shoulders/hips from side to side between 30-45 degrees as you reach out your arm helps to extend your length and power your arm forward. For front crawl swimmers, it also creates the opportunity to breathe naturally as you turn to the side. 

Your hands are all wrong

Some beginners are confused by the role of their hands when swimming. Some cup their fingers and thumbs tightly together, whilst others spread their fingers wide apart – but what’s best practice? In general, swimming coaches advise that you don’t overthink how you place your hands in the water and to stay relaxed, but the most effective approach is to keep your fingers just slightly apart. This technique maximises the surface area of your hand and minimises drag.

Miss-timing meals

There’s an age-old myth that you need to wait an hour after eating before it’s safe to swim, but this is untrue. Whatever the sport, exercising on a full stomach is uncomfortable and can make you feel pretty nauseous, but it shouldn’t cause harm to your body. Don’t let myths such as this put you off fuelling your swim. Athletes across every discipline need adequate sustenance to keep energy levels high, including swimmers. 

Don’t step into the pool on an empty stomach. Optimum eating times are different for everyone, but rule of thumb is, save heavy, larger meals for around 2-3 hours before a swim, and light snacks 30 mins - 1 hour to avoid getting a stitch. 

Boredom

Like any sport, it’s easy for boredom to set in. However, unlike other forms of exercise, it’s trickier to incorporate variation into swimming training – but there are ways to get around it. If you’re prepared to venture outside the pool, why not try your hand at wild swimming or take a dip in the sea? Exploring new waters definitely keeps things interesting and you can treat yourself to some new goggles specifically for open water.

Being a solo discipline, with swimming, you haven’t got the motivational perks of music or chatting to a gym buddy when your head’s under water. In which case, try investing in waterproof earphones – they can really help you focus. 

Setting unrealistic targets

As fun as swimming is, it’s an incredibly complex sport which can be tough to master initially; so don’t be disheartened if you aren’t as fast as you’d like to be, or find yourself breathless after a length or two. Every person is different, so work at a pace that’s right for you. 

If you’re in a lane next to someone who’s swimming like the next Michael Phelps, don’t feel pressured to push yourself to the limit as this will only lead to injury and training heartache. Set realistic goals and reward yourself for hitting personal targets – good luck! 

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