The Hard Parts of Swimming

I’ve already written quite a few “how to” posts on swimming. Here are the links to a few of them:

Lap Swimming Etiquette

Swimming Tips for Beginners

How to Swim Freestyle

How to Swim Breaststroke

So You Want to Be a Swimmer

My Favorite Swimming Gear

That being said, I recently helped a friend with swimming lessons and realized that the difficulties she was having are pretty common things I see in the pool in new swimmers. They are most definitely fixable with hard work and practice, so don’t feel discouraged that “swimming is too hard.”

The first roadblock is breathing improperly. Breathing is crucial because if you do it wrong, you’re going to throw your body out of alignment mid-stroke and most likely end up sputtering and thrashing around.

  1. Exhale under the water, or just before you break the surface to inhale. Don’t make the common mistake of exhaling the second you go under the water. Hold your breath for a few strokes, exhale, and then break the surface and inhale quickly, turning back into the water.
  2. When doing the Freestyle stroke, keep your head down while you are swimming. Do not lift your head up out of the water and look forward. That will throw everything off.
  3. When it’s time to breath, you rotate your whole body to the side, gracefully, then you breath and turn back down. Check out the video HERE demonstrating it.Ā  You only turn your head to breath. Period. As you can see in the below photo, when breathing you are NOT lifting your head above the water:

Here is a short video demonstrating how to breathe while doing the Freestyle:


Tip on correcting this: practice with a kickboard. Hold onto the kickboard and kick with your feet, practicing your breathing. Do this for as many laps as you need to in order to get into the habit of breathing gracefully to the side.

The second roadblock is improper arm strokes. I see this one a lot at the pool and I think it’s a pretty common mistake.

  1. Don’t be a splasher. If you’re doing Freestyle the impulse is to make the stroke a wide, sweeping stroke where your arms are completely straight. This is not the case. If you are doing it this way you probably notice a lot of splashing and slapping with your hands. You will also notice that you don’t have much strength in yours arms.
  2. With proper swimming technique, your arm is bent at an angle and your hand slices downward into the water at an angle, NOT slapping onto the surface of the water or pulling with a straight arm.


The third roadblock is thrashing with the legs. Wasting too much energy kicking incorrectly will just tire you out.

  1. Swimming is mostly upper body work. Your feet should be essentially drafting behind you. You need to find your power in your arms, shoulders and back to propel yourself through the water.
  2. The flutter kick is a small, graceful kick NOT a big, thrashing mess of kicks. It should be just under the surface of the water without tons of splashing. Lots of splashing = wasted energy that can be better used.
  3. Kick with your feet and your hips NOT your knees.

Here is a video of the proper way to flutter kick:


As you can see, it’s a very simple kick.


Finally, one tip for mastering Freestyle and conquering these mistakes: know other strokes. I suggest the Breaststroke as an alternative stroke to switch to in between sessions of Freestyle.Ā  It will help you catch your breath, get your heart rate back to normal and renew your energy to switch back to Freestyle.

QUESTION: What is the hardest part for you about swimming?

Author: Lisa Eirene

About Lisa Eirene Lisa lost 110 pounds through calorie counting and exercise. She swims, bikes, runs, hikes and is enjoying life in Portland, Oregon. Her weight loss story has been featured in First Magazine, Yahoo Health, Woman's Day and

12 thoughts on “The Hard Parts of Swimming”

  1. Thanks, this was really helpful for a newbie like me!

    For me, the hardest part of swimming is counting the distance. I always forget how far I’ve gone and wind up doing extra laps, I think. I also, for some reason, can’t get the hang of breathing on different sides each time–I always breathe to the right!

    Question: Is there a certain strokes-to-breaths ratio you should shoot for? I tend to breathe every other stroke (so, stroke-stroke-breathe, repeat) because it helps me keep my heart rate steady, but I feel like that might be slowing me down.
    Brie @ Brie Fit recently posted..Back on track

    1. That’s why I count the lengths I swim instead of the laps–it’s easy to just count 1,2,3 etc instead of forgetting what lap I’m on. I don’t do bilateral breathing. When I learned how to swim as a kid, they weren’t teaching that and I just naturally breathe on my right side. I’ve tried to retrain myself and drown. šŸ™‚ I’m okay with breathing on one side.

      The strokes-to breath ratio depends all on your skill level/stamina and what’s comfortable. I used to have to breathe a lot. Now I breathe 3-4 times during the length of the pool. The main thing is to not hold your breathe so long that you fatigue your muscles.

  2. The hardest part for me? Not having anywhere to swim! I grew up with a pool in my backyard-I miss being able to swim all the time. Josh wants to do a tri next year, so eventually we’re going to have to get a gym membership so we have somewhere *to* swim1
    kalin recently posted..Pseudo-Half

      1. we used to have memberships there, but for the 2 of us it’s like 60some bucks a month-that’s over $700 a year! And it’s 6 or 7 bucks for one time use. I’m just too cheap to spend that much if I can help it!
        it is nice, but for the price i’d like bigger (the gym and the studio for classes both could get pretty crowded) and with fewer small children running around!
        kalin recently posted..Pseudo-Half

        1. Yeah the community pools here are surprisingly expensive. If you were just going to use it for the pool I’d recommend the punch card so you can just use it when you swim. But yeah…I used to go to Mt. Scott. I loved it. But it was pricey and the kids were everywhere. I prefer a grown up gym with no kids. šŸ™‚

  3. Answer: All of the above!

    Seriously…I’m sure on the rare occasions when I hit the pool without a margarita in hand, I do all of those things poorly.

    I wish I had access to a pool so I could try to swim for fitness a little this summer, while it’s too stinking hot to run much outside!

  4. Great tips! Wish you would have posted this back when I was still new to swimming! It’s amazing that once I got the breathing part of swimming down I actually started to enjoy swimming!

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