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Issues that limit progress in F/C for runners / cyclists

Why is it that so many strong, fit athletes find it so hard to learn to swim?

I'm in the process of writing an article about why experienced athletes who can run or bike fast and long distances can't go beyond 25, 50 or 100m without collapsing on the side of the pool completely out of breath. I've come across so many over the years who just wont even try any more or who struggle with it. I've recently been coaching an elite, record-holding ultra runner who has found the transition of learning to swim steady, continuous front crawl SO frustrating! It's taken nearly a year but we are finally getting to the point where she can do it. The 'journey' has been interesting for her and for me!

My hypothesis is that it is down to a combination of 5 or 6 factors the most significant of which are

breathing (specifically exhaling sufficiently),

anxiety due to lack of experience in the water,

sinking legs / bad body position due to runner's body composition,

stiff inflexible ankles causing unpropulsive kick

overall a sub-optimal technique causing the athlete to "fight the water"

perhaps also an "Arnie" mindset (a la Swimsmooth) which says I MUST be able to do this!

The article is coming together - I'll link it when completed but I'd be interested if any of you have experienced this as an athlete or a coach and what you think causes it. 


Kev Draper. 


  • HarryDHarryD Posts: 425

    I have experienced the same as you. Getting a top runner or cyclist to be a good swimmer is a real challenge. My view is that there are two really fundamental reasons why it is so difficult and to a certain extent they are related. I'm posting as an experienced tri coach (all ages), run coach (adults), swim teacher (all ages) and PT:

    Firstly, we look at top swimmers and try and use them as a model for how our swimmers should be. This is based on what we see from the Olympics etc. We then try and make our swimmers 'look' like them but they don't have the same genetics, physiology, movement skills, training background etc. We also tend to study the faster elites who swim differently to long distance swimmers. Search YouTube for comparisons between 400m and 1500m race techniques. I've seen this time and time again with teachers/coaches whos swimmers barely make any progress, if any, week on week.

    Secondly, we forget about the fundamental aquatic movement skills that are essential to be able to move through water well. Something that every child learns as soon as the start lessons. The ASA has a 10 stage plan for teaching swimming and the first 7 stages (usually 3.5 years) are about aquatic skills not swimming. Yes they learn to swim but swimming is built on these aquatic skills.

    Based on the above I teach adults front crawl as follows. I do insist they are water confident and happy to put their faces in the water and look at the fish. The lessons are 3 hours on one day and 2 or 3 on the following day. Yes they are pretty intense. I then build from zero adding skill onto skill, practice onto practice. Slowly the practices become more swim like and usually they start doing front crawl by accident. Typically 5 out of the 8 end up doing length after length by the end. Others need a bit more help. Some also want to do tumble turns and this only takes a few minutes. I'm lucky that my local pool allows me to have those two long sessions.

    Going to your factors I hope you don't mind me commenting

    Breathing: Is a very big issue. I find that its over inhaling rather than under exhaling that is the problem. Similar feeling. I try and get them to exhale fully then briefly open their mouths and allow the air to enter rather than to consciously inhale. Amazing how much gets in.

    Anxiety; Fully agree. It's an alien environment where we are supposed to die horribly as we drown. More sink-downs and dead mans float

    Sinking legs: Real problem but elite triathletes who are brilliant runners also have good body position. Check for hip flexor tightness (particularly cyclists) and lost glute function. Look also for arched back or excess lumbar curve. Remember that heels, buttocks and back of head should break the water. Cyclists and runners tend to like looking forward so loosing alignment

    Inflexible ankles; Yes. Unless they are prepared to do lots of ankle mobility work

    Fighting the water: Yes. Until they can get a feel for the water they will fight it. They tend to love kicking really hard. They also tend to try and swim with their arms rather than their whole body. That is hands as paddles rather than as anchors. sculling and fist drill can be very useful here.

    Arnie mindset: Yes. Slow them down. They tend to forget they've got where they are with running or cycling after practicing for decades. Personally I'd cut their legs off.

    Hope this helps


  • Thank you Harry, some really helpful feedback there. I'd been going for the little and often approach so that's interesting to hear about your idea of using two long sessions to kick start it all. Like you say you are lucky to get some good blocks of time in the pool like that! 

    I definitely hadn't thought about the aquatic skills but this makes a huge amount of sense. I'm also a swim teacher / tri coach / run coach. I hadn't joined the dots to think about using some of the early stages swimming skills. I will definitely give that a go. 

    On the breathing - I have kept trying to ask her to equate the level of breathing to effort that she would do on a long run - i.e. to try to settle into an easy inhale and exhale but you could well be right, trying to gasp in too much air when not actually needed leading to hyperventilation. It's very counter-intuitive to a new, slightly nervous swimmer to not breathe too hard and relax but I'm sure that's a key skill.

    We've been doing sink downs and push and glide with exhalation. 

    thanks again, lots to think about there. 


  • I should add that she did manage to progress to cover a mile in the river late in the summer. With frequent stops to recover her breath and it was painfully slow, but finally swimming most of the last 4 - 600m without really stopping.

    But back in the pool and it's still hard work getting beyond 50m. Maybe something to do with the fact that you have to / can stop at the end of each length but she is probably the most determined person I have ever met personally. So it's not a lack of ability to push through 'pain'. Her aim is a sprint tri next year and to complete the 2 mile Serpentine swim in the summer. 

  • HarryDHarryD Posts: 425
    I've also found the end of the wall syndrome is a limiter. The fact your athlete was swimming more non-stop towards the end of the mile shows she was learning quickly during the swim.

    Several of my learners over the years also stopped completely out of breath after a length but cajoling got them to turn straight round and start the second. They were allowed if they took on water or whatever would cause them to stop they must continue even if they swam ugly or did a couple of breast strokes while sorting themselves out. Whatever they did was OK as long as they finished. One length became two good which then became three good and once five came there was no stopping them. When I asked how out of breath they were after two or three rather than one the answer was the same. As they built up lengths they became less breathless. It seems their bodies needed to learn through doing rather than through coaching.

    Another example of learning by doing is when I introduced fist drill to my experienced squad they started off with the traditional coaching points. Then I asked them to 'use their whole body' to swim. Nothing more was said. They all noticed the difference. Better and more controlled rotation, good feel for the water, more distance per stroke, less effort for the same speed and less tired arms. They also looked like better swimmers.
  • thanks again Harry, I've been using the phrase "use your whole body" on the fist drills - really like that! 

    Our tri club (Weald Tri) is taking the plunge and hiring the whole pool (instead of 2 lanes) from the new year. We're going to dedicate one lane to those wanting to learn to swim continuous front crawl or who would describe themselves as 'beginners'. We've had 11 club members sign up for the new "lane" in 2 days, these are triathletes who've never dared to join us for a club swim session previously so we've obviously touched a nerve.

    I'm going to use some of your ideas about general aquatic skills and we're going to do some filming and asking them to sign up for a 6 week block. So we'll review progress and take it from there. 

    I've written up some of my thoughts into an article on my website if anyone's interested. It obviously varies from swimmer to swimmer the exact reasons why swimming consistently without stopping for 30 minutes is challenging compared to say running a parkrun.


    Anyway cheers again and I'll let you know how we get on with our beginner lane. 


  • HarryDHarryD Posts: 425
    Like the blog
  • StuMStuM Posts: 1


    i have been suffering the same issues as your pupils. I’m ok at run (completed a few marathons), ok at bike, but 25m swim had me gasping. Anxiety was definitely an issue - I loved being under water but being under with empty lungs was bad! I breathed out and sunk, then my daughter would stand on my back for a few seconds to heighten the panic sensation - this got less over a few weeks and helped.

    I have very very slowly progressed to 2km without stopping. This has been a case of just doing the miles. I had some very good form coaching but even with this there was no ‘magic bullet’. Im at the point where I can almost open my mouth and enough air gets in rather than taking big gulps. I’ll be looking to speed up next (2k is taking me 56minutes!)..

    itd be great to read your article Kevin.

    cheers Stu

  • MgalexMgalex Posts: 28

    Well, this has hit the nail on the head. It's my issue down to the ground.  I'll definitely be trying these things out.

    I tested my issue by holding my breath for two strokes on breast stroke.  I concluded that I am waiting too long before taking a breath and then gasping for air. I suspect I have heavy legs as a cyclist too but will get someone to watch me to see what I may be doing.  I need to know what I am really doing rather than guessing on a solution based on no knowledge.

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