Man swimming freestyle in a speedo shot from below in the ocean

8 game-changing beginner tips for how to swim freestyle

Posted on: BY: Henrik Khalifa
Tags: beginners | breathing | freestyle | learning to swim | panic

Here are some tips for learning how to swim freestyle that I wish were written down concisely in one place when I started out. The things I wish I could time travel back and tell my beginner self.

The crucial things i wish someone had explained about how to swim freestyle

I am not going to attempt to teach you how to swim freestyle in this post. There are enough excellent videos and coaches and websites out there doing that.

Instead, what I want to share is

  • some crucial things that no one mentioned
  • the things that I did read or hear but which weren’t explained very well. I will try to explain them in a different way

These are the missing jigsaw pieces that I wish I could have injected into my brain before I started my journey. They are the epiphanies that suddenly made sense of the whole and enabled me to achieve my goal of swimming in a race the following year.  

Open water swim racers swimming freestyle around a huge yellow race buoy in the lake
Learning how to swim freestyle is one of my greatest accomplishments, and it just keeps on giving.

A note on perseverance

Learning how to swim freestyle is a process and it can’t be done overnight. Even if I could transfer the knowledge I have now back to me 2 years ago, I’m not sure I would magically be able to swim. You have to battle. You need to grow muscles, and develop fitness and core strength. It takes time to learn to breathe, and more. Many of the elements contained in your stroke you shed later on as you improve various areas. 

In all learning things seem to make sense in clusters. Things that sound like garbage at first can suddenly become important. You can’t observe everything at the beginning without overload. New learning horizons bring new aspects into focus.

Be prepared for good days where everything seems to be coming together, but also terrible days where you feel like you have regressed and have to strip the canvas clean and start again.

Your freestyle stroke is like a golf swing. When you mess with one thing, there is a domino effect that can throw your whole game off. These swings and roundabouts can be frustrating, but you need to stick with it. Even the shitty days result in some kind of forward momentum (backwards as it sounds), and you need to realize this as it happens and actually say that to yourself. 

Little by little you’ll find you are getting to where you want to be. 

Freestyle breathing patterns

I’m presuming you’ve got your head down in the water and you’re turning it over your shoulder to breathe into the little nook in your neck like everyone tells you.

You’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos showing proper freestyle breathing technique and you’ve agreed you don’t want to get into the nasty habit of breathing on only one side (the horror). You have been told to breathe every 3, or 5 strokes so that you automatically alternate the side you breathe.

Bilateral breathing is great advice. Especially for would-be open water swimmers who sometimes need to switch sides due to adverse conditions like blinding sun or choppy waters and who are prone to veer off course with a lopsided stroke.

This is leads us to Game Changer #1:

Even though bilateral breathing is good advice in principal, at this stage of your development, you have probably not refined your stroke enough that one breath in every three strokes is enough to supply the kind of oxygen you need.

You need a LOT of wind to at first to maintain the amount of exertion your crappy stroke requires. That is why you feel like someone is slowly suffocating you after swimming just a couple of lengths.

A surprise revelation about how to swim freestyle

One day, 3 or 4 months after setting out to learn how to swim freestyle, I watched the local swim club train. I had progressed in many aspects of my freestyle technique but i was still struggling to swim more than 10 lengths.

I was in awe of the speed and the rhythm of the team as a whole. They hardly broke the surface of the pool, yet they were ripping along. It was a beautiful reminder of how far i had to go.

I noticed that the swimmers were breathing every stroke instead of every third stroke. I figured it was some kind of drill they were doing, and I mentioned it to the coach who told me:

Quote start

Ah no, they’re doing a long distance swim, they need that much oxygen to keep up that pace. They just breathe when they need to.

Come again??? Up until then I’d been trying to do everything textbook fashion because I didn’t want to introduce any bad habits. I was starting with a blank canvas of sorts, so it didn’t occur to me that it was even possible to not breathe bilaterally on 3 (or 5 of course). 

In my workout that followed, I decided to try breathing whenever I wanted or needed to breathe.

Guess what? That very day, I managed to swim my goal distance of 800 meters with the aid of a pull buoy between my legs. By the end of the week I had swum a thousand meters in one go, unaided!

As I said, you can use this as a ladder to kick away once you refine the rest of your stroke. Sometimes, like the swim racers training that day, you’ll feel the need to throw in the odd extra breath so you can supply enough oxygen to your muscles. Other times you might throw in an extra stroke so you’re not hyperventilating. It’s all good. 

You might need more oxygen at the beginning

The key is that at the beginning you might actually need the extra breaths. Later, your stroke will become so efficient that you will naturally slip into every third stroke anyway. Having the extra oxygen means you can finally see what it feels like to go further than a few lengths. This will itself enable you to start honing your stroke. As you start dragging your carcass up and down the pool, the more you’ll be able to notice little (and big!) inefficiencies. You’ll be able to tweak things you couldn’t previously when you were just swimming a couple of all-out drowning lengths.

Breathing out to the last drop

I’m not sure on the exact science of this but the way I understand it is that if you are leaving half the air in your lungs and failing to properly exhale, you are leaving a bunch of co2 in there. As you take more breaths, this co2 builds up. A few lengths into your swim you feel like you are drowning. 

Game changer #2

So on top of the advice above, you need to pay special attention to spitting out that last bit of air in your lungs. If you feel that running-out-of-breath feeling at any time, you need to think about really spitting out the last drop of air from your lungs. Really push it with a “huh” from the diaphragm for a couple of exhales. The following inhale will take care of itself. I guarantee that about 6 strokes later you’ll feel that extra oxygen hit your bloodstream and find you feel more relaxed. 

Oxygen really is the key to not feeling tired and panicky.

Panic in the water is often caused and worsened by a lack of oxygen

It’s worth reiterating the last point in relation to fear and panic in general, since this is a very common feeling for anyone learning how to swim.

Fear of water is totally natural if you are a shitty swimmer. As soon as you are out of your depth, you are in danger of drowning if you can’t swim properly. There’s nothing irrational about feeling scared. You feel scared simply because you can’t swim.

Fear of the water lessens: 

  • If you are exposed to your fear and have a positive experience
  • As your skills improve and you are confident enough to know that you can swim and float or tread water in deep water
  • If you have assistance at hand – a buddy with life saving skills, the bottom of the pool, a swim buoy, a wetsuit, a float, a lifeguard, a lane rope…

Game changer #3

But sometimes the panic comes from a real lack of oxygen from a build up of co2. The effect is sneaky and it feeds real fears like fear of drowning and such. It tricks you into thinking the things you fear are the real problem.

In the controlled environment of the pool you need to listen to your body. Learn to detect the subtle physiological changes that occur when you get panicky. There’s a taste and a gut feeling. When you have experienced it a few times, you should be able to detect the familiar sensations much earlier.

Note (especially at the moment of panic!) that there’s a good chance you are panicking for a purely physiological reason: lack of oxygen / surplus of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. Focus exclusively on addressing this issue without stopping swimming. Simply understanding that the fear is a temporary illusion will help ease the panic. As soon as your blood is flooded with oxygen again, panic will reduce or subside. This process takes about 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

Stop trying to muscle your body vertically through a wall of water

It can be hard to understand at first that the object of swimming is to limit and reduce drag. It might be even harder for athletes, men, hulks.

This is because you have learned that to go faster, you just have to go harder. To make things worse, strong, fit people probably have a little more success at powering through a wall of water than the rest of us. Maybe you can swim 500 or a thousand meters. You really can’t fathom why things are going wrong in the water and you’re getting ‘beaten’ every time. 

But this is the water. This is Opposite World.

Game changer #4

Everything you do should be motivated by the basic principle ‘try to get as little in the way of the water as possible’. 

For some reason, you swim a couple of lengths and are completely wiped out. Meanwhile the old girl two lanes over can do 100 without breaking a sweat. The answer is simple: she’s getting in the way of less water. 

And probably 50% of the water you are getting in the way of is caused by the angle of your body in the water. Once you actually get horizontal instead of just thinking you are horizontal, this will be the next big game changer. 

Now this one isn’t as easy as the other tips I gave you above, and it isn’t accomplished overnight either, but in the next section I will give you the key things to focus on to eliminate the problem.

How to swim freestyle by swimming downhill

‘Swimming downhill’ is a term coined by Terry Laughlin in the Total Immersion swimming technique. It’s one of the things I mentioned that sounded like bullshit when I was first figuring out how to swim freestyle. 

‘Swimming downhill’ describes the feeling you get when your body pivots forward and your legs tip up horizontally instead of dragging behind. Suddenly your legs are kind of in line with your shoulders. And of course you are not getting in the way of half as much water, so you are saving a ton of energy. You know, the kind of energy that would have you puffing after a couple of lengths of the pool. It’s like before you were dragging a dead body behind you in the pool, and you just cut it free.

Four things I have to concentrate on to get the effect of swimming downhill 

a) Game changer #5: Look down

Look down almost behind yourself. your head is really heavy and just a change in its angle will help your whole body to pivot forward. 

b) Game changer #6: Reach downwards

It’s natural to want to reach forward to where you are going, and later you will do more of that. But while you get the hang of the rocking feeling of swimming freestyle, it’s crucial to reach down instead. Reach towards the floor as deeply as possible with each stroke. Try to push down with each shoulder as you do this. 

Other people always said ‘push your chest down’ which I tried to do but it didn’t change anything for me. Reaching downwards however does have the effect of pushing your chest down which helps to tip your feet up. The reason you need to push down with your chest is because it’s full of air and super buoyant. 

c) Game changer #7: Visualize a corkscrew

This tip follows from b) (Reach down). As you reach down with each hand it has the effect of tipping your chest from side to side. Your body was previously attempting to push through a wall of water. Now it is slipping past the water on one side and then the other, getting in the way of way less water, and almost pulling you through the water like a corkscrew. 

Visualize a corkscrew and make sure that corkscrew motion keeps working even when you get tired. As soon as it stops, you will be doing twice the work again.

d) Game changer #8: Kicking from the hips

When you are in this new horizontal position, you will be able to effortlessly kick from the hips like everyone has been saying all along. You’ll feel like a scuba diver – weightless. If you swim slowly, you’ll feel like something must be wrong. Swimming just became enjoyable, you feel like you could literally do this all day. You’ll actually get the sensation that you’re falling forward. You’ll have your own epiphany and finally understand, body and soul, what they meant when they said ‘Swimming downhill’.

Good luck.

Disclaimer: Our swimming adventure content is not intended to take the place of specific, current, local advice from qualified experts. We strongly recommend that you consult with professional safety experts and take all necessary precautions should you undertake any adventure activity, especially in open water. Swimming is a HAZARDOUS activity. Never swim alone or beyond your ability. There is the possibility of physical injury, emotional distress and/or death, and you assume the risk and responsibility for any such results.

All users of this website are required to read and agree to the Terms of Use and the Disclaimer before consuming its content.

Share via
Copy link