Free Learn to Swim Guide

beach start open water

We want the world to swim. Here are just three of the reasons why:

    1. It works all of our muscles in a low impact environment.

    2. It provides excellent training for our cardio vascular and respiratory systems.

    3. It is like moving meditation - little visual input, little auditory input, and a focus on rhythmic breathing.

Step One: Understand

Here are what we feel are the key steps to help someone learn to access all of these benefits. They are methods and philosophies we use with novice swimmers though presented in a much more simplified package for the self coached. Before starting though, we need you to understand that....

You must be relaxed in the water before being able to learn to move.

If you are learning to ride a bike and your body is rigid with fear and tension, you won't be able to make the micro-adjustments to counter balance and stay upright. The same goes in the pool but we say it more succinctly: tense muscles turn to cement! That is why we use all the tools we do. They help to make you buoyant and help to propel you so you can relax and focus on learning, not just surviving.


The Kick

    • Put on those fins and grab a kick board. The board keeps you buoyant and the fins not only help to propel you but also dynamically increase your ankle flexibility which is a key in kicking. Fins can also assist in helping your kick motion.

  • Three focus points:

      1. Kick from the hips. Imagine your legs are like scissors.

      2. Scissors don't have knees so... don't bend at the knee. Ok, your knee will bend but allow that only to happen in response to the resistance of the water. When you think 'bend at the knee', most kickers bend way too much.

      3. Point your toes.


Body Position

  • There are two elements to this, both developed through the same drills

  • Rotation

      • To decrease our frontal resistance or drag, we want to minimize the time spent flat on our chest. Instead, we continually rotate, rocking from hip to hip. Besides decreasing our drag, it helps us breathe and lift the arm forward for the next stroke.

      • The two drills below help you to develop the balance to rotate in the water.

  • Head Position

      • We want to travel through the water as horizontal as possible. If our head is high and legs are low, we will produce a lot more drag (resistance) and have to work a whole lot harder.

      • The key to horizontal body position is keeping the head low, when breathing and when not breathing.

      • When not breathing: keep your head facing straight down. This will keep your legs high in the water. Ignore the picture of the advanced swimmer above ;)

      • When breathing: this is the hard part!

        • Rotate towards your side, turning your head, not lifting it. Turn until your nose and mouth are clear to breathe.

        • You will know you're in a good position if you see water washing over your bottom goggle.

ottawa swimming high elbow

The Stroke

  • Entry and Extension

      • The hand should enter the water: 1) at half of the full arm's length forward and, 2) straight out from the shoulder.

      • Imagine you're swimming on two railway tracks that are shoulder width apart. The arms should move forward along the track on that side of the body.

  • Catch and Pull

      • Pull in as straight a line backwards as possible along that railway track.

      • Bend at the elbow as you pull so you are using the surface of the forearm as well as the hand, producing more power.

  • Finish and Recovery

      • Pull back till the hand is near the hip.

      • With the palm still facing backwards, lift the arm out of the water with a high elbow.

      • Bring the arm forward with the elbow higher than the hand.

Step Two: Practice

If you practice the following drills, it will help you to gain a physical understand of the elements of the freestyle stroke (front crawl).

Click here for a printable version of the drills so you can take it to the pool. We recommend a plastic sleeve to protect the paper.

The Drills

    • All drills are done with fins on your feet and a board in your hands. As you feel more confident drop the board first then, later, the fins.

    • Take your time with them. At first they will feel very awkward but you will slowly become more comfortable. Also, go slow and rest whenever you need to rest in order to keep the exertion level low. You learn best when exertion is low.

    • Remember: You are training your brain and nerves more than your muscles. Keep your workouts short and, if possible, frequent as that is how the brain learns quickest. But, be patient!

  • Kick

      • Kick with board

        • Kick up and down the pool nice and relaxed, resting whenever you need to rest.

        • Focus: From the hip, knee straight, point the toes

ottawa swimming kick drill
  • Body position and rotation

      • Side Swim Head Up

        • Directions: Gently kick while on your side and head horizontal. Go down with one arm, back with other.

        • Focus: Water washing over bottom goggle.

      • Click here to see video

ottawa swimming side swim drill
      • Side Swim Head Down

        • Directions: Identical to head up drill but head is facing down in water. Keep face down as much as possible rotating head only when you need to breathe.

        • Focus: Eyes straight down

      • Click here to see video

ottawa swimming side swim head down
      • Tap Drill

        • Directions: Same as above drills but tap hand on hip 3 times then reach forward to tap outside corner of board, quickly returning to side swim position. As you reach forward don't look forward for the board, rotate head straight down.

        • Focus (pick one at a time):

        • Bottom goggle when breathing + eyes straight down when not breathing (don't look forward)

        • Tap corner of board, shoulder width apart.

      • Click here to see video

ottawa swimming tap drill
  • Stroke

      • One Arm Drill

        • Directions: Holding tail of board, continually stroke with one arm, turning your head to breathe to the stroke side with each forward movement of the stroking arm.

        • Focus (pick one at a time):

        • Lead arm points straight down lane

        • Head rotates properly from breathing to head down

        • One of the three phases: finish/recovery, entry/extension, catch/pull

      • Click here for video.

ottawa swimming one arm drill
  • Swim with fins

      • Leave this till later. We have our Start Smart swimmers to these drills and many others for 6 weeks before actually swimming. You don't have to wait 6 weeks but do wait till you know you can execute the above drills well and with some comfort. Don't start putting up walls and a roof till the foundation is solid!

      • Directions: Try now to put it all together, stroking slowly with alternate arms.

      • Focus: Keep it simple and focus principally on keeping that horizontal head position.

      • Once comfortable, drop the fins. Be ready to slow down a little but stay relaxed and keep that head low.

  • A Final Note

      • Swimming can be very technical if you want it to be and our coaches can certainly help you there. This package was to help you get started to enjoy a lifetime of the mental and physical benefits of swimming. Stay Calm and Swim On!