How I Learned to Swim 400m Non Stop

I’ve got 100m to go and I’m fighting to pull myself through the water. My arms are aching, my legs are exhausted and my breathing is getting increasingly frenetic. Thankfully, every so often a teaching cue – one of the many I’ve learnt over the last four weeks – kicks in. I remember to extend my arms, stretch as though I’m reaching over a barrel, keep my toes together, kick from the hips – not the knees – and twist my body as I turn to breathe for a moment of respite.

My coach, triathlete and Third Space master trainer Chris Stanton, is on the side of the pool mouthing words of encouragement, which only become audible when my ear pops out of the water on every third stroke. Much clearer are the occasional (encouraging) rebukes he delivers whenever I eke out a few extra seconds of rest before turning around for another lap of the 20m pool. For the previous month, Stanton has been giving me weekly swimming lessons – attempting to turn someone who could ‘swim’ around 20m before gassing out into someone who can keep going for hundreds of metres.

I’ve always felt like a bit of an interloper in a swimming pool. As though I was just taking up space and getting in the way of people who actually know what they’re doing. I could swim, but if I’m honest, whenever I went swimming, which wasn’t very often, I spent more time leaning against walls, desperately trying to regain my breath and composure than I did actually swimming. All that was about to change. I set myself the goal of swimming 400m in one session. In truth though, what I really wanted to achieve was being more confident in and around the pool. Could I achieve both? Well, sort of.

I am not a confident swimmer. That fact must have been evident before my first lesson with Stanton, because his very first instruction to me, made when he met in the reception area of the gym ahead of my first lesson, was a friendly ‘don’t look so nervous’. Written all over my face was the by-product of years of terrible swims, embarrassing moments and a failure to ever fully grasp a fundamental skill.

swim workout

Chris Stanton

As a mixed-race man there’s an added complexity to my water issues. According to widely reported statistics from Sport England, 95% of Black adults don’t swim and 80% of Black children don’t swim either. For Asian communities, the figures are at 93% and 78% respectively. The feeling that not only can you not do something, but not a lot of people who look like you can do it either, feels like an insurmountable barrier to cross at times.

When I eventually got into the pool, Stanton gave me a breathing exercise designed to calm me down and make me more comfortable. Holding onto the rope between lanes, I was instructed to dunk my head in and breathe everything in my lungs out. When I had no more air to give, I would lift my head up and take another breath before submerging my head again. Soon enough, my short, sharp, just-seen-a-ghost breaths were replaced by long, languid ones and I was ready to get onto the actual session.

To get an idea of what he had to work with, Stanton got me to show him a couple of lengths of my current freestyle technique. Like I wrote at the beginning of this article, I was under the impression that I could swim front crawl, not well, but a couple of lengths should be no problem. I set off under Stanton’s watchful eye, and what he saw was eye opening – probably for me more than for him. I was basically using my arms to windmill my way through the water, using brute strength, and zero technique, to force my body to the other side of the pool. As bad as my arms were, they were the only thing moving me forward, my legs were flailing behind me, acting as breaks, and my rotation, which should make it easier for me to breathe, was non-existent.

To fix my faltering technique, Stanton introduced a couple a drills to help with extending my arms and rotating in the water. The first drill we did was an extension drill, so wearing fins to propel me through the water, I swam with one arm extended in front of me, while the other remained on my hip throughout. We also tried the Corpse Drill, where I swam on my side at a 90-degree angle and finally we used an unconventional drill where Stanton dragged a pole in the water, just out of reach as I swam. He said when I extended my arm it should feel as though I’m reaching over a barrel. In truth, my swimming technique was firmly positioned on the bottom of one.

Before I started this challenge, I had it in my mind to try and swim every day for a month and see what progress I was able to make. I quickly realised that while swimming may be low impact, it provides a stern workout and a real test of your upper and lower body. Still, the benefits of swimming are myriad: it improves heart health, lowers blood pressure, improves lung capacity, reduces joint pain and improves bone strength, but rather than making swimming a daily occurrence, over the next few weeks, I would swim every two-to-three days.

Most of these swims would be on my own where I would be following a simple programme set by Stanton. The session he designed broke down as a warm-up, followed by four swim drills and finishing with a pyramid workout, where I would do one length, followed by a short rest, then two lengths – keeping going until I couldn’t swim any more. I would also alternate my pyramid workouts. The first I would do using just my own body, while the second would be done with the aid of a pull buoy between my legs, which allowed me to really focus on my arms and perfect the catch, pull and recovery.

Rather than being embarrassed to be in the pool, I started to really look forward to my sessions. Each week Stanton introduced new and more complex drills – 616, Corkscrew and Broken Arrow to name a few. On the days I was swimming on my own, I was achieving something every time I got into the pool. I remember slapping the water, Adam Peaty style, the first time I managed a 100m swim unaided and without stopping. I was also gaining confidence, and people would see me in lessons or swimming alone and want to chat about what I was doing. In the sauna after one of my workouts, I spoke to a man who had taken up swimming around a year ago. It quickly became apparent that he was having similar difficulties to me, so I introduced him to pyramid sessions and in a small way, we bonded over how difficult it can be to learn something when everyone around seems like they just get it.

swimming challenge

Chris Stanton

With the deadline for my challenge looming, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to complete 400m unaided, so Stanton devised a strategy where I would swim two lengths using just my bodyweight and a third with a pull buoy stuffed between my legs. The fact that I wasn’t able to conquer the challenge without a swim aid was a little deflating, but my progress was undeniable and as Stanton pointed out: a pull buoy is ‘just a piece of plastic between your legs’.

I jumped in the pool. The first 40m went by with relative ease, and the swim got even easier when the pull buoy took responsibility for my lower body from 40 to 60m. But with every 20m length thereafter, the swim got more difficult and by the mid-200s in I was really having to fight to keep making my way through the water. My breathing became shorter, my legs kicked with less purpose and wall turns, which had been instantaneous, were progressively being used as an excuse for longer and longer breaks.

The more tired I became, the more my stroke shortened and everything started to break down from there. Still, I kept going. ‘One thing I’ve noticed is [your] perseverance,’ Stanton says. ‘Just persevering and chipping away, making fine tune changes, but [you need to] maintain length and maintain exhalation.’ Despite my technique breaking down, 300m, 320m and 340m came and went. Eventually, I had one simple length to complete to make it to my 400m goal.

My final time was just under 14 minutes, which is by no means fast and considering I swim 20m in about 30 seconds must have meant my rests were, in all honesty, quite a bit longer than they felt in the pool. But still, I now have a benchmark that I can work from. What’s more, going to the pool is no longer a source of timidity or embarrassment. After all, I’ve got a time to beat.

Swimming Drills: Swim Workout Tips to Improve Your Freestyle

The best way to build your stroke is to break it down and practise its constituent parts. These drills will help.

6-1-6 Drill

With you body rotated 90-degrees, extend one arm out in front and place the other on your hip. Kick six times, remembering to kick from your hips, not your knees, before flipping your body 180-degrees. The hand that was previously on your hip should now be extended out in front of you and your previous lead hand should now be on you hip.

Works: develops your positioning in the water and your kick efficiency.

Corkscrew Drill

Starting with your face down in the water, extend both of your arms and place one palm over the other. Take a few kicks before spinning 180-degrees onto your back. Take a few more kicks before turning 180 again. After a few kicks, flip back onto your back. Keep doing this until you reach the other side of the pool.

Works: teaches you how far you can actually rotate in the water.

Broken Arrow

With your body positioned at 90-degrees, put your head in the water looking slightly forward, lift one arm up to the sky. Bend at the elbow and the shoot your fingers into the water just below the surface. Immediately turn and breathe, before returning your head to looking at the bottom of the pool and your arm back towards the sky.

Works: timing, hand entry and alignment.

Unco Drill

Unco drill or uncoordinated drill is essentially a one-armed drill and is performed with fins. Swim with one arm while the other remains by your hip. Breathe towards the non-stroking arm.

Works: the rhythm and timing of your stroke.

Doggy Paddle

With a pull buoy between your legs, your body in a neutral position and your head out of the water. Extend your arms out in front of you one at a time and scoop the water behind you.

Works: will help you get a good feel for the water.

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