As swim teachers and coaches, we often get asked “why can’t I swim more than 25 or 50 metres without getting tired?” Most people who are not already swimmers might expect to go to their local pool and swim laps comfortably as a form of exercise. They will most likely be disappointed by their inability to do so, no matter their level of physical fitness. Getting tired whilst swimming is not a reflection of one’s physical ability but rather the misunderstanding of what is required to move efficiently and effectively in water.

Why you get tired whilst swimming

Swimming efficiently for any extended distance comes down to two simple things – how much stress/body tension you have and what you are doing with your breathing. Exercising is generally approached by people as activities which require you to over-exert yourself by working hard to tense muscles to create a certain desired movement. Using a push-up as an example, body tension can be understood in the following way: we lower ourselves towards the ground and back up, and to create this movement our arms and legs must remain engaged, our muscles tensed almost to the extreme. Without this tensing of the arms, legs and core muscles, a push-up would be impossible.

Swimming does not require body tension to the extent that a push-up does as we are working directly against gravity, and if there is too much stress on/stiffness in your body you will be unable to sustain this over 25-50 meters and will become too tired to continue. A common misconception with most forms of exercise is that in order to generate the most speed/get the greatest result, one must over-exert themselves. Note, we can over-exert ourselves in a push-up going for the extra effort. However, due to the varying degrees of influence from gravity related to the viscosity of water and forward momentum, swimming needs almost the exact opposite – the less tension in your body the better (this is also the case for push ups but in relative terms!). This is because the water does a lot of the work for you when you swim. If there is too much tension in your body in the water, you will find you actually move in a forward direction less rather than more due to resistance generated from distorted and inefficient shapes of your body.

In addition to the need to be less tense in the water, you also have to know how to breathe effectively. This is because how you breathe whilst swimming drastically impacts the tension in your body even if you don’t mean for it to. If you clench your arms and legs right now as tight as possible, notice what happens to your breathing. You will have unknowingly held your breath. Similarly, if you purposely try to hold your breath, you will cause tension throughout the rest of your body.

Tips for swimming without getting tired

Recognising the difference between Tension (over-connected) and Tone (connected).

If you make a tight fist, you will feel all the muscles of your arm contract, and in turn the muscles of your shoulder also become tense. If you make a loose fist, however, with your fingertips resting lightly on the palm of your hand, the effect on the rest of your arm is more subtle. This tension is not a forced movement and does not require you to clench any part of your body in an unnatural and uncomfortable way. This is the kind of tension required for swimming and is known as Tone: the middle point of Floppy (loose, relaxed, no effort at all, disconnected) and Tension (over-exertion, stress and strain, overconnected). Understanding that swimming does not require you to force movement but rather needs you to remain soft, smooth, fluid and relaxed as the first step to swimming greater distances more efficiently.

Breathing

Training yourself to breathe easily while in the water will make a big difference to your ability to swim more than two laps of a pool. Without even getting in a pool you can easily make a distinction between relaxed, comfortable breathing and tense, unnatural breathing. When you hold your breath, your entire body changes, becoming tenser and stiffer. When you breathe evenly in and out, your ribcage expands and contracts but does not cause you to over-tense. If you force yourself to hold your breath whilst swimming you will make it harder for yourself to move because there is too much tension in your body. To swim a greater distance, you will need to focus on maintaining a comfortable breathing pattern that doesn’t affect the tension in your body. How can I relax my body in swimming and breath comfortably, you may ask yourself? The concept of accepting water versus avoiding water is very significant in relaxing your body. Avoiding water in the mouth creates tension, anxiety and a jerky lift of the chin, away from the surface when breathing. Therefore, when you accept water in the mouth and do not fight it, your body relaxes and you become more athletic and fluid with your movements. Some people have this avoidance of water in the shower. If this is you, before being comfortable in your swimming you must start accepting water into an open mouth during a shower. This will make a big difference in developing your comfortable breathing when swimming.

Swimming 25-50 metres without getting tired

If you can combine tone in swimming (connected, not over-tense or too floppy and relaxed) with even, steady breathing you will find that swimming 25-50 metres is not so much of a challenge, and you will easily be able to swim that distance without getting too tired. The most important thing is to not try and swim 25 or 50 metres the second you get in the pool without stopping and resting. Give yourself and your body time to adjust to a new environment, especially so you can remain calm and breathing easily once you attempt to swim a few laps. It is also important to swim short distances first over 5-10 metres before attempting a lap. This is so you have time to adjust your stroke as necessary, work out what is comfortable for your breathing and how much body tension you have. Stopping and resting as much as possible will have a greater impact on your swimming than swimming continuously without rests.