Ask Coach Sara: What’s The Best Way To Teach A Newbie To Swim?

If you look like you know what you are doing in the water, chances are high that you may be asked for advice at the pool.

Photo: Justa Jeskova

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Your questions about swimming as a triathlete, answered by coach and professional triathlete Sara McLarty.

Q: What’s the best way for an experienced swimmer to help someone learn to swim? –@tri2ride

A: If you look like you know what you are doing in the water, chances are high that you may be asked for advice at the pool. Don’t shy away from a water newbie—use your experience in the water to help make his or her transition into the aquatic environment go smoothly.

It can be a challenge to teach something that comes naturally to you. Don’t get too fancy with technique—just stick to the basics. Start by providing a visual demonstration. Swim a few easy laps and allow your pupil to watch you above and below the water. Make sure to point out that you are exhaling under the water, keeping your body horizontal along the surface and staying relaxed.

Many new triathletes struggle because they do not know how to relax in the water. Demonstrate and help your pupil get comfortable floating and treading water on his own. This skill provides greater confidence and reduces anxiety during open-water swims. A good front float translates into efficient freestyle form, while a relaxed back float can provide a quick rest in the middle of a race.

Breathing is the most common challenge for adult novice swimmers. You can stay right on the wall or stand in the shallow end and practice bobbing and blowing bubbles. Show that you are exhaling out of your nose and suggest he try humming if it is difficult. Look for a steady stream of bubbles and a relaxed inhale when his mouth comes out of the water.

Finally, touch on the flutter kick by demonstrating with or without a kickboard and having your pupil mimic you across the pool. Check for some major flaws like moving backward, bicycling from the knees, having too big of an oscillation or not breaking the surface of the water. Make some suggestions and allow him to experiment on his own to find success.

Sometimes the biggest swim tips can be the most basic fundamentals. Confidently offer advice by reminding your newbie that he walked before he ran. In the water, floating comes before swimming.

RELATED: Should Beginner Swimmers Self-Coach?

Q: I am stuck at the same pace. I try to push the pace but my form breaks down. How do I get faster? —@waddlingon

A: Plateaus are common in swim training, and they often stem from repetition of the same training. Break out of the rut by trying new workouts, adding dry-land strength, or focusing on one phase of technique for a week. Try mini main sets that are shorter in duration and length. Swim at a hard effort for as long as you can maintain good form and then stop when it breaks down. Do a short recovery swim or pull and then do the high-intensity main set again. Over time, try to hold your technique together for longer and longer. Eventually, you will break through!

RELATED: Become A Better Swimmer With Limited Training

Q: I struggle with finding a balance of keeping my head down while incorporating sighting. Any suggestions? —@BrinnHovde

A: Sighting is technically the worst thing a swimmer can do in regards to body position. However, it must be done in open water, so the key is to do it as efficiently as possible. First, lift only what is necessary for sighting out of the water: your eyes. Don’t lift your whole face and take a breath while looking forward. Second, time each sighting with your breath and the waves. Look up only when you are high in the water and take a breath immediately before or after sighting. Finally, sight only as often as necessary. Any swimmer can take 6–12 strokes without getting off course, so return to an efficient stroke and body position between each sighting.

RELATED: 9 Secrets To Proper Open-Water Sighting

Swim coach and former pro triathlete Sara McLarty has 25-plus years of experience and knowledge about swimming mechanics, efficiency and technique.

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