Welcome to the 14 Day Swim Challenge! If you are jumping aboard this adventure, the goal is to take you from zero to swimming (freestyle) with comfort and competence in two weeks. It will be hyper focused with 5 days of short swim workouts each week and two days of “dry land work” on your off days. We will progress graduating from building comfort to breathing, kicking, body position and finally developing the stroke. There is a lot of practice over the course of these two weeks. Mastering the technique takes priority over fitness development while you are learning. Don’t worry, though, we will get you to a point where you can start to shift from skill to fitness by the end of this. Last thing – if any of this freaks you out, grab a more experience swim buddy to come with you. It helps. So, are you in?
Day one is all about comfort and may seem laughably simplistic. Trust me, a lot of this will feel that way at first. It will all come together with the further you get in the challenge. Learning to swim is first about developing comfort so you can relax, focus, and learn. Once you are comfortable, it is about drilling the nervous system skill by skill to develop movement patterns that become subconscious and automatic. As each part of the stroke becomes more habitual, it opens up brain space to focus on the next piece. Before you know it, all of those moving pieces will come together as the freestyle stroke.
Before we dive into this challenge, make sure you have access to the necessary gear. You won’t need much outside of your regular swim attire and goggles. The only additional things you’ll need are some fins and a pull buoy. If you don’t have access to them, you can easily pick some up from a swim store, online, or from a friend.
If at the end of this challenge you feel like you are ready for bigger and better things, try TriStrong, my 16-week training and workout program to get you triathlon fitness ready for competition or just for fun.
Day 1: Comfort in the Water (In the Shallows)
Okay, let’s get started! Areas of focus for today are comfort, breathing, and kicking. Working on these three up front establishes a strong foundation for you to build on later. Do the following drills in the shallow end of your pool so you feel as comfortable as possible (demos in the video and instructions below):
- Feel for the water drill
- Sink drill (3-in-a-row, blowing bubbles)
- Kick practice (on-deck)
- Kicking on wall, 10 x 0:15
Feel for the Water
Think of this as some light play time in the water. The aim here is only to develop a familiarity with the sensations of the water and the effects that your movement has on it. You can do this drill with your head above water or submerged – up to you. I’d recommend keeping it out to start, especially if you are brand new to swimming. Take 3-5 minutes to experiment with your hands, arms and legs. Be mindful of how the water feels and what happens when you make certain movements.
Breathing while swimming is nearly always the biggest obstacle for new swimmers. Breathing well keeps you calm, and relaxed. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least intuitive things to learn – we are land animals after all. Holding your breath, even for a split second, is a critical sin you need to avoid as you learn to swim. This drill is a low risk, low key way to get your feet wet. Get in the shallow end, inhale a solid breathe, then begin to exhale steadily as you lower yourself into the water. As your face gets to the water, keep exhaling through your mouth, blowing bubbles. Let yourself sink as you exhale further. As air exits your lungs your body becomes less and less buoyant. Before you get too uncomfortable, stand back up, continuing to exhale, and inhale as your mouth reaches air again. Do this at least 3 times in a row. Again, spend 3-5 minutes here. As you progress, feel free to try blowing bubbles out your nose as well as your mouth.
Kicking is an aspect of the stroke that can really help you to better stay balanced and afloat. Conversely, doing it wrong can make for some serious headaches. See the video demonstration here. All you need to do is sit on the side of the pool (often called “the deck”) and practice. Good kicking is from the hip with pointed toes. You want to limit flexion of the knee. Try to avoid kicking like you are trying to pedal a bicycle. Spend 2-3 minutes practicing this. If needed, add more.
Kicking on the Wall
Now the rubber meets the road! Jump in the water and face the wall. Place both hands on it and let your legs float out behind you (or extend them physically if you have sinkier legs). Then, take what you just practiced and kick, from the hip. You can do this with your head out of the water for now. As you progress we’ll get it submerged. If done correctly, you should feel your kicking driving you towards the wall and keeping your butt and legs afloat.
Day 2: Yoga and Dry Land Drills
Today we take a break from the pool to work on comfort in a very different setting. These dryland drills and stretches will prepare your mind and body for what’s to come.
Your drills for today will focus on visualizing the stroke while practicing movement skills to use in coming lessons. These can be done just about anywhere and will help you to feel more comfortable as we continue to add layers to the learning.
- Wall extension
- Side stroke Drill
- Sitting kick practice
- Child’s Pose + Twist
Good swimmers are “long swimmers.” Extension causes rotation, and rotation makes you slice through the water. This drill is a good way to practice and visualize the cue “reach for the wall” and emphasize why it matters. Face a wall with both arms extended overhead. Then, drop one arm to your side and reach as high as you can with the other. What happens? As you reach, your whole body rotates. This more sideways position reduces the surface area visible to the water, making you more hydrodynamic. Better hydrodynamics mean you will go further with less effort – you want that! Swimming efficiently is all about switching from side to side smoothly, not about plowing through on your stomach.
Side Stroke Drill
This drill is another low risk way to work on your stroke mechanics, more specifically the arm portions. Lie on your side with your bottom arm extended in front of you. Then, “stroke” with your other arm. A couple key pieces to focus on are:
- getting your stroke hand to face the wall behind you as you pull towards your toes
- recovering by pulling your elbow to a high position with your hand coming up to your armpit
- practicing an entry that is between the elbow and wrist of your extended arm.
We’re bringing this back from yesterday. Find a chair or bench and practice kicking from the hip with pointed toes. Minimizes flexion at the knee. Just a minute or two is fine.
Child’s Pose + Twist
This stretch is a great way to relax and stretch out the back and shoulders. Start by sitting on your knees. Then sit back onto your heels and fold forward, extending your arms out in front of you. Try to relax your back and shoulders and extend as far as possible. If you want, anchor your hands and pull back to stretch your lats. After 20-30 seconds here, take one arm and thread it through the other (underneath your armpit). If possible, turn your head the opposite way. This will work on your neck and shoulders more specifically. After 20-30 seconds, switch to the other side.
Day 3: More Comfort and Kicking (In the Shallows)
We’re back in the water today! For today we have some review mixed in with more specific breathing and kicking drills. We’ll also start to work on the idea of balance and finding what it feels like to be level in the water and keep the hips and legs high.
Gear Needed: Fins
Drills for today:
- Sink drill + feel for the water
- Bubble – bubble – breathe (on the wall), 10 x 0:15
- Kick drill from push-off, with fins *body position*, 10-15x
Sink Drill + Feel for the Water
This is a combo of what we worked on in day one. As you exhale underwater to practice the sink drill, add in movement with your arms and legs to develop a feel for the water while breathing. Do this for 3-5 minutes.
Bubble – Bubble – Breathe
This is a low key way to practice the breathing pattern you’ll do with freestyle. Again, do this is the shallow end so your feet can touch and you can be in total control. First, get in the water, facing the wall. Then take a breath and begin to exhale as you place your face in the water. As you are in the water say to yourself “bubble – bubble – breathe.” As you say breathe rotate only your head so that your mouth comes out of the water. Inhale and return to face-down, exhaling. Through this, repeat the bubble-bubble-breathe mantra. Practice rotating to both sides and work towards just barely getting your mouth out of the water and keeping the crown of your head semi-submerged. You should get about half a goggle out of the water.
Kick Drill from Push-Off
This is the first time we’ll work our way out from the wall. Grab some fins and get ready to practice all the things you’ve been working on so far! When you’re ready, take a good breath, push off hard from the wall and start blowing bubbles as you kick lightly. When you start to feel the need for air, stand up and turn around. Starting out you’ll probably kick for about 10-15 feet. As you get more comfortable, try to go further. This is a great drill for working on body position. Think of your body as a see-saw. To balance your heavy legs you will have to shift some weight towards your head and torso which will pop your hips up. Experiment with this. You will likely feel like you are swimming downhill. Your butt and heels should just break the surface of the water when you get it right. You will likely go far in both directions before finding balance – that’s okay! Play with it. You’re doing this in the shallows so you can stand up as needed. Do this 10-15 times until you feel good about it.
Day 4: Breathing, Kicking, Side Kicking
Time to add some more layers! Today we continue our work on comfort, breathing, and body position, and add in practice of the side position we visualized on day 2.
Gear Needed: Fins
Drills for today:
- Kicking on wall, breathing to sides, 10 x 0:15
- Kicking w/ fins, 10 x 25
- Side kick w/ fins, 5 x 25
Kicking on Wall Breathing to Sides
This is a combination of drills from the past few days (kicking on the wall and bubble-bubble-breathe). Start by kicking into the wall with your head out of the water. Once you feel comfortable, inhale and put your head in the water like you did with the bubble-bubble-breathe drill. As needed, rotate your head to breathe while continuing to kick. Do this ten times for about 15 seconds each round.
Kicking With Fins
This is the same as the kick drill from push off only you will extend it the length of the pool (one length equals 25 yards or meters) and mix in breathing. To start, just to a little breaststroke/doggy paddle to bring your head up for a breath. If you feel confident, try rotating your head to breathe instead of breaststroking to it. This better simulates the actual freestyle motion. Do this for 10 lengths of the pool, resting on the wall as needed.
Side Kick With Fins
This drill is very similar to the kicking drill above only now we are going to rotate to the side. First, as you kick extend one arm out in front of you, reaching for the wall while leaving the other arm relaxed at your side. This will pull your torso around so that your belly button begins to face the side wall. Aim to kick at about a 45 degree angle. Your face should be close to your arm with your eyes looking either straight down or 2-3 feet ahead. As needed, rotate your head to breathe on the side facing the side wall. Make sure you continue to kick while you breathe. If you don’t, you’ll have what we call a “scissor kick” which causes a ton of drag and makes your bottom half very sinky. Feel free to rotate your shoulder a little if needed to get your mouth out of the water. Finding balance in the side position is similar to the prone position. Instead of placing weight/pressure on your head and chest, it will feel more like you are leaning onto your armpit. You may want to try placing your extended hand at different depths to help with this, too. Experiment with the position until you can breathe comfortably from the side kicking position without inhaling any water or feeling rushed. Beware of holding your breath at this stage.
Day 5: Yoga + Strength + Dry Land Drills
4 days in and it’s time to hop out of the water and do some work in the gym. Today’s workout focuses more on strength and flexibility while bringing in elements of review from our last dryland day. These movements will build swim-specific strength and improve flexibility in your back and spine. For the strength work, do 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps of a weight that is doable but challenging by the end. For the flexibility, aim for 20-30 seconds in each position. See the video for demonstrations of each exercise.
Today’s work features:
- Child’s pose flow + cat/cow
- Spinal rotation, lying
- Push up
- Narrow push up
- Pull up
- Cable row
- Side stroke drill (review from day 2)
Day 6: Trying it Without Fins & Sculling
We’re almost a week in and making some great progress! Today features two new wrinkles: we’re going to try some drills without fins and we’re going to introduce sculling, which is an extension of feeling for the water.
Gear Needed: Fins and pull buoy
Drills for today:
- Kick w/ fins, 8×25
- Kick w/o fins, 4×25
- Side kick w/ fins, 8×25
- Side kick w/o fins, 4×25
- Scull (with pull buoy), 4×25
Kicking With and Without Fins
Push off hard from the wall and start blowing bubbles as you kick from the hip. Either leave your hands at your side or extend them out in front of you (as demonstrated in the video). When you start to feel the need for air, take a little breast stroke to pop your head up for a breathe, then return (or rotate your head to the side to breath). Think of your body as a see-saw. To balance you will have to shift some weight towards your head and chest which will bring your bottom half up. Experiment with this until your butt and heels just break the surface of the water.
Side Kick With and Without Fins
Push of the wall as if doing the drill above. As you kick extend one arm out in front of you, reaching for the wall while leaving the other arm relaxed at your side. This will pull your torso around so that your bellybutton begins to face the side wall. Aim to kick at about a 45 degree angle. Your face should be close to your arm with your eyes looking either straight down or 2-3 feet ahead. As needed, rotate your head to breathe on the side facing the side wall.
This drill is active practice of feeling for the water with your palms, and forearms. Grab a pull buoy, and push off the wall with you face just out of the water. With your arms extended in front of you, move them so that your finger tips are below your wrist, and your wrist is below your elbow. Then, move your hands side-to-side 2-3 feet, experimenting with the angle of and shape of your hand. If done correctly, this will propel you forward (slowly). There is no kicking in this drill. Take your time and play with it until you find what causes you to move down the pool most efficiently. Do four lengths, resting on the wall as needed.
Day 7: Time to Stroke – The 6-1-6 Drill
This is an exciting day! Today will be the first time we start to put it all together and work on rolling from one side to the other with a stroke. There is a lot of review in this day with only one new drill: the 6-1-6.
Gear Needed: Fins and pull buoy
Drills for today:
- Scull 8×50, scull down, kick back w/fins & buoy.
- Side kick, with fins, 8 x 25
- 6-1-6, w/ fins, 10 x 25.
Grab a pull buoy, put some fins on, and push off the wall with you face just out of the water. With your arms extended in front of you, move them so that your finger tips are below your wrist, and your wrist is below your elbow. Then, move your hands side-to-side 2-3 feet, experimenting with the angle of and shape of your hand. If done correctly, this will propel you forward (slowly). There is no kicking in this drill. Take your time and play with it until you find what causes you to move down the pool most efficiently. Do eight laps (a lap is one length down and one length back). For each lap, scull down for one length, turn and kick back holding the buoy out in front of you.
Side Kick With Fins
Push of the wall and begin kicking from a prone position. As you kick extend one arm out in front of you, reaching for the wall while leaving the other arm relaxed at your side. This will pull your torso around so that your bellybutton begins to face the side wall. Aim to kick at about a 45 degree angle. Your face should be close to your arm with your eyes looking either straight down or 2-3 feet ahead. As needed, rotate your head to breathe on the side facing the side wall.
6-1-6 with Fins
Start out as you would for the side kick drill. Count to six, then pull back with your extended arm using it to rotate you to side kicking on the other side. While you’re doing this, bring your relaxed arm up and around to enter the water and extend in front of you, replacing the other arm. Make sure you are exhaling through all of this and rotate to a breath before you take a stroke. As you start the stroke with your extended arm, think about tipping your finger tips down first. Your palm should face the wall behind you. As you start to pull back try to get your palm and forearm vertical as soon as possible so that they are both parallel to the wall behind you. This gives you the biggest possible “paddle” to propel you forward. Avoid dropping your arm and pushing water down instead of back as this will cause your legs to sink.
For further reading try The Weak Swimmers Guide to Triathlon.
If you’ve got this far then you’re ready for Week 2 of the 14 Day Swim Challenge.