Throwback Thursday: Swimming is not Kid’s Stuff: there are advantages to starting when you are 40

Received by the MSABC President via the internet and is written by Terry Laughin
– Published December 1995

It’s a stubborn and particularly condescending myth that learning to swim, like bearing a child, is subject to some kind of biological clock. There is was again in recent issue of SWIM magazine, a star swimmer on the Masters circuit, suggesting that the age of 40 was some kind of watershed governing whether or not a new swimmer could develop a good stroke and learn to swim comfortably.

As myths go, it play to an especially credulous audience – new triathletes, and hopeful runners checking out alternative pool workouts that won’t punish their legs after one too many training injuries. In they jump and down they go exhausted, wondering where all their fitness went. They don’t understand what’s happening. I do, because in capricious moments, I’ll go out for a run with friends who are serious about running. Despite my Clydesdale figure and modest mileage (over 200 lbs and under 200 in running miles per year) I can hold on for several miles with accomplished athletes who are kind enough to ease their normal pace a bit. I certainly do well enough to finish a road race in the middle of the pack.

My running friends, who log as many miles in a month as I might in a year, can’t move as easily into swimming mode though. They d never think of joining my swim work-outs and entering a Masters or open water race would be more unthinkable yet. Then they hear, from an “authority” hat to learn all the subtle motor skills of swimming really well you have to start , a kid and they say “Well no wonder!” and walk out of the pool forever. Bad move. Exercise physiologist Dr. Dan Rooks is a researcher in the effects of exercise and aging and motor control and learning. In his view, “There is no reason older muscles can’t learn sports skills fine movements at a similar rate as younger muscles. The circuits that run them don’t change appreciably over time.” So there may be reasons for an older swimmer to develop a fine stroke slowly, but age is not one of them.

The primary reason that swimmers can run a lot better than runners can swim is that we all learn to run fairly well as kids – there’s not that much to it – while swimming as a much more complex skill that many Masters athletes are only now getting serious about. If you didn’t swim competitively in your youth, your swim skills will usually leave a lot be desired now. But the legions of highly successful Masters swimmers who didn’t get serious about the sport until their 30s or later prove it’s not impossible. The key is understanding that learning to do it well takes everyone time – whether they start at 10 or 50.

For the first 16 years of my swim coaching career I worked mainly with young age group teams. When new swimmers joined at age 8 or 9, we explained to their parents that their first four to five years would be devoted primarily learning the basic skills for all strokes. In their early teens, we’d shift toward training and conditioning, but they would continue refining those basic skills into their late teens. In eaching them, I got to write on a “blank slate,” teaching kids their strokes from scratch. The kids learned them correctly right from the start and with constant guidance as they went.

The hundreds of adults, I now work with at camps and clinics each year are different. They face the same four-to-five year basic learning span as kids. But they don’t do it cheerfully. When kids go to practice, they take it one day at a time, they just do what the coach tells them, and they’re with their friends. To them, it’s just playtime in a more structured environment. Adults view it as work. Many, particularly triathletes, feel pressured to swim better in a hurry. And, if they’ve been trying to swim on their own for several years, there are layers of bad habits on the slate to overcome.

But there’s one great equalizer. Adults are rapt and absorbed pupils, far more dedicated students than are most kids. And attention and motivation are the most important ingredients in learning new skills. Frankly, I’d find it very difficult to go back to coaching kids again because I’ve become spoiled by the quality of mature students and how much they learn in just a few days.

They’ve had to carve precious time out of busy schedules to spend a few days with me, and they’re intent on getting the most out of it.

Does it matter? It does to Norton Davey, a 75 year old triathlete from Oceanside CA, and two-time age group Hawaiian Ironman champion, who improved his swim speed by 30 percent after three days of instruction. Just try telling him the only time to learn better strokes is when you’re young.

Shortening the learning curve is as easy as 1-2-3.

Get some coaching. Swim skills are complex. With instruction adults often make more progress in hours than they could on their own. Limit skill drills to 20-30 minutes. Most of the positive imprinting from any drill takes place in the first 20 minutes or so of practice. After that, even the most attentive pupil’s mind wanders. Execution falls off, and bad habits creep back in.

Work on one aspect of a skill at a time. For instance, you can concentrate on effectively on extending your hand further in front or on rolling your hips as you stroke, but not on both at once. Better to do on something else not requiring great concentration of 20 minutes, then a third 20 minutes concentrating on something else.

The above article was received by MSABC via the internet and was written by Terry Laughin.


One Comment on “Throwback Thursday: Swimming is not Kid’s Stuff: there are advantages to starting when you are 40”

  1. j. clark says:

    Never having swum seriously, and now getting into it at 64, I really appreciate your article. Thank you.

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