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Fitness | Learning the Crawl Stroke

Fitness: Learning the crawl stroke | No Apathy Allowed

If you’ve been following my blog this year, you know that I’ve taken on the challenge of relearning how to swim. I had developed a fear of water over the course of my adult life, and knew it was time to overcome it. Although I still wouldn’t consider myself a strong swimmer, and still experience a bit of anxiety in deep water, I proved to myself last winter that I could swim by passing the German Bronze swim test.

Now I’m incorporating swimming into my cross training for the half marathon. But I knew there was still a lot left to be desired in my form, and I still hadn’t really mastered breathing with my face in the water. So when I saw a seminar on the crawl stroke offered at one of the public pools in Bremen, I immediately signed up.

I think I mentioned before that when Germans first learn to swim as children, they learn the breaststroke. So it’s what they know best. When I began lessons here in Germany, my swim teacher told me to forget about the crawl stroke — which is what I learned in the US as a child (although not well) — and started me off immediately with the breaststroke, which requires a completely different form, and is perhaps less technical and easier to master. Anyway, my point is: many Germans don’t swim the crawl stroke, which is why a group of 15 of us had signed up for a 4-hour seminar on a Saturday afternoon.

The group was quite varied in age, fitness, and ability levels, so although I was one of the weakest swimmers there, I didn’t feel too out of place. The seminar was set up to focus on breathing and body positioning (Wasserlage), with additional seminars in the coming months to focus on arm stroke and kicking.

So unsurprisingly, we began simply with putting our face in the water and breathing out. This was one of the things that I the greatest anxiety about (in fact, I entertained thoughts about not showing up at all). We practiced and practiced, using a variety of different forms and different exercises. I didn’t have too much luck with the exercises where we hung onto the wall, but started making improvements as soon as we began swimming forward with a kick board. Wow, I thought, I’m doing it!

Then the instructor had us switch gears and swim a few laps of breast stroke so that we could establish the rhythm of our breath. And wouldn’t you know it, suddenly I was able to swim the breaststroke with the proper breathing technique (instead of like a granny holding her head above the water). This was a huge breakthrough for me, because despite all my swim lessons, I still hadn’t managed to overcome my anxiety about that. But BAM! There it was.

After that point, everything seemed to click. I still need to work on breathing from my left side as well as my right, but that will come with practice. Plus I rocked at the kicking exercises — having learned the proper kicking form as a kid, I was sprinting past some of the German participants who were more used to the frog-style kick of the breaststroke.

I have a ways to go before I am able to properly swim the crawl stroke, but I conquered my biggest fear — breathing with my face in the water — so I consider that a huge success!  I’m looking forward to some solo practice time where I can repeat the exercises we did and gain more confidence with my form. I also can’t wait to refine my breaststroke, since the proper breathing technique will improve things a ton.

I still haven’t decided whether I will sign up for the follow-up seminar next month, since despite my personal progress, I was still lagging behind most of the other participants.  But I may just repeat this seminar again in January and see how things go. In any case, I foresee a lot of swimming in my future!

Which swim style do you prefer? Do you like putting your face in the water?


  1. Suzanne says:

    Congratulations!!! It is so cool to read about this. I’m thrilled for you! Also, this is inspiring. I need to learn how to swim for real!

  2. Kirsten says:

    Good for you Mandi! I never understood the whole crawl stroke breathing thing either…and I don’t really see a need for it because it seems like you wouldn’t really be able to see where you are going? Maybe I’m wrong about that though! I would much rather just swim underwater than do a crawl stroke!

    • That’s true — I think sighting is a definite issue when swimming the crawl stroke, especially if you’re swimming in open water instead in a pool. There must be a strategy for that though. It’s beyond my skill set right now though. :)

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