There’s no way around it. Swimming is hard. Whether you’re swimming for exercise, competition, or for fun. Swimming is difficult even if many people seem to believe it’s an easy sport.
But why swimming is so challenging stems from many different factors. From the technical aspect to the full-body workout, we’ll break down why swimming is so hard
For some suggestions on how to make swimming just a bit easier, check out our companion article: 8 Tips to Make Swimming Easier
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7 Reasons Swimming is So Challenging
1. Swimming Isn’t a Natural Movement
Swimming might seem to come naturally to some but that doesn’t mean it’s a natural movement. One of the reasons swimming is so hard is because we weren’t built for swimming.
We were built to live on land, not water. And the muscles we use to move around are developed for land, not water. Almost everything we do, we do in a vertical position such as standing, walking, cooking, sitting, etc. Your muscles are built for and designed for those uses.
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So while the muscles that you use in swimming exist, they’re not used all the time. Or in the manner that’s needed for swimming
You use different muscles to keep yourself balanced in the water and moving forward. But that same muscle movement and strength doesn’t translate to land movement.
It seems like it should be an obvious reason why swimming is so hard but it’s often overlooked in favor of more complicated explanations.
2. Technique Heavy
Swimming is very heavy on technique. Strength isn’t near as important as proper technique in the water and strength will only get you so far.
Easy swimming requires correct technique and without it, can make swimming difficult. And nearly all the technique that is required in swimming happens under the water.
From the entry of the hand into the water to the catch, through the pull of the stroke, and to the exit, every part of the technique has to be correct. You also need to time the stroke to breathe at the correct time.
That’s just the upper body piece! There’s also the kick to remember which isn’t as easy as most people realize.
And that explanation only covers freestyle stroke! It doesn’t even consider the technical aspects of the other strokes (butterfly, breaststroke, and backstroke), which admittedly, are much more difficult.
Related article: The Beginner’s Guide to Swimming Freestyle
In all, swimming is a very technical sport. And while it’s possible to muscle through the water, you won’t be very fast, it’s exhausting to do so, and you could injure yourself.
We don’t say all this to intimidate you but rather to explain why you can’t just get into the water and start swimming. And to discourage you from being…discouraged! Very few people take to swimming right away.
It takes time so that you feel comfortable in the water. And it takes coaching/help to get you moving in a way that’s not only technically difficult but also not a natural way for your body to move.
3. Uses Every Muscle in the Body
You’ve probably heard that swimming is such a good workout because it uses every muscle in the body. And they’re not wrong!
It’s easy to think you’re just using your arms and legs when you swim. But you use your core muscles more than you realize while you’re swimming.
Your shoulders and back muscles also play a large factor when you’re swimming, in addition to your chest muscles. Everything works together to move you forward and propel you through the water.
Even your hand and foot muscles get a workout when you’re swimming. More so if you’re using swim gear, such as fins and paddles.
Not only are you using every muscle in the body, you’re also using them all at the same time. And you’re doing all this while holding your breath.
This makes for an incredibly difficult workout and your body will grow tired more quickly than you’re used to.
Most workouts only focus on working one or two sections of muscle groups at one time. With swimming, every muscle is being used at once to:
- Keep you balanced (core muscles)
- Pull you through the water (hand, chest, shoulder, arm, and back muscles)
- Rotate your body to breathe (arms, legs, and core muscles)
- Propel you through the water (feet, leg, and hip muscles)
- Circulate blood through your body while on oxygen deprivation (heart muscle)
All of these muscle groups working together at the same time is one of the reasons swimming is so hard. And that’s not even factoring in the breath control, which we’ll get to later 😉
4. Water is Denser Than Air
Most of us probably don’t remember our physics classes in school. So you may be surprised to know that water is denser than air. About 800 times denser, to be precise. Here’s a little science refresher 🙂
…There are more water molecules in one liter than there are air molecules. As an example:Source
– Air density = 1.29 kilograms per cubic meter/1 liter
– Water density = 1,000 kilograms per cubic meter/1 liter
Why the science lesson and why is this important? Because when water is denser than air, it’s harder to move your body through the water.
You’re pushing and pulling through something that’s heavier than you’re used to moving through. And in essence, you’re moving weight around you when you swim!
Since water is heavier and denser, it takes more effort for you to move through. This puts a larger strain on the muscles in your body.
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Muscles that, as discussed earlier, are being used in ways they’re not used to and are working together to keep you moving.
This not only makes swimming harder but is also one of the reasons you burn more calories while swimming.
5. Breath Control
Swimming is one of the few sports that you have to hold your breath for large portions of the workout. And this is arguably one of the reasons why swimming is so hard for some individuals.
Running, biking, and working out you have to control some part of your breathing. But you’re not holding your breath while doing so.
Holding your breath decreases your oxygen levels and increases the carbon dioxide in your body. This causes the feeling that you’re running out of air when in actuality, your body is trying to balance out the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.
It’s easy to argue that you can hold your breath for a minute or so while reading this. But it’s easier to hold your breath while doing nothing compared to working out.
The problem with breathing and swimming is that getting a breath is about timing. Too early or too late and you can risk getting a mouthful of water.
Improper breathing techniques can also impact your stroke.
New swimmers want to breathe forward. But breathing forward interferes with the body’s balance and will make your hips sink each time you breathe. Which in turn, makes it more tempting to forgo breathing for as long as you can to keep your balance in the water.
Do you see the vicious cycle now?
However, even breathing to the side can cause issues if you don’t get the timing right. It can affect your swimming speed and cause one arm to slow down. Or it can tweak your technique just enough that you’re slightly off balance.
And let’s just admit it, holding your breath and working out is hard. Adding it into the mix of the density of water and working all your muscles, it’s the cherry on top as to why swimming is so hard.
It’s easy to say that you’re in shape. Or that you excel at a certain sport or physical activity. To say that you can run or bike a certain distance in a specific time. Or that you can do 100 push-ups and 50 pull-ups every day without much effort.
And that’s great that you can do that! But we’ll be blunt. You may be in shape but you’re not in swimming shape.
A lot of people find that swimming is so hard for them because they’re overconfident in their physical strength and achievements on land. But those don’t translate into water. And the person who can run miles on end will struggle to make it down and back in a pool.
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Again, you’re using different muscles in different ways and you’re using every muscle in your body at once. You’re doing all this while trying to move against something that’s thicker than air and all while holding your breath.
All of this is why swimming is so difficult and can be so dangerous.
Too many people overestimate their athletic abilities and think they can best the water. Only to have the water best them. Overconfidence in the water can lead to injury or death.
Part of the reason swimming is so hard is that it’s not just physically difficult, but also mentally challenging. Overcoming the fear of water is incredibly hard, especially as we get older. And for some, the act of putting your face in the water is hard enough.
There’s also the fear that you look ridiculous while swimming and that other people are judging you. Some individuals may also feel uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit in front of others (for this, we recommend a swim shirt or rash guard!)
Related article: Answering Your Questions About Rash Guards
There’s no easy way to overcome any of these fears. You may need to work with a professional to become more comfortable around water. We do encourage you though to try to tackle your fear if you can. Because learning to swim is a life-saving event that no one should be without.
Knowing why swimming is so hard is half the battle to getting started. Even having just a bit of knowledge can help you tackle something new and challenging.
And while swimming is difficult and offers unique challenges, it’s not without its rewards. You may feel frustrated during a workout and exhausted after it’s done, but underneath it all, you feel accomplished.
As always, happy swimming!
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Chevron is a current competitive swimmer with almost 20 years of experience in the pool. And although she fell into the sport by accident in her high school years, she still trains daily and competes throughout the year. She’s committed to providing guidance to all levels of swimmers and believes that everyone should know how to swim.