Why is swimming such a challenging physical activity for humans?

Swimming offers a smorgasbord of complex challenges for the novice, and at times, the higher skilled swimmer.

At Swimlab, we truly recognise and problem solve the swimming challenges that ‘adult onset’ swimmers face when working towards their goals; with our coaching expertise and Total Immersion method as the back bone of our coaching principles, we strive to make the struggle, confusion and lack of progress a thing of the past.

Few humans find swimming ‘well’, an easy pursuit. Those who do, the ones we envy as they cruise effortlessly up and down the pool, lap after lap, are in the minority.  They no doubt came through the youth age group swimming system; completing hours of daily swim squads from pre-teen years, through adolescence and for some into early adulthood, performing all 4 strokes in swim carnivals and competitions on a regular basis.

The vast majority of adult swimmers did not take this path, and now find themselves what we term, an ‘adult onset swimmer’.  Somewhat frustrated, exhausted, confused and vulnerable as they try to navigate this swimming thing, (with an adult sized body).  Motivations often deflated further when they tackle swimming through any ‘standard’  child based curriculum.

So let’s peel back the layers and look at the reasons why swimming gives the human brain and body and body such a challenging time.

  1. The average human is only 3% efficient in the water, yes, as terrestrial mammals we waste 97% of our efforts in moving forwards. Elite / and super elite probably make it to a whooping 7-8% efficiency! Just think about that dismal statistic for a while!inefficient-swimmer
  2. Humans become SURVIVORS in the water. Because of the marginal perception of a ‘life threatening activity’, our sympathetic (flight/fright nervous system) is often triggered through the amygdala, resulting in erratic, uncoordinated movements that increase heart rate.   We need to access our parasympathetic, or calm nervous system in the cerebral cortex for improved learning, proprioception and the development coordinated movement patterns.
  3. When we swim we go from vertical to horizontal, which means a radically different balance adjustment for the brain.  When we swim we hanghorizontally from our centre of gravity; rather than our regular vertical position – where we stand on or through our centre of gravity.  This makes ‘movement’ and propulsion a whole new ball game.
  4. Water is a moving, slippery and unstable body, not solid platform. This is a game changer for the brain, which immediately feels lack of stability and imbalance in the moving medium. We have no solid surface on which to leverage and structure our propulsive movements, like we do on earth or a bike pedal.
  5. Most lower skilled swimmers MOVE AROUND in the water, and move THE WATER around. For want of a better term they spin their wheels, making wasteful movements, not going any further or faster. When we really begin understand the foundations of better swimming, we discover how to move our body THROUGH the water,  working on shaping the body into a vessel rather than making excessive effortless movements.
  6. Because of the change in body position and lack of visual cues, self-perception and proprioception (the ability to sense where our limbs are and how they might effect movement) are greatly affected. We must re-train the brain to develop these essential skills when learning or correcting stroke mechanics.
  7. When swimming, we can no longer breath freely. Breathing is restricted into a confined time and space, where there is an added threat of not actually getting a breath. Going back to 2. this is a major cause of the flight / fright response being activated in many learner and progressive swimmers.breathing-swimming
  8. Be aware! The coach who says ‘you just need to be fitter!’ What is the point in working on ‘fitness’ when our efforts and wasted to that degree mentioned in point no. 1 (3% efficiency) Yes, there is a place for metabolic conditioning but the bottom line is…….you cannot out train an inefficient stroke, or reach optimal performance unless your stroke is within reasonably correct biomechanical parameters.


Any Total Immersion ™  swim coach, takes time to understand the impact of these challenges on all levels of swimmer. There is a principled approached, understanding the physics of the human body in water, we strive to to problem solve and correct through education and awareness, helping the swimmer become their own best coach!