Learning Swimming at 40 and Over: Can it Be Done?

Learning Swimming at 40

Swimming is one of those activities where it’s much better to start young because it gets harder to start the older you are. Part of it is embarrassment, but more often than not the main impediment is fear.

There seems to be a myth that once someone reaches 40 years of age or older they might as well give up on learning how to swim. They say things like “I’m too old” or “I don’t have time” or “I’m not fit enough”, but these are just excuses people make up to avoid confronting their fear.

The best way to simultaneously overcome your fear of the water as well as learn how to swim is to hire a swimming instructor that works specifically with adults. You can take private swimming lessons or join a group. Your instructor will teach you how to swim in a safe environment where you are at no risk of drowning. Don’t try to beat this problem on your own; there’s nothing wrong with getting some professional guidance.

Below, I provide some additional tips that can help you learn how to swim faster, and these tips are applicable whether you’re young, middle-aged, or old.

It’s not too late to start

Forty years is a long time to be carrying negative emotions toward swimming like shame and fear. What may have been a minor issue that could have been easily dealt with at a young age can become this great, terrifying monster that seems impossible to beat.

You may have heard stories on the news or from family and friends about near-drowning experiences and it only further pushes you away. Perhaps you had a near-drowning experience yourself, and it only amplified your fears, delaying your eventual attempt at learning swimming by a few years or decades.

As depressing as this sounds, there is hope. I need to point out that you can learn to swim at any age. You can learn swimming at 4 years old, 40 years old, or 84 years old; age is not the problem. Plenty of people have learned how to swim at 40 or older. Physical disabilities excluded, the biggest barrier to learning swimming is psychological: immense shame or fear. If you can overcome that, then learning the swimming techniques will be a breeze in comparison.

Don’t rush things

There are many factors that affect how quickly you can learn how to swim. Thankfully, being 40 and over is not much of an impediment, if at all. Quite the contrary, in some ways learning swimming when you are older is better than when you are a child since you can more easily voice your concerns, ask questions, and follow instructions clearly.

That said, with the assistance of a professional, you may be in a rush to learn how to swim. Maybe you’ve always wanted to swim your whole life but never got around to it until now. However, since you missed out on swimming for so many decades, you want to make up for lost time.

I understand the sentiment, but rushing something like swimming is a mistake. If you don’t properly learn the techniques, you are putting your own safety at risk. Plus, you will just get frustrated if you aren’t learning at some arbitrary pace, so don’t put this pressure on yourself.

Thankfully, most people learn to swim very quickly under the guidance of a swim instructor. It’s not unusual for an adult to learn how to swim in 2-3 weeks, assuming they are swimming every weekday (you can practice on your own on the weekends if you want).

If you take longer than that, that’s totally fine too. Some people take as many as 30 lessons over six weeks. Heck, if you take longer than that, it’s totally fine.

Not everyone wants to go swimming literally everyday. That said, you shouldn’t take it too easy either. Aim for a minimum of one swimming lesson a week, with the sweet spot being 2-3 lessons a week, just so that there isn’t too much time between lessons where you might forget things.

I’ve given you some numbers as a point of reference. However, understand that everybody learns at a different pace. Don’t get too caught up on the numbers and just focus on improving little by little. Even if you’re slow, you’ll eventually get there. I have not seen a single adult fail to learn how to swim eventually as long as they attend the lessons and practice what is taught.

How to improve your chances of success

Be consistent

The best way to learn something is to be consistent. You should aim for a minimum of one lesson a week, if not more. If the lessons are spread too far apart, it’s going to be a lot harder to remember what was taught previously. Then you will waste time covering old ground when you could be using that time to learn new skills.

If you’ve resolved that you’re going to take one lesson a week, then please attend that one session each week without fail. If you suddenly decide to take a week off, then you may forget so much that you’re back to square one. You can mitigate this to some degree if you practice on your own, but the danger here is that you may do something incorrectly and have nobody to correct you.

Have the right attitude

Having the right attitude is crucial. One of the reasons why learning how to swim at a young age is so effective is that many children do not yet have a fear of the water. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and children have not yet been exposed to the potential dangers of water.

I am not saying that adults should emulate this childlike wonder by throwing caution into the wind and diving into the deep end of the pool. Rather, you can relax and stay positive because the instructor will help you ease your way into the water, starting from the shallow end; you just need to take the first step into it in spite of your fears.

Having the right attitude will not only help you overcome your fear, but will make you a pleasant student to teach. It will also help you shrug off any failures and keep on trucking even if you don’t get things right away.

Conversely, students who have a negative attitude will not fare so well in their swimming lessons. If they make a mistake, they will take it much harder and may feel the urge to quit. Worse, they may even shift all the blame to the instructor and refuse to try some suggested exercises.

This attitude does nobody any favors. In a group setting, it just brings down peoples’ morale and it prevents the instructor from doing his/her job. It’s not surprising that someone with a positive attitude makes much more progress than someone with a negative attitude.

Practice on your own

When you were still a student, did you rely entirely on the teacher’s lessons to learn about a topic, or did the teacher assign homework and ask you to do some readings on your own? How much did you actually learn in class compared to on your own?

The teacher can introduce the topic, but it’s up to you to ask questions and to put in your own effort. Just like with schooling, most of the learning should be done on your own time, and you should be asking your instructor about issues you had while practicing.

Swim instructors aren’t going to assign you homework, but if you really want to learn how to swim quickly, go to the pool on your own time.

Especially with regards to overcoming your fear of the water, you should be spending as much time in the water as possible until you understand that it’s perfectly safe. Go to the shallow end of the pool and practice what you were taught. Ask a lifeguard to keep an eye out for you if you’re really nervous.

As mentioned, I believe the biggest barrier to learning how to swim is fear of the water. Once that obstacle is overcome, everything else should fall into place. By practicing on your own, you can blast through this mental barrier, solidify the techniques taught in class, and reach the finish line much sooner.

Trust your instructor

There’s something to be said about picking the right instructor. You should look for one that is CPR certified, with years of experience training adults, and is specifically catering to adults with no experience in the water.

You can try asking the facility if you can meet the instructor or to sit in on a class; the worst that’ll happen is they say no, otherwise you can get a feel for the kind of class you’re going to take.

Once you’ve done your due diligence and have enrolled in the class, now you should put your trust in the instructor. As mentioned in the “have the right attitude” section, don’t be that guy who is stubborn, blames the instructor, and refuses to follow what is being taught.

If your instructor asks you to do something that is out of your comfort zone, understand that there is a purpose to it. If you cannot see what the point of it is, just humor them and do as you’re told. I guarantee there is a good reason for it. Swim instructors just want to help you, so put your life in their hands, literally.