Underwaters as you get older - How many, and can you improve on them?

So I took up swimming as an adult, and I've been at it I think about 7 years, now.  COVID screwed it all up, I've not been the same since.  That point notwithstanding, I am wondering if anyone anywhere near my age is able to do underwaters well?  I'm 50.  If I'm doing more than a 50, I just can't continue to do more than 2-3 before I need to breathe.  Somewhat recently started training with a team.  One of the coaches who jsut wrapped up his collegiate career was encouraging/pushing me on some fly reps, with reduced breathing.  Was able to exceed his goal on the first rep.  Second I met it.  Then I was done.

Which has me wondering.....have I been selling myself short on 100's, 200's, etc. of free when I'm training?  I've just assumed that, given my age, there is no way to improve on underwaters.  I've tried, but just can't seem to.  So I'm wondering.....is my inability a mental block, or am I just too old to be able to do it?  The collegiate coach hasn't been around old guys, and he is a stellar athlete, so I'm not sure if his expectations are unrealistic, or I just lack teh confidence.

Anyone here able to knock out a decent number of underwaters on anything longer than a 50?  Has anyone wokred on improving them, and if you did, how did you do that?

  • First I want to understand if by underwater you mean the number of dolphin kicks? If so, the second question is are you faster doing underwater, dolphin kicks or are you faster on the surface? If the answer is that you are faster, underwater doing dolphin kicks then you need to build it up slowly. I would suggest starting with 50s and start with three off of each turn. If that is really comfortable then do 4 off of each turn. Do not increase past the point where you’re slower underwater than on the surface. It will probably take you a couple of months to get up to six kicks  if that is your goal. Once you do 50s go to 75s and then build up 100s. But again I think the point is what is fastest for you. I don’t have a very good underwater dolphin kick and so I’m better off coming to the surface after 2 to 3 kicks.  it isn’t a matter of breath control for me as I do a lot of breaststroke pullouts in my workout, which have a significant length of time underwater. I’m just not a very fast dolphin kicker 

  • Thanks, Allen.  Whether it is number or time underwater, it is pretty much the same.  I can't hold my breath that long, and I'm trying to find out if that is a mental thing I need to learn to push through, or if it is unreasonable to think someone my age can have decent underwaters.  Sounds like I have a mental block.

  • In my 60s, I was able to build my udk capacity when swimming solo by swimming 1-5 udk 25s on tummy or back with about a 30-45 sec rest between and often with fins. But, never pushing too long underwater if I needed air id come up. I think it helped develop udk technique and comfort. When i stopped solo and began to swim at team practices, i pretty much followed Allan's method for some of the short sets of 50s or 100s when motivated.

    In races i could go 3-4 udk for start and for 2-3 turns. In a 200 it was a tradeoff between needing air and whatever advantage was gained from 2-4 udks. After turn at 75 or maybe 100 i would go back to short underwater flutter kick to surface and was pretty much convinced air was the better option at that point.              

  • My experience with SDK (streamline dolphin kicking) was one of ceaseless frustration. Swam as a kid 9-18 y.o. Swam recreationally most of my adult life, at varying levels of frequency and intensity. At 45 I stared to train seriously again and compete in pool competitions. One of the big changes in that 27 year gap was development of the SDK. I could see that for people who are good at it, it is a tremendous weapon. Over a period of many years I made a concerted effort to develop my SDK  skill. I tried doing repeat 25s SDK at the end of every practice. I tried adding N SDKs off every wall. I tried with fins. I did an absolutely insane amount of leg lift and core exercises. Yes, my SDKs got better, but the best I was able to do was about 3-4 seconds slower, per 100, doing SDKs than simply doing a powerful flutter kick and getting to the surface quickly. Yes, there is an oxygen penalty so that the longer you are underwater the deeper into oxygen debt you go, and I certainly do not have an impressive lung capacity, but I don't think that was the limitation. I eventually reached the conclusion that I lack the shoulder flexibility to get into a sufficiently good streamline position to make the SDK effective. My arms are not in-line with my torso but always at an angle so that I am plowing water. Yes, I worked extensively on stretching, but the difference between the shoulder mobility I was able to gain and what I would need to gain to develop a good streamline is very great. It was a pretty depressing realization that came over a period of many years. I would watch videos and see myself get destroyed on the walls by swimmers that I would outswim between the flags. LCM is definitely a step in the right direction.
    Haven't been in a pool since Feb. 2020. I miss swimming, but the realization that I'll never have a good SDK is kinda depressing because today, swimmers spend a huge fraction of their races underwater.

  • Great question 67King,

    From my perspective, there are three aspects to factor in.

    The first is physiological.  Your lung capacity and VO2 max will decrease over time.  Lifelong athletes can lessen the decline, but not eliminate it.  If your young collegiate coach is not aware of this, he should read up - it is pretty well documented.  Personally, I did not feel the impact until about 5-6 years ago (64-65).   Until then, aerobic capacity was never the limiting factor.  Now, OMG!  UDK and restrictive breathing come at an immediate cost - consumes huge amounts of O2.

    The second is technique which Allen comments on.  UDK requires intensity and purpose.  From my observation at the pool and as an official, too many swimmers do it because someone told them to do it and their technique (casual and poorly done) actually slows them down.  They "play" at it and it slows them down.  Personally in my prime, I UDK'd during the first 2-3 turns of fly and backstroke races, and never on freestyle (except the start and first turn).  After that, the O2 consumption was not worth it.  

    Although it may be worth experimenting with, my recommendation is to focus all of your effort on making your off-the-wall streamline as absolutely streamline as possible.  Push-off for all you are worth and hold that streamline as long as possible.  When you feel yourself slightly slowing down, add some subtle 60% flutter kicking for 1-2 seconds, and then breakout.  My freestyle goal was to start my first stroke 7-8 yards off the wall.  It was not the right strategy for a 50 or 100, but it was really good for 200 and above.  It was fun to watch others expending energy on the surface while I streamlined underwater - going the same speed and conserving energy.

    NOTE:  Some swimmers have limited shoulder/upper body flexibility, so any streamlining is a challenge.  For this sub-set of swimmers, UDK is very hard and not helpful on most cases.

    Thirdly, UDK and the number you take is race distance specific.  What works for 50s and 100s isn't going to work for 200s and above (unless you are Leon Marchand).  Short races (50s and 100s) are NOT very 02 (oxygen) limiting whereas the => than 200s are very oxygen limiting if you go into oxygen debt by UDK too long off walls.

    At 70, I don't work on UDK anymore.  Streamlining 6-8 yards off the wall is my focus.  I go into oxygen debt otherwise.  A coach once said about streamlining - never enough and never too much.

    Hope this offers some perspective and assistance.


  • I go into oxygen debt otherwise. 

    This is really the crux of my question.  I know the coach knows there is .  His prompting was all about encouragement and pushing me to do more than I think I can.  He knows my daughter, whose UDK's are more responsible for her being on scholarship than any other aspect of her swimming.

    I've got a pretty decent push off the wall.  Even when I'm totally gassed, and at the end of a 2000 main set with very little rest, I still make it out past the flags, and that is with minimal (1-2) UDK's.  But I regularly make it 7-8 yards without much effort.  I could probably have good underwaters on a 50, but I think the 100 is where any potential I would have for improvement lies.  Like you said, a 200 is too far (unless you've ever see Claire Curzan's 200 back - still a good 11 yards underwater off last wall).  Of course, it is a little easier on back since you can breathe at will.  But my daughter, who goes 14M like clockwork on the 100's of both fly and back, is only going 7-8 on the 200.

  • There is another aspect of this thread that has not come up yet, so I will mention it - Shallow Water Blackout.  As you press your UDK capability, be sure to know the signs of Shallow Water Blackout.  For me, it was a tingling, cold sensation in my feet that indicated a blackout was imminent.

    And, as you work on this, the coach needs to be completely engaged and watching because a swimmer will simply stay under or, if at the end of the pool, will quietly slip underwater.  If the coach isn't watching, don't do anything where you are pushing the envelop.

    As a personal example, in my 20s, my lung capacity was pretty high.  Hold my breath for 4 minutes kind of thing.  I decided during one practice to swim down and back at the 50 mtr pool underwater.  About half way back and close to the bottom, I blacked out.  Obviously, I live to tell this tale, but I don't know how.  I just remember regaining consciousness while hanging on the lane line. No guards/swimmers saw it.  I had no clue it was about to happen.

    Stay safe and make sure people are watching!


  • Yep.  Used to do 16X25 underwaters with fins on a regular basis when doing solo swimming, but there was also more rest than the workouts I'm doing now where I'd be incorporating UDK's into each lap.  But I recall when this happened a few years ago:  www.cbsnews.com/.../