Can You Forget How to Swim? (Simple, Easy Explanation)


There are many people that learn how to swim at an early age that subsequently take a long layoff from the water. In some cases, this break from swimming could last several years. Oftentimes, these same people wonder if everything they’ve ever learned about swimming will be forgotten once they decide to take a dip in the water.

A person cannot forget how to swim once they have performed a sufficient number of repetitions to learn this complex skill. Swimming knowledge is stored in the human brain as a procedural memory. This type of memory is long-term and can be implicitly recalled even after years of inactivity.

Procedural memory can be a bit tricky to understand, especially if you’ve never been exposed to this concept before. Below, we will analyze this concept in detail and discuss why procedural memories stick with a person for their entire lifetime. Following that, we will discuss how a long layoff affects your ability to swim and exactly what you should do to get yourself back into prime swimming form.

Why Swimmers Never Forget How to Swim

The human brain is a very complicated anatomical entity. There’s still much about the human brain that remains a mystery to us, particularly the workings of memory formation and maintenance. To fully understand why swimmers never truly forget how to swim, it’s necessary to delve into what we currently know about how the procedural memory works.

Brief Overview of Procedural Memory

Memories are broadly classified into two categories (source 1 & source 2):

  • Short-Term Memory – Small bits of information that are briefly retained, typically for only a few seconds.
  • Long-Term Memory – Knowledge that is retained for an extended period of time. These memories can last for weeks, months, or years.

For the purposes of this article, we will be directing our attention on long-term memory, since swimming is primarily associated with this type of memory. Long-term memory is further broken down into two additional categories (source):

  • Explicit Memory – Information that’s consciously remembered. This type of memory includes episodic memory and semantic memory.
  • Implicit Memory – Information that’s subconsciously remembered. This type of memory includes priming and procedural memory.

Since swimming is considered to be a type of procedural memory, it falls under the umbrella of implicit memory. Implicit memories—and thereby procedural memories—are somewhat peculiar in that you cannot deliberately bring this sort of information to mind. Generally, this knowledge cannot be easily articulated since it mainly deals with motor functions.

This can be a difficult subject for people to wrap their heads around. If procedural memories cannot be explicitly recalled, how do these memories even work?

Procedural memories are automatically remembered. You do not have to think about each individual step involved with the specific motor function that you intend to perform. Instead, you simply just do it.

Different sections of the brain are dedicated to implicit memory and explicit memory, as shown by the notorious Patient H.M. experiment (source).

For those of you that do not know, H.M. stood for Henry Molaison. Molaison experienced severe seizures, to the point where he could not perform basic everyday activities. To combat these seizures, Molaison agreed to an experimental procedure to have a certain part of his brain extracted, which was later named the hippocampus. The seizures ceased, but it came at a heavy cost: Molaison’s ability to create new memories.

From this study, it was found that the hippocampus plays an integral role in explicit memory. The most intriguing finding from this study, however, was Molaison still retained the ability to acquire new motor functions. This led researchers to the discovery that the brain forms memories—particularly implicit and explicit memories—in contrasting ways.

Why Swimming is Forever Stored in Your Procedural Memory

Procedural memory behaves far differently from any type of explicit memory. Procedural memories can be remembered effortlessly, even though you may not be able to verbally describe exactly what it is that’s being remembered.

In a sense, knowing how to swim is eerily similar to knowing how to ride a bike in terms of the memory formation and recall. Once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. No matter how much time passes, your subconscious remembers the neural patterns associated with this complex movement. Very little conscious brainpower is required on your part.

There are several other popular examples of procedural memory that you may not even be aware of, including:

  • driving a car
  • going up and down a staircase
  • tying your shoes
  • using eating utensils

Swimming works exactly the same way as the examples above. Once you’ve acquired this skill after notching hundreds or thousands of swimming repetitions under your belt, these complex motor patterns become ingrained into your nervous system, whether you know it or not.

The scientific community still has yet to fully understand the subtle nuances of why procedural memory is so much more efficient than declarative memory. It is definitely an area of future research in the field of neuroscience. At this point, all we know for certain is that any sequence of movements that’s done repetitively and subsequently internalized tends to stick with that person for the rest of their life.

For a full review of what procedural memory is and how it works, watch the brief two minute clip below.

How a Long Swimming Layoff Affects Performance

Although a swimmer doesn’t ever completely forget how to swim, that does not mean a person should expect to swim at a high level after an extended break. Put simply, your swimming performance will take a plunge the longer you stay away from swimming. Just like anything else, there are consequences to be paid for a lack of practice.

Muscle Atrophy

Unfortunately, muscles tend to shrink away and wither when they’re not used on a regular basis. In scientific terms, this is commonly referred to as muscle atrophy (source).

With any physical activity, there will be certain muscle groups that are emphasized over others. Swimming may be a full body workout, but this does not mean that every muscle is worked equally. There are some muscles that bear the brunt of the physical load. The primary muscle groups used in swimming include the following:

  • core abdominals
  • glutes
  • hamstrings
  • shoulders
  • upper back

With regular swimming, all of these muscles develop and get accustomed to the physical rigors of moving in water. The more frequently that you swim, the stronger that these muscles become. The body’s natural response to any new type of physical stimulus is to adapt. In the absence of any stimuli, there’s no reason for the body to maintain such a high degree of muscle specially tailored toward swimming.

Thus, during an extended break, the strength of these muscles slowly fades. When you finally decide to come back to swimming, your muscles are no longer used to its physical demands. It may seem like you’ve “forgotten” how to swim, when, in reality, your body simply lacks the muscular capacities needed to fulfill the motor functions related to moving in water.

This is one of the major reasons why it takes several swimming sessions to get back to prime swimming form. These muscles need to be stimulated repetitively over the course of days or weeks in order to adapt accordingly. Sadly, you won’t be able to swim at your peak level after months or years of being out of the water.

To get an idea of when people see changes in their fitness and appearance after picking up swimming, click over to Average Time It Takes to See Results from Swimming (Solved!).

Lack of Confidence

An extended break from swimming not only affects you physically, but mentally as well. It goes without saying, but staying clear mentally is imperative for any physical activity. Though, it’s arguably more important for swimming since anybody can succumb to drowning, regardless of how physically fit they might be.

Confidence is a vital component to swimming because it allows you to maintain your composure in the water. As soon as you lose your sense of control in the water, you’re bound to panic and resort to flailing around in the water. Sadly, this only worsens the situation by creating a negative feedback cycle. The more that you panic, the stronger the likelihood that you will end up resorting to ill-advised swimming tactics.

When entering the water for the first time in a while, it’s only natural for your confidence to be shaky. Voluntarily surrounding yourself with water is no small hurdle. If you feel panic rising within you, it can be tempting to get out of the water right then and there.

Although your implicit memory may remember how to swim, this panic may cause you to freeze up in a tense situation. Contrary to popular opinion, you haven’t forgotten how to swim, you’ve simply become overwhelmed by the feeling of reacquainting yourself with the water. The majority of people are very knowledgeable of the fight-or-flight response, but most people fail to acknowledge the third response: freezing under pressure.

The freeze response may not be as well known as fight or flight, but it’s a very real phenomenon. When the brain perceives a serious threat—whether it be real or imaginary—your body automatically reacts to it with the fight-flight-freeze response.

“Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where you further prepare to protect yourself.”

(source)

After a long layoff from swimming, your mind may perceive the water as a serious threat since you haven’t swam in awhile, ultimately provoking the freeze response. This is why it’s recommended that you ease your way back into swimming if you haven’t swam in years.

What to Do if You Haven’t Swam for Years

Safety is of the utmost importance with any water-based activity. Though, this is especially true for those that have not been in the water for a long time. To keep yourself safe, it’s necessary to implement the following steps to avoid any potential swimming catastrophes. Your brain may not have forgotten how to swim, but this does not mean you’re completely out of harm’s way.

Swim in Shallow Waters to Practice the Fundamentals

If you plan on trying your hand at swimming after an extended break, you should do so in shallow waters. Throwing yourself into deep waters after such a long layoff is not the smartest idea.

By wading in shallow depths, you accustom your body to being surrounded by water once again. This mental comfort will pay dividends later on as you progress to more complex swimming maneuvers, like treading water for example. You want to be certain that you’re in a stable mental state before pushing your swimming limits.

If you’re afraid of completely immersing underwater because it’s been so long since your last swim, click over to How to Get Over the Fear of Swimming: 9-Step Guide.

It may seem tedious to go through the process of wading around in the shallows, but this small step will do wonders for your confidence. It virtually eliminates the possibility of drowning and offers you the chance to build up a familiarity with the water. The last thing you want to do is skip this step and freeze under the pressure in deep waters.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that wearing a personal flotation device is always a viable option if there’s still a lingering sense of doubt in your swimming ability. Ultimately, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Get a Third Party Perspective

Furthermore, another key step in easing yourself back into swimming is to reach out to your peers. You shouldn’t venture into the water alone, especially if you do not have complete confidence in your swimming capabilities. It’s reassuring to know that you have another person there to provide assistance if need be. You never know what kind of crises may come about as you attempt to rekindle your swimming skills of old.

The benefits of third party supervision are not only limited to safety. Having peers nearby can also benefit you in alternative ways.

For one, they can offer constructive criticism on how you can better handle yourself in the water. They will see flaws that you don’t. When you’re by yourself, it can be very difficult to identify exactly where you’re going wrong. Your peer(s) can make this process much easier by pointing you in the right direction.

One common mistake that swimmers run into after a long layoff is not keeping their body in the horizontal plane as they swim. Due to a lack of confidence, these swimmers have a difficult time kicking out their legs from underneath them. Since they’re oriented more vertically, it makes practically every swimming stroke less efficient. From an outside frame of reference, it’s clear where the root of the problem lies in this scenario. From the swimmer’s frame of reference, however, the answer is far less obvious.

Your own pride may try to convince you to try and figure everything out on your own. Although this is a possibility, it’s certainly not the best option on the table. In short, don’t let your pride get in the way of your swimming experience!

Don’t Rush the Process

Last—but certainly not least—it’s important to bear in mind that the process of picking up swimming again takes time. Your implicit memory may not have forgotten the complex movements associated with swimming, but this matters little if you’re overwhelmed with mental discomfort when immersed in water.

Start slow and gradually work your way back to your prior form. A major part of regaining your confidence as a swimmer is to devote time to re-acclimating yourself to the aquatic conditions. It’s necessary for you to push your boundaries, but you must move at your own pace. Otherwise, you may end up alienating yourself from ever revisiting the water as a swimmer.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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