Note that I actually learned how to flip (or tumble) turn a while ago, drafted this back then and only just got round to posting it.
Turn down for what?
I have been swimming for probably the best part of twenty years. That is regularly over a period of twenty years, not constantly; an hour usually is enough.
Because I didn't gain confidence in the water until much later than I should have done, I've never had anything much in the way of serious coaching. I've swum for fitness and, apart from swimming lessons for the absolute basics, have made pretty much any improvements to my swimming by myself.
Though swimming feels quite natural to me now, this lack of training and racing means I never had any real incentive to learn how to properly tumble turn. It always looked really daunting when I saw others doing them. But I more recently thought that I wanted to have a go at learning them, and eventually got there. My turns are far from perfect, but the fact that I have the co-ordination to flip myself over is impressive enough to me, to be honest.
What's particularly nice is that flip turns are a more fluid way of turning, than grabbing the side with your hands and pushing off. It means you can maintain more speed, and just feels smoother.
Bear in mind, I'm hardly a good swimmer. And I'm definitely not a swimming coach either. But, since I taught myself and can remember it reasonably well, I thought it was worth documenting how I learned. It took me a while to figure all this out myself. It's the learning experience of someone who taught themselves very recently as an adult, rather than coaches who have a lot more knowledge and experience than me, but may have less of a memory of how they first learned the skill.
There are lots of videos, such as this tutorial but, when I was learning, I found that videos tended to go over the mechanics of the turn itself, not so much how you go about learning.
If you watch that video, you'll see that for a front crawl flip turn, all that's really involved is something like a forward roll, albeit in the water. As you approach the wall, you flip yourself over forwards, push off the wall with your feet and swim off in the other direction. Notice that if you just roll over forwards, your body will flip from face down to face up. So you also have to rotate yourself back to face down as you push off from the wall. And ideally all this is in a smooth motion. Simple, eh?
Like many things, once you grasp it, it's easy. But it's difficult to pick up at first. You're coordinating your body in a way which you may not have before, along with thinking about keeping on swimming, breathing and without injuring yourself. Putting all that together is surprisingly difficult.
What do you have to worry about?
Hitting the wall
Fortunately, this hasn't happened to me yet, not even while learning, but misjudging your position may lead to unexpected bumps. And the worry of doing that is an impediment to learning, because you may be overcautious and hold back too much.
In fact, you can actually get quite close, probably about an arm's length without too much worry. The best way I found to build confidence is to try from too far out and then progressively get closer to decide the right distance to turn without colliding.
Often, pools have markers on the floor for swimmers to judge the distance. If yours doesn't then just find your own marker. Maybe that's by counting tiles from the side or just by remembering how far in front you need to be at the point where you should turn. You may not need these guides once when you're more comfortable with how many strokes you are from turning, or when your instincts improve.
There's a bit of fine tuning with the ideal distance: if you're too close, you may end up hitting some part of your body against the wall or at least take measures to awkwardly prevent yourself from colliding. While if you're too far, you'll either miss the wall completely, or have to stretch your legs out to reach the wall and get a weak push off as your legs can't spring you off the wall.
A counterintuitive thing that helped me was sometimes trying this with breaststroke, not frontcrawl.1 This means you're approaching more slowly, so less worried about hitting the wall. It's also easier to keep the wall in sight, instead of while you're rotating in frontcrawl. Related to this, I incorrectly assumed that you need to be going fast to keep your momentum moving through the turn. Even going slowly, you can still flip over without too much trouble.
Some of the video guides I watched on YouTube also seemed to suggest flipping yourself over in the water, not even being near the wall, just from standing.
This also stops any possibility of your forehead becoming closely acquainted with the swimming pool wall, but I actually found this quite difficult when I was learning to turn (though easier now I can actually turn). This is also useful since you can actually use the same motion to flip direction even without a wall which can be handy if you're in a busy lane and want to avoid overtaking a cluster of slower swimmers in front.
The most useful exercise for me was doing forward rolls. If you haven't done forward rolls in a while (and why would you?), doing a few of those on dry land as practice helped me get the idea of the required motion.
Having water rushing up your nose is not a pleasant feeling that's not dissimilar to spraying carbonated drinks up there. (It always reminds me of Irn-Bru; that drink seemed to be notorious for sending jets of eye-watering bubbles up my nose.)
At first, it's irritating and distracting, and unfortunately may well happen almost every time you attempt to do a flip turn. Breathing out through your nose slightly while flipping stops this, but knowing exactly when you start needing to breathe out takes some practice, especially when you're possibly slightly disorientated from flipping. At the same time, you don't want to breathe out unnecessarily and leave yourself gasping for breath.
Initially, you probably overcompensate and breathe out too much. All that's need is a gentle and brief air flow while you're turning, possibly far less than you imagine.
(When I first drafted this post, even after a good few months of turning like this, I was still occasionally getting caught out, and it takes a few seconds to have the awkward fizzy feeling dissipate. A considerable time later, this isn't the case now; it's relatively rare that I get the breathing wrong.)
Practice isn't anything unique to this, but it's probably the most important thing. You're learning several new physical skills and having to employ them all seamlessly to get the result you want.
I think I spent a few minutes of several swim sessions over several weeks to start getting a feel for turning. This was a little demoralising at times, especially as failing means you're often getting nowhere, metaphorically and literally (I'd often end up stuck at the side of the pool, bursting up for air, to get the water out of my nose.) What you have to remember is that getting things horribly wrong is a key part of learning physical skills. Eventually, you condition yourself to not do the Wrong Things, and you slowly improve.
Slowly, the motion that was needed to get myself round started to become apparent. After that, I spent a couple of sessions where I was focusing pretty much exclusively working on this only, swimming from end to end, but not particularly exercising hard and just concentrating on the turns themselves. Even then, I kept getting worried that I'd forget what I'd learned, so I ensured that I attempted to turn on just about every length I was swimming for a while after that.
It can be frustrating at first, but when it does click, then you'll be able to turn every time you want to, rather than making a mess of it. After that, you can spend a lot more time refining aspects of it, optimising where you start turning from, trying to push off to get the most distance from the wall, and timing your breathing so you can stay underwater without it being uncomfortable.
Despite me finding it tricky to learn, I'd say it's well worth the effort, even if you're swimming just for fitness. Tumble turns give you another way of mixing up your training, can help constant lengths flow together more seamlessly, and aid you maintaining your speed when swimming in shorter length pools. If you need any more convincing, just compare flip turning swimmers to those not when you're at the pool; you'll see it makes for a considerable drop in lap times once you get it right.
If you're racing breaststroke, then you don't actually flip turn, but touch the wall with both hands, and then push back off the wall with your feet, but using breaststroke is still a nice way to learn. ↩