First, congratulations on learnings to swim. I think you'll find it to be
a very worthwhile complement to running, as your endurance in both should
imrove. I'll try to address the problems you mention:
1. Other strokes are good to learn, to put some diversity into swimming,
as well as utilize other muscle groups than those that freestyle uses.
In lieu of having an actual swimming instructor critique/improve on
your form, I would suggest buying a videotape of swimming techniques
(should be available in large sporting goods stores). This could help
you to grasp the fundamentals. After that, I would practice one-half
of the stroke at a time (what psychologists and trainers refer to as
"part-task training"). See my reply to #4.
2. This is a little more difficult a problem. While it is true that the
breathing problem will probably improve with time as your technique
improves, you may want to concentrate on your breathing as you swim,
making sure that you take breaths as smoothly and regularly as
possible. It sounds like you may be taking breaths in a short, choppy
fashion, and in so doing swallowing air.
3. For flip turns, I was taught to practice doing somersaults first,
forgetting about the kick-off temporarily. When you are comfortable
doing a somersault underwater and can effectively control your
rotation, then face the swimming pool wall, staying about 2-3 feet
away. Then, do a somersault. You'll probably end up up-side-down;
that's okay. Push off the wall while up-side-down, then twist your body
as you glide, so that you end up right-side-up and moving forward.
Finally, resume your stroke. Don't despair...it takes a bit of
practice, as does all swimming. One bit of advice: during the
somersault, do it in a "tuck" position (keeping the knees bent).
Though some good competetive swimmers do flips in a pike position, that
can be dangerous (I personally saw a kid crush both heels that way at a
high school swim meet). Besides, the current thinking is that the tuck
position is faster anyway.
4. Kick-boards and pull-bouys (the between-your-thighs thing :^) ) are
extremely helpful for practicing selected parts of a stroke. If you
find yourself "sinking or moving slow" with them, that may be telling
you that you need more practice. Once you have mastered both
kick-boards and pull-bouys, then you can swim without them,
concentrating on merging the upper and lower body techniques, resulting
in a more powerful and coordinated stroke. This is also very helpful
for learning new strokes. For example, when learning ***stroke, you
can use the kickboard to learn the fundamentals of the frog kick. When
you have that mastered, then you can combine your frog kick with the
pulling movement. Because your kick is already in fairly good shape at
that point, you can concentrate on timing and pulling technique. One
last point: It's been my experience that pull-bouys are difficult for
people to use effectively when swimming butterfly and ***stroke.
However, they are good for freestyle and backstroke. However,
kickboards are helpful for virtually all strokes (except perhaps
sidestroke, but then that's not really a recognized competitive
5. I don't consider it bad to swim on an "empty or starving stomach",
although I wouldn't push it too much. I think there's more danger in
swimming too soon after a meal (the meal might end up in the drink,
which is pretty gross). When I competed in high school, I generally
swam from 6-8:30 a.m., and from 4-5:30 p.m. Both periods (especially
the early morning) my stomach was pretty starved. My advice is to try
it once or twice. If you have problems, eat something small an hour
before you swim.
Hope this helps!