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The Swimming Blog

Which End of the Pool Were You in at School?

Which End of the Pool Were You in at School?

People who come to us often recollect their school swimming lessons.

In the school swimming lessons people tell us about there were two areas of the pool: the deep end for kids who could swim and the shallow end for non-swimmers.  

Adults learning to swim with us often recall being left to their own devices in the shallow end as kids, not knowing what they were supposed to be doing and feeling more each week like non-swimmers, like this must be a genetically inherited condition. In their peripheral vision, at the other end of the pool, were the swimmers, the ones having all the fun.

But the lack of a meaningful plan which caused suffering for the nervous kids was liable to be a problem for the swimmers too. Some of those envied deep-enders, including the more confident, sporty ones, were just swimming on instinct. They would willingly jump into the deep water if that was required and, with muscular effort and adrenaline, race from one side of the pool to the other.  As adults they tell us they know they were able to swim as kids but now feel a lack of confidence, especially about the breathing.

The really good swimmers in the deep end, the effortless gliders, had gained their skills somewhere else. But at those school lessons which people tend to look back on with disappointment, everyone was in the same boat.

All the adults that come to us needed but tended not to receive the same basic skills as children: to relax and let the air out; to float by letting the water support them instead of trying to “do” something to make themselves float; to rotate from one plane to another without losing balance.

Without the right kind of guidance, kids will either shy away from water, which is easy for anyone to recognise, or be overexcited in their response to it, which the untrained observer is likely to perceive as fun. 

All learners, children and adults, need to be encouraged and guided to make friends with the water instead of reacting to it with fear.

Also see:  Play Comes First But What Next?  /  Kick Kick Kick /  Need for Speed /  Rotation Rotation Rotation  / In At The Deep End, Sink or SwimRescued: Learner Lost with Woggle at Leisure Centre  / Don't Pass It Up, Pass It On 


20-May-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Head Away from Knees Away from Worries on the Beach

Head Away from Knees Away from Worries on the Beach

Enjoying glimpses of freedom more than the long slog

Bank Holiday Monday, I went for a long walk with my friend and we got a bit lost when we decided to explore and ran out of footpath signs. Trampling through boggy fields, avoiding cows, untying and tying knots holding gates, walking on a road with Gordon pulling on his lead and impeding my stride. Sweaty and unwashed, wet feet, lacking sleep, away from the forest path I know so well. Sagging into my lower back. Two hours instead of one. That kind of walk doesn’t seem to do me much good. It’s energy sapping. There’s no freedom in it.  I like to move easily, my arms free to swing as I stride along a clear path, uphill with my heart pumping.  I like my dogs to run free up the forest banks, where there’s nothing for them to chase.  

But I made it to the pool in good time to meet a new pupil who told me that previous attempts at learning to swim weren’t good because teachers tried to get her swimming rather than feeling happy in water. This was music to my ears. She’s already letting her head go to find the support of the water, breathing, doing well. 

In the evening I went for a quick stroll on the beach with Cheryl and our daughters.  Some friends in their wetsuits and caps were setting off for the first Monday night swim of the year, from Poppit Sands to Cemaes Head. I wondered if I should be with them but it looked cold and I get a rash if I wear a wetsuit. Many jelly fish lay dead on the sand. As I walked a few yards behind the others I was worrying about all this. 

Then I gave a direction to myself as I walked, Head Away From Knees. A clear direction, a wish which hit the target with a whoosh.  In a heartbeat, everything opened up. As my body started to breathe and my head led me towards the clouds on the horizon, for a few moments I was free, really walking, part of my environment. Then I took a photo and decided to write a blog, about how the Alexander Technique is, for me. Mostly, that’s what it’s like: moments of freedom. But moments which do make it all worthwhile.  

This was posted yesterday on tumblr, for Ian's new Alexander Technique website  One thing to add here is that it's true for me when swimming, as with walking, that glimpses of freedom coming out of a clear thought are probably more likely to happen when bobbing around not going anywhere than when swimming some distance to a destination. 

Also see:  A Timeless Swim / It's all Right Once You're In / Transform Your Day In 10 Seconds / Tame Swimming /What are you Training for?


02-May-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Meet Me at the Symmetry Gates

Meet Me at the Symmetry Gates

Aiming for balance in the water

The thing I want maybe most from a swim is symmetry. I like to emerge from the pool into the fresh air with a feeling of balance.

All human beings tend to be asymmetrical, to twist to one side, though most of us don’t feel this when we’re moving. Any form of exercise tends to exaggerate our tendency to twist, even walking. So what about in water? What happens there?

If you have symmetrical aspirations, like I do, it’s useful to remember that there are symmetrical strokes and asymmetrical strokes.  Breaststroke and butterfly are symmetrical, the two sides of the body do the same thing at the same time.  Front crawl and backstroke are asymmetrical and, like when we walk, our left and right sides balance each other through opposition.

A free neck makes for a beautifully balanced breaststroke, if you organise the stroke in the right way. While butterfly may be difficult to learn, its main advantage over crawl if you want a more dynamic, muscular and cardiovascular alternative to breaststroke, is symmetry.

Asymmetry in breaststroke usually means a screw kick, one leg doing something different to the other, which it should be mirroring. The more tension in the neck and shoulders, the more wonkiness there’ll be in the legs. The cause of a screw kick is a twist in the pelvis, which is fairly easily remedied by resting the head in the water face down for the kick and glide.  Free your neck to glide and let the head lead when you come up to inhale.

Backstroke and front crawl are more of a challenge for particularly asymmetrical people. For us, rotation one way is always going to be more free and easy than the other. This is why most of us have a favourite breathing side. Very good front crawl swimmers are admirable for their symmetry. A lovely example is Shinji from Total Immersion. I’ve spent far too much time on YouTube watching his effortless gliding. Sometimes I can even hear the accompanying music as I fancy myself cutting through the water like him.  But deep down, even the very elite have an A side and a B side, because they’re human.

Steven Shaw has come up with a useful way of promoting balance in front crawl for ordinary people who want to swim better, not faster. He calls it centering. Before going on a journey to the left or right, the swimmer briefly returns to a neutral, central place. I find this very helpful.

It seems fair to say that, for most people, symmetrical strokes promote symmetry better than asymmetrical strokes. That’s certainly true for me. So long as I’m fully aware of that, I can continue to work on all the strokes. But breaststroke is my definite favourite at the moment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Also see:  Diving Into Breaststroke / Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly Knowing Your A Side and B SideWatching Where You're Going With Your Crawl? / 360 Front Crawl / Why Don't I Just Stick My Neck Out? / Cross Pattern Crawl 


27-Mar-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, by Alexandra Heminsley

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, by Alexandra Heminsley

Review by Anita Campbell

I somehow knew I would like Alexandra Heminsley’s new autobiographical work about wild swimming, ‘Leap In’.  The extent of this feeling grew over the three sittings it took to read it, with repetitions in my head of ‘I know what you mean, ’ ‘I know what you mean’, which may have eventually got on her nerves had she actually been with me. However, as I am also an open water swimmer who feels fear when my face goes under into the deep unknown, her process of unfolding and examining that fear was a joy to behold.  A cliché I know but I felt like I was there every step of the way. 

I knew about the importance of breath work and trusting the water from my friends and swimming teachers Ian and Cheryl Cross (Swimming Without Stress).  This book reinforced the life affirming importance of breath! Alexandra exposes her anguish and the growing realisation that she can overcome her fear and details the minutiae of practical concerns along the way, the comical wetsuit scene to name but one.  Highlighted too is the fact that life doesn’t just stop because one is working on one’s fears and she writes with poignancy about going through IVF (failing to stop myself saying I know what she means again!’).

Alexandra describes learning a new skill as an adult as like noticing and opening a door to find an extra room that you never knew you had. All I can say is that after reading ‘Leap In’  I was engaged in an enjoyable internet trail searching for wild swimming courses, Lake District swimming and new goggles!  Even if opening the door to open water swimming is not your thing, this journey inspires us to face the fears that stop us doing what we know we would love.  It just kick started me into what I already knew, life is short, get out there girl! 

Anita Campbell
Amateur runner and swimmer and constant journeyer to face my fears.

Member of the Almost Book Group which now has at least one other member keen to start wild swimming,  after reading Leap In. 


27-Feb-2017 /  written by Anita
Taking A Break!

Taking A Break!

Ian's Intervals help Cheryl's countdown to open water adventure
The Cold Water Swimming Championships took place at Tooting Bec Lido a few weeks ago and I (Cheryl) was lucky enough to win a prize (I didn’t go near the water – it was a raffle prize!) - a Strel swimming holiday in the Montenegro fjords. 
It was meant to be! I was chatting with a friend, saying I would never challenge myself to do a swim trip like that. “But if I won it, I’d have to do it and that would be good.”

The Strel website suggests you should be able to swim about 2.2 km per hour (the course being a couple of swims a day of around this distance). And there’s my first obstacle – how do I know how fast I swim? I’m going to have to find out. 

I have to confess a slight aversion to public pools. Clocking up lengths, counting, timing. It’s not what swimming’s about for me - I’ve been spoilt by our little haven of a pool at Croft Farm where we teach. But I can do this, of course I can. Just go to the pool, swim for an hour, count the number of lengths and then I’ll know – if I’m close to 2.2km per hour.

Trouble is, it seems I’m not your average multi-tasking female and can only do one thing at a time. The pool was only open for an hour slot – perfect – I wouldn’t need to check the time at all, I could just count. I’d got to 11 when I realised I was counting strokes and still on the first length! By length 5, I wasn’t absolutely sure it wasn’t length 7. By somewhere around 24 I’d lost count too many times to bother continuing counting. “I’ll just see how easy it is to keep going for an hour”. It was easy but I left the pool with no idea of distance or speed. 

I tried once more, with the same outcome, before admitting to myself that I’d need Ian’s help with this. When he was serious about training, 25 years ago (!), I spent time in the pool with him and his swimming friends. I’d do my own thing but was aware of them checking the Speedo clock, all setting off together for so many lengths, all stopping and looking at the clock waiting to go again, even checking their pulses to see if they were using appropriate effort. To me it seemed like a lot of faff but I understood it was because they were ’training'.

Ian took care of the clock and the sums, all I had to do was follow. A comfortable breaststroke. We completed so many sets of so many metres with so long a pause between. Ian offered to show me how to write that down, which I didn’t think necessary. 

The conclusion – “You’ll be fine”!

23-Feb-2017 /  written by Cheryl Cross
Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly

Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly

Looking ahead with no left and right turns

Without black lines on the pool floor to guide me, I swim front crawl in zig zags. If I lift my head to get a view in open water, my neck aches and if any tightness creeps into my neck when I turn to breathe, I get a headache.  Front crawl is so popular these days. Everybody’s doing it. Breaststroke is much less fashionable and butterfly is thought to be too elaborate, reserved for elite swimmers.

I was at the Hotel Costa Calero in Lanzarote last week with two friends from the Happy Swimming Boys’ Club, Ironman triathlete Simon and fit 53 year old Paul. They swam miles of front crawl in the cold saltwater pool, glowing like sunkissed kings with their evening cocktails (all inclusive).  I spent a lot of time in the heated leisure pool, exploring the possibility of turning to breathe without any stress in front crawl. For a sensitive creature like me, it’s a challenge, especially as I get older.  

‘Have you been enjoying the journey?’ my old mentor Steven Shaw asked me in a message exchange from the poolside.

‘Not always, because I’m prone to get a headache when I swim front crawl. I enjoy the journey better with breaststroke,’ I replied.

‘How about the fly? I enjoy the journey most when I am flying.’

And back into the water I went, armed with Steven’s top tip, ‘Lead with the head of course! And release the hips. Don’t worry about the arms.’

This was when everything changed. Rhythmically, meditatively, without stress, without worries, I alternated lengths of breaststroke with butterfly, looking where I was going, enjoying the view, easily coordinating top and bottom halves of the body. Diving, gliding, breathing, flowing. Undulating instead of turning.

Swimming for me must be enjoyed not endured. And I do like to see where I’m going and move forwards in a straight line. So it seems, for me, that both breaststroke and butterfly are more conducive to swimming without stress than front crawl.  I feel like a free - necked dolphin. And freeing my neck in the water is the best reason for getting in.

Also see: Why Don't I Just Stick My Neck Out? / Diving Into Breaststroke / Are You a Head Up Breaststroker? / A Timeless Swim / I Believe I Can Fly


15-Feb-2017 /  written by Ian Cross