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Swimming Advice

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 

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27-Mar-2017 /  written by Ian 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

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15-Feb-2017 /  written by Ian Cross
Why Don't I Just Stick My Neck Out?

Why Don't I Just Stick My Neck Out?

Can finding a balanced front crawl breathing position be more than just a drill?

It can be difficult to know what’s really going on when turning to breathe in front crawl. Because it all happens so fast,  we go wrong in subtle ways. A little bit of twisting the neck, tensing the jaw, sucking in air or gasping. A touch of disintegration of the head/ neck/ back as the mouth rushes the face out of the water, like a fish on a hook, before the body has chance to rotate.  

When I had lessons with Steven Shaw twenty years ago, I felt liberated by learning to kick on my side with my face out of the water, a new way to approach front crawl breathing. It changed the way I swam front crawl because it woke up my body’s willingness to rotate. With my head nice and still in the centre and my neck relaxed as I looked at the pool floor, I could swing from side to side, one gliding arm replacing the other.  The breathing stroke became one of freedom, for my face to follow my rolling body out of the water and rest there, as I fluttered my feet and sent my arm forwards.

Before Alexander Technique lessons, I simply turned my head to breathe, bilaterally,  every third stroke, and everything seemed fine. But I was in my twenties then and got away with things. Aged 48,  I'm aware that my head doesn't like me turning it much at all.

So I’m wondering these days whether, for some people, people whose heads don't like being turned relative to their necks,  kicking on the side with the face out of the water can be more than a drill, which it was originally intended it to be. A drill to engender a sense of balance and take the anxiety out of turning to breathe. A chance to practise a dynamic resting position, where your body can breathe naturally,  from your back.  If we can find a balanced resting place which allows us to keep our neck free, so long as we don't over-rotate and lose our ability to return smoothly to our face down swim, there's nothing to stop us from doing this all the time.

I often ask myself what compels me to get straight in the water and breathe bilaterally, snatching a quick breath every three strokes, reproducing that old ‘one, two three and breathe’ rhythm I established when young.

Is it that resting in this balanced breathing position slows me down and I want to fit in with the swimmers in the fast lane? Do I fancy myself as the finished article, rather than someone who needs to work on himself? Am I happy to risk a bit of a tight neck, or a bit of gasping, so long as I'm swimming ‘proper front crawl’?

I do know after all these years that, if I tell myself to slow down and take my time in the breathing position; to work on finding balance in a place which allows me to keep my neck free, my head supported by the water, my back open and my in-breath natural and unforced, I have a good chance of success. So why don’t I always do it?

Also see: 360 Front Crawl / Knowing Your A Side and B Side / Look on the Bright Side / Front Crawl's Simple So What's The Catch? /  Cross Pattern Crawl / Fish Fingers / Fish Out Of Water / Feet Notes / Keeping It Simple / Watching Where You're Going With Your Crawl? /  Meet Me at the Symmetry Gates


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24-Nov-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Stopping the Fight for Survival

Stopping the Fight for Survival

‘Playing dead’, ‘Sinking’ and ‘Falling’ - why these sometimes unpopular terms are useful for non- swimmers

To experience your own buoyancy,  you haven't got to do anything. In fact, you've got to do nothing.  Which isn't something you can do!

The support of the water is deeper than most people imagine it to be. So non-swimmers need to be coaxed into allowing themselves to go deeper,  to ‘sink to find my own float rate’ as somebody put it in a lesson today.

But going deeper isn't a doing thing,  it's an allowing thing. Learners need to commit to finding the support of water,  to give the weight of their head and chest to the water,  to let themselves sink or fall into the support of the water,  which, while it may only be a hair's breadth away from where they think it is, is the unknown.

What stops people experiencing the support of the water,  aka floating,  is ‘doing’. And what causes the idea that we have to do something is fear. In other words,  the doing we feel we need to do is driven by our survival reflexes. Tightening the neck,  holding the breath, reaching and grasping with the hands, kicking the legs. All these things need to stop.

Given that non-swimmers believe they have to do something to stop themselves from drowning, it isn’t surprising that some people don't like the idea of sinking,  falling or playing dead. These are words it might seem sensible to avoid.  But the reason people don't like these words is the very reason they're needed. We need to challenge our own fear reflexes, with the power of our ability to make a decision.

Non- swimmers need to stop fighting for survival, give it all up,  let it all go.  But this isn't something that doing can lead to. It’s more of a mental thing,  a decision to trust the water. It's the doing of life that non-swimmers need to stop.

So if you're learning to swim, try playing dead. When you give it all up and let go you’ll discover a new sense of being supported by water.

Also see: 
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02-Nov-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Diving Into Breaststroke

Diving Into Breaststroke

Thinking of dolphins and Adam Peaty
If you'd like to improve your breaststroke,  it may help to think of it as a series of glides or, if you're feeling more dynamic, a series of dives.Olympic swimmers like Adam Peaty come up a long way out of the water and dive into each stroke. More accurately,  they dive before each stroke. If you watch Adam's 100 metre gold medal race in Rio, he looks like he's doing this better than the other racers.

Most recreational breaststroke swimmers need to be more dolphin-like and stop pulling their arms back too soon, and too far. There has to be some kind of glide, with the momentum created by your legs. Your head should be underwater face down with arms extended when you kick. If you let your arms dominate the stroke, if you keep pulling them back without properly sending them forwards, you'll encounter the following problems: 

1. You’ll strain your neck and back when your face comes out to breathe, because you won't be sculling with your hands to support the breathing position.  

2. Your arms will cancel out the work of your legs, stopping the legs’ chances of creating momentum. 

3. You’ll do too many strokes for the distance you're covering.

To observe the human problem of trying to move forward by pulling the hands back but not getting anywhere,  watch a learner’s first attempts to dive down to the bottom of the pool.

A key feature of a basic dive is that the arms need to be out in front, pointing where you want to go. If the direction and momentum of a learner swimmer’s dive isn’t strong enough to get them to the bottom of the pool, hands first, they’re likely to start pulling their hands back to try and help them get there. But it doesn’t work. The dive has to be made to count from the off; to be one dolphin like movement.  The fingers point to the ground and the crown of the head has to go, with some force created by a push with the feet, in the same direction.

It’s the same in breaststroke. With your arms forwards, hands together, move the head from a face down position to look at your hands. As the eyes break the surface, scull, to support the breathing position, then dive in again like a dolphin, or, if that’s too much, gently glide, face down with your arms extended out in front. But there must be a glide or a dive. The kick should be connected to the forward direction of your head and arms. 

When you're learning breaststroke remember to rest in the glide/dive and let your legs do the work. But, when aiming to be more dolphin like,  keep it soft and gentle.  Direction rather than force is what makes it work. 

Also see: Are You A Head Up Breaststroker? / Amanda Rethinks Her Swimming / A Timeless Swim / Consciousness...I'm Afraid / Holiday Breaststroke / Easy Adaptation / 

Enjoying the Journey with Breaststroke and Butterfly

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25-Sep-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Landing Before Standing

Landing Before Standing

Getting your feet back on the ground

If you know how to regain your feet properly in shallow water,  you don't have to get anywhere. So it's a crucial skill when learning to swim. To do it well requires counterintuitive thought. Without guidance and practice, people tend to make a mess of it.

I was watching an elite swimmer demonstrating something to do with front crawl arms on YouTube.  Everything was admirable till he stopped.  Having done his job of executing a few nice strokes, he pulled his head suddenly out of the water (tightening his neck and shortening his back) and gasped,  all before his feet touched the ground. So in the case of that advanced swimmer,  an important basic skill appears to have been missed when he learnt to swim.

Without confidence in the skill of regaining the feet, adult learners need to get to a wall or a person,  a point of safety.  If they don't manage this,  it can get messy, if not dangerous.  Until they’ve mastered ‘landing’, which means keeping the head in the water until the feet touch the floor, chaos can ensue from the moment they feel a need to stop. The first mistake is to pull the head out of the water with legs still extended behind. This causes a loss of balance, disorientation, panic and sometimes an inability to find the floor with the feet, which further deepens the sense of panic.

For that reason,  swimming teachers interested in the Alexander Technique consider regaining the feet the most essential skill for people learning to swim.  But many teachers have never even thought of it as a skill in its own right.  This may be because their training focused on getting people moving from A to B over being relaxed and balanced in water.

Whatever swimming related movement we do, however well or badly,  we haven't finished until we've landed. And if we've landed well, ended well, we've done ok. While we might feel that getting our head out so we can breathe is the priority,  we have to remember to get our feet on the floor first; to find balance with our feet on the ground so we can stand in a safe,  balanced and coordinated way.  If you have any anxiety about being in water,  the way you feel when you stop is very important. 

So this is what you need to do: From a prone floating position -  with your head resting in the water, neck relaxed, looking at the floor - when forward momentum (if applicable) slows, watch your knees and feet as you let them drop and come forward.  Let your legs come past where you think you want to land - bringing them a bit further forward will help your bottom drop down towards the floor, and so rotate you into a more upright position.  Think of rolling into your back or curling into a ball. Watch your feet land on the floor, let your weight settle down into your bottom and legs, before standing up,  which is a separate event. If it’s not happening easily, keep reminding yourself to relax your neck and let your head drop to the floor.

In other words, wait until you’re balanced with your feet on the floor and your head continuing to  rest face down in the water. Pause.  Then stand up, if you want to,  only after balance is achieved with the feet on the ground.

Landing before standing reinforces understanding, of the importance of keeping your neck free, getting the order of things right and refusing to panic. This simple act of coordination needs to be mastered before moving on. If you're learning to swim, try not to run before you can walk.  Work on getting your feet firmly on the ground. If you're a swimmer and you've never thought about what you do before standing,  have a look.

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08-Aug-2016 /  written by Ian Cross