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Swimming Technique

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
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”!
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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

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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
Helping Hands

Helping Hands

The importance of hands on guidance in teaching people to swim

Touch reaches parts of the brain that words and images can't.  Hands-on guidance may be as important for improvers as it is for non swimmers, who can't do without it. Learners of strokes don't always want too much - “... But you're pulling me along”/ “Can I have a go on my own now?” -  so we tend not to do enough of it.

We’re trained to trust our intellect. We feel we should be able to communicate to another person,  with words and demonstrations,  how to carry out some simple physical act. And we’d like to be able to produce a new coordination pattern that someone explains or demonstrates to us.  But something can get lost in translation.

Almost all breaststroke learners find it difficult to rest their arms and glide as their legs kick, then use their hands,  still out in front, to support the breathing position by sculling, instead of pulling them back against the water before their face comes out.

Pulling the arms back (which is directly connected to tightening the neck)  is so deeply instinctive that people don't know they're doing it. If we don't know we’re doing something, we're going to keep on doing it, even though we know something isn't working. The more times the unhelpful thing with the arms has put paid to the essential thing, which is the the dive or glide, the harder people try, next time, and the cycle of frustration continues. Trying, as Alexander Technique teacher Patrick Macdonald said,  reinforces what is already there… If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try the same thing again!...So people get stuck, especially when learning breaststroke.

This can be avoided with hands on guidance. The hands of a teacher can

- impart a sense of calmness and rest,  preventing the learner’s rushed,  panicky movements.

-  give a sense of direction,  while keeping the learner moving forward through the water.  

-  set up the experience for the learner of the successful coordination and timing of a movement.  

Gently guiding a learner's hands forwards, it’s quite easy to convey a message that a breaststroke kick should happen ‘now', at the setup of the glide, for example.

Often the learner will produce and experience a decent stroke before they've properly understood what’s going on.  At this point,  they might say,  ‘But you're pulling me along’ or ‘Can I have a go on my own?’  This is where we have to be careful because it's where the good work may get lost and forgotten. Lots of guided repetition of the new pattern is needed in order to counter and overcome the deeply ingrained unhelpful patterns. The teacher needs to be resolute about this.

Hands-on guidance cuts through our tendency to overthink things and get in our own way. It gives us a new experience which our brain can process later.

It works,  better than words and demonstrations. As a learner you don't always want too much of it because you want to have a go and work it out for yourself. But it seems the best way of guaranteeing more positive than negative experiences at the learning stage.

Also see: Attention, Please / 3 Strokes And You're Out Knowing Your S**t / Diving Into Breaststroke / Fish Fingers / All You Need Is Love

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02-Oct-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