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Going Away and Getting Somewhere

Going Away and Getting Somewhere

Cheryl's home from her Strel Swimming Adventure in Montenegro.

Thank you Strel Swimming Adventures for the lovely trip in Montenegro last week.

This was the prize I won in the raffle at the 2017 Cold Water Swimming Championships.

On Monday, before breakfast, we had our first swim from the beach outside the hotel in Tivat. This was so our swimming guides, Borut and Laura, could have a look at our swimming speeds. Our small group was very easily split into two groups. The fast group (two Dutch ladies and a man from South Africa) were all in training for various competitive events later in the summer. The slower group was made up of another keen Dutch swimmer, though not interested in events, a German 'head up' breaststroker and myself.

After breakfast we were off on Gudo's boat into the beautiful bays of Risan and Kotor.  

Not having ever swum any kind of distance in open water I was surprised to find how much easier it was than I expected. Easier than in the pool. The first swim of just over 2k was over in what seemed like 20 minutes (it was more like an hour).

The other unknown was how tired I would be swimming 2-3k twice a day. The answer was not tired at all thanks to the very relaxing time spent on the boat between swims. We visited the lovely villages around the bays, and Laura's lunches on the boat were just right.

We also got to see some underwater footage filmed and critiqued by Borut (mostly from a 'how to go faster' angle most helpful for the competitive swimmers) and were given useful tips.

The whole trip was lovely and personally I was very pleased with my swimming performance. I knew my strokes were comfortable but thought I'd find keeping going more mentally challenging. Generally I spend my time in the water just enjoying its support, feeling my movements become freer and simply playing around rather than actually getting somewhere.  I'm pleased to say the 'getting somewhere' was also enjoyable. I now feel more confident about swimming in open water.

 I'm looking forward to spending much more time in the sea at home in Pembrokeshire this summer. I know the beautiful weather and sea temperature on the trip contributed a lot to the pleasure but I do have my Aqua Skin to help.


Also see: Old Man River / A Timeless Swim / It's All Right Once You're In / What Are You Training For? / Camp Training / Clock Sucker / Tame Swimming / Mediocrity and Excellence


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04-Jul-2017 /  written by Cheryl Cross
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 

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20-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 

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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
All You Need Is Love

All You Need Is Love

Putting love of the water into practice

Swimmers often talk about their love of water. But one way or another we fight the thing we love.

With family members, for example,  if I work a bit harder at using the energy of love, I might be less selfish, more tolerant,  a better listener.  

I love the water for its consistent support. When I let it take me, it always helps me to release and expand. I just need to remember that this is what I want.

As in the home, we can use the energy of love in the water, as a way to direct ourselves.

When you're learning to swim,  you have to learn to trust the water to support you.  This is both an emotional and a physical thing but too often we emphasise the physical (What do I have to do?). If you go into the water with an attitude of love, give yourself to it, soften into its support, trust it, you'll make friends with it and have a friend for life.

An old Alexander Technique teacher told a trainee, ‘If you can't put hands on pupils with direction, do it with love.’ It's a useful message because it keeps things simple and prevents anxiety.

If you love water,  see if you can put your love to practical use, next time you go for a swim. Make sure you're not fighting the water, or yourself. Let it support you so you can breathe. Give yourself to the water and swim with love!

This kind of work might be useful preparation for increased contact with friends and relatives at Christmas.  But when human relationships are challenging,  the water may provide a refuge. Our relationship with the water is one we can always get right.

Also see:  Attention, Please / Positions and Decisions / Foundations / He Ain't Heavy / When Movements Muddy The Water To the Wall / Control Freak? Can't Swim / Floating is a Feeling Rescued: Learner Lost with Woggle at Leisure Centre / Learn Not to Swim / Landing Before Standing / Stopping the Fight for Survival

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15-Dec-2016 /  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