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Swimming Technique

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
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? / 


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


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


25-Sep-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Positions and Decisions

Positions and Decisions

If there’s a right head position for learning to swim, what’s the best approach?

Learning to swim properly is all in the head. 

It's about making friends with the water,  trusting it to support us, or trusting ourselves to let it. Embracing the support of water instead of seeing it as an obstacle to overcome is a different way of thinking. 

From a physical point of view also, the head’s the thing to watch.  If you're helping someone learn to swim, getting them to float and glide,  you need to pay particular attention to their head and neck.  

So is there a right head position?  Lots of swimming teachers have answered this question in definite, specific terms,  often talking about foreheads and waterlines.

There are two problems with telling a pupil what their head position should be.  

The first is that it’s difficult to know where our own head is.  It’s always likely to be less deep in the water than we think.  If a person tries to put their head into a right position, following instructions with only feeling as a guide, they're going to be in the dark. Telling someone about waterlines on foreheads is unhelpful for this reason and will just lead to more tension.

Secondly,  head placement is an emotional thing.  The wrong head position comes about because of bracing, from fear,  mistrust of water,  a feeling that we have to do something to make ourselves float.  This is what needs to change.

When teaching someone to float and glide, we need to focus on their head because, at first, their neck will almost certainly be tight as a result of bracing.  They'll be holding on to the head, out of fear or unfamiliarity,  and looking forward.  They're unlikely to have any feeling of this but it will be impeding their balance, breathing and coordination, problems they will be aware of.

But a person's head can't just be taken and put into the right position, because changes have to come from their own brain. The teacher has to coax the pupil into a decision to give their head to the water.

The right position is just an absence of tension,  a resting of the head into the support of the water.  To achieve it, a learner may at first feel like they're being asked to decide to jump off a cliff,  or out of a plane. So they can't be pushed or forced.

The support of the water is the unknown for a person learning to swim. They need to be open to the possibility of sinking,  falling (even though this can't happen) in order to experience the buoyancy of their head. So there’s more to it than learning a right position.

Learning to swim is never just a physical thing.  It involves emotions, feelings and decisions.  And it's changing how we think about the water that makes it enjoyable.

Also see:  Landing Before Standing / Floating Foundations / Floating is a Feeling / Control Freak? Can't Swim? /  Sing When You're Winning / On Your Back /  Rotation Rotation Rotation  / Sink or Swim? /  To The Wall / Attention, Please / Stopping the Fight for Survival /All You Need Is Love


06-May-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Easy Adaptation

Easy Adaptation

A Happy Sea Swimmer Improves Her Strokes

‘I swam before I could walk’,  Rowena told me before her first of 6 lessons this week. She learned to swim with a physiotherapist in a hydrotherapy pool, as a poorly infant.  But she'd never had any formal lessons.

She loves water and swims in the Cornish sea for 8 months of the year, often for a few kilometres.  She wanted to make her strokes more efficient.

We found her easy to work with because she was relaxed, open to change and already had the most important but often elusive quality when she arrived - a feel for the water.  But despite being happy in the water and able to swim for miles at a time, she was tightening her neck and back in front crawl and breaststroke, and this was impeding her flow.

People who are happy in water, who have a feel for water, find it much easier to learn new movement patterns than nervous swimmers. But even for happy swimmers, reorganising their strokes can feel like hard work.  On day 2 she said,  ‘I feel like I can't swim now.’  While from my point of view she seemed to sail through the process,  thinking through changes to what she'd always done automatically was mentally challenging.

During this period of adaptation,  video feedback is always useful.  ‘It feels weird but I can see how much better it looks.’

But only when she found ‘order’ in her strokes, as she put it,  could she see clearly where there had been a lack of order before.

In breaststroke her arms had been dominating her legs. There had been a conflict between her top and bottom halves.  With a free neck, she discovered a kick which gave momentum for a glide and a movement with her arms which supported her breathing position instead of interfering with it.

In front crawl she found balance in rotation with her forward arm extended, where previously she'd swum squarely in the water and pulled her arms back straight away.

She's now able to relax her neck and let her head be supported by the water,  pointing forward, when she rotates to breathe.  Previously she'd been lifting her head,  holding her breath as her face broke the surface then gasping a bit.

When she gave herself time to let the in-breath take care of itself, to her surprise, she started to inhale through her nose.

Rowena’s only agenda this week was to find out more, and to get more out of an experience she already enjoys - swimming leisurely over distance in open water.  She's transformed her swimming already and has the tools for continued exploration.

Helping Rowena improve her strokes was like showing a dancer a new dance, I imagine.

Thanks to you both for the massively helpful coaching. It’ll be fab to put it into practice in a big pool .” The pool she refers to is the sea pool in Bude.


02-May-2016 /  written by Ian Cross