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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
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. 


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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”!
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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
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. 

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15-Dec-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