The effects of Covid 19 have been extensive and profound this year and, whilst far from being the most important aspect, the world of swimming has not been immune. Whether swimming for a story of glory or simply leisure and pleasure, swimmers have been constantly frustrated by the cancellations of events and the restrictions necessarily imposed on the opening of public pools.
Photo by Marcis Berzins on Unsplash
It was heartening therefore, amongst all the doom and gloom to see the BBC heartening report on Louise Buxton, a healthy and active triathlete who was struck down by the virus earlier this year. Fortunately she survived but not without some long term effects on her well-being. Damage to her respiratory system meant that day-to-day life has been dramatically changed. The simple task of walking has become a struggle and she suffers from constant pain in her chest.
However, whilst running and cycling are no longer possible, she has discovered that open water swimming is not only still an option but actually one which relieves her symptoms for a brief period. The reasons for this are not entirely clear; it may be that the support the water provides relieves some of the pressure on her chest or perhaps that, because it is such a vital function, the increased focus Louise requires to breathe in water also helps. It could be some other reason or perhaps a combination of several.
Whatever the cause we are delighted that Louise has been able to rediscover an area where she can enjoy physical activity again and we wish her well in making a full recovery.
Imagine that you have been given a new piece of electronic equipment for your birthday; say, a new phone or a games controller. How do you go about learning how it works ? Do you pore over the instruction manual ? Do you get someone to show you and take you through each function in a logical manner ? Or do you just have a play about with it and kind of pick it up as you go along ?
There are many valid approaches that will work for you to a greater or lesser extent but you’ll probably find that there’s one method which is your default. For myself, I’m definitely a twiddler and fiddler of knobs and buttons although in fact it would be far quicker for me to find someone who knows what they are doing to demonstrate each function! (Manuals don’t work for me at all and tend to get flung across the room fairly quickly in my house. Normally, shortly after I’ve realised that an instruction I’ve been puzzling over such as “insert mains lead to input housing and connect to a suitable power source – see fig. A” actually means “plug it in and turn it on”).
But maybe that my way of going about things is not how you go about things and that, of course, is perfectly fine. It doesn’t mean that either of us is right or wrong. Our styles are different and, to use a completely unscientific term, our brains are simply wired in different ways for learning.
The surprising thing is, as per my own experience, the way you initially choose to learn something may not be the optimum way for you to learn it. Therefore, knowing what works for you and what doesn’t is invaluable in saving you much time and money.
I had tried many half-hearted attempts at teaching myself to swim before eventually admitting defeat and turning to a coach in my late forties. My preferred approach of trying to work things out for myself was always going to be a disaster and whilst books, manuals and other articles definitely have their place in teaching swimming nothing beats having a coach alongside you when you are learning or developing your stroke.
But knowing that live instruction is best for you merely opens up a new set of options. Will you learn best in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of a swim camp abroad or would an intensive two-day course in a group work better for you? Or perhaps you would prefer to go at your own pace with one-to-one lessons? Hopefully, cost would not be the only factor in deciding; the likely effectiveness of the learning experience is also paramount.
Credit: Jamee Small © Mediterra International, LLC.
For example, what about when you get in the water, what sort of instruction works best for you there ? Let’s say the coach wants you to concentrate on getting your body moving forwards. They might ask you to feel the engagement of certain muscles. Or perhaps to tune in to the feel of the water flowing over your chest. Or maybe to imagine there is a fisherman at the far end of the pool reeling you in on their line. Each instruction is aiming at more or less the same thing but which do you think would be most effective for you ?
The more you can discover about how your brain responds to information and how it learns the better. Never be afraid to feed that information back to your coach, even in a group environment, so they can personalize you learning experience. Knowing what isn’t working can be just as valuable to them in as knowing what is. So if your coach is using weird images such as fishermen and fishing lines and it’s all a bit overwhelming or you just can’t connect with it, tell them. Equally if you simply can’t tune in to the internal movements of your body or the way it is reacting with its environment, that is just as valuable to them. Coaching should be a dialogue not a monologue and the more you know about what works for you and the more information you can give your coach the more likely it is that your instruction can be made even more effective.
Enjoy your swimming. And if anyone knows how to set the clock on my microwave, I’d love to be shown how to do it…
So you think you can become a better swimmer, do you ?
Well, don’t hold your breath!
One of the wonderful things about the human body is that most of the time it gets on with the job of keeping you alive without requiring the slightest intervention from the conscious mind. Can you imagine how busy we’d be if we had to remember to blink the eyes, digest our food or beat the heart ? ! By and large the conscious mind can let the body just to get on with these things – and that includes breathing.
So, let’s try a couple of experiments and introduce a little crisis into the system to learn something about how it works…
Just where you are, take a deep breath in and hold it for as long as you can. Time yourself if possible. Observe carefully what happens.
Have you done that ? Good. Now, this won’t be true for everyone but I am expecting that many of you began to feel a little light-headed during that, and far from comfortable. A little strain in the chest maybe and a build-up of pressure in the ears ? And, although you were completely in control of the situation, even a slight panic towards the end ? Then finally a big expulsion of air and….. then what ? Did you have to tell your body to start breathing again ? Or did it do it all by itself ?
There are lots of observations to make!
Before we go any further, let’s do it again. Only this time try moving your arms up and down, fairly vigourously. Notice what’s the same and what is different.
OK. So I would have thought there were two significant outcomes from that. The first being that you felt all the same things but this time slightly more intensely. You may have been unable to hold your breath for quite as long.
So what does all this tell us ? It tells us that that the body is quite capable of breathing all by itself without us having to worry about it and that even a little exercise tends to intensify the ramifications of being unable to breathe.
Photo by Stefano Zocca on Unsplash
So why do so many swimmers hold their breath while going along, or even just fail to breathe in the most efficient manner they possibly could? When we are running or cycling we wouldn’t do that; we would be taking deep breaths in an out constantly. So why do so many hold breath when swimming ?
The answer is ‘natural’. When untrained human’s face is submerged in water alarm bells will begin to ring. The brain knows that we are not naturally aquatic beings and that if we remain face down in the water very long we will drown. It is understandable then, that in order to protect its life and not accidentally breath in water, it believes the most prudent course of action is to shut everything down. So the breathing cycle stops and the breath is held. Even experienced swimmers can be found to hold their breath more than they should. The resulting discomfort and distraction (let alone the panic that some people feel) from breath holding will no doubt be detrimental to the overall efficiency of the stroke.
To overcome this, the body needs to have the skills for breathing in this submerged swimming position and the brain needs to be convinced that it this will work and all will be OK, so it can turn off the alarms and quit trying to keep itself alive so aggressively. It can take a long while – weeks and months – to build this skill and to calm the vigilant brain and its survival instinct. Consciously breathing out is the first important step to training the brain that all will be OK. The more that the brain feels all will be OK with breathing, the more space opens up for it to give attention to other things.
Thus, it is vital to practice – and keep practicing – the air exchange cycle, including that conscious exhale. The deep belly breath in, the slow release of air out, and the final blast to clear the airways as the face breaks the surface – these build confidence that the re-filling of the lungs will take happen more easily, even automatically. The more you practice, the smoother you get at this, and the more space you have to concentrate on the rest of the stroke.
Time spent practicing the air exchange is never wasted.
…Hmm, what ?
Are you still waiting for the second significant outcome from your exercise earlier ?
Oh, I thought that would be obvious eventually… You can’t hold your breath for long!
Back To Basics For Crossing The Channel
Imagine that you have just swum the English Channel. This is over twenty miles of swimming through grueling waves, the cold, the jellyfish and the solitude, all in the world’s busiest shipping lane. This is an achievement to be proud of, especially if this isn’t even your first successful crossing; you are repeating a feat you first completed previously almost four years ago to the day.
That was exactly the position Stu Bowman found himself in back in August 2018, and he wasn’t entirely happy about it because this one over two hours slower than his previous attempt. He was sure he could do better.
We’re not sure if Stu has any laurels, but if he does, they are certainly not very comfy. No resting for him.
So, what was the next logical step he could take?
To Stu, the answer was obvious.
He started taking some swimming lessons!
Thus when Stu first stepped into the studio with SwimMastery co-founder and senior coach Tracey Baumann there was no doubt that he was already a highly accomplished swimmer. He was also someone who recognised that he could still improve, still make things better in his swimming and achieve even greater things.
It would be tempting to assume that Coach Tracey would try to identify tiny tweaks and tricks to incorporate into Stu’s existing stroke to make improvements. Many swimmers come to lessons saying things like “my stroke is fine, I just need to sort out my breathing/catch/leg kick/etc so I can go faster.” These can be the more challenging swimmers for a coach to help because of their resistance to confronting anything other than the area they themselves have identified as requiring improvement. But Stu surrendered to Coach Tracey’s expertise, becoming willing to benefit fully from her approach. This allowed her to take into account everything that Stu was currently doing and to work on the body as a whole, leading to an amazing breakthrough.
Thus it was that, despite his Channel successes, this first lesson for Stu had him laying face down in a dead man’s float practising the most fundamental of skill, the air exchange process. Tracey had instantly recognised and was able to demonstrate to Stu via video analysis, that one of his problems was a loss of efficiency caused by over-reliance on upper body strength attempting to pull himself through the water arms alone. And, counter-intuitively, the first step to correcting that was to calm the whole system down with a proper breathing technique.
Over the next 18 months, Stu and Tracey completely remodeled his stroke taking it right back to the beginning and rebuilding it from the ground up. Together they developed in Stu a heightened awareness of the water and its interaction with his body, and have improved his streamline skills which have dramatically reduced the energy wasted by slippage due to over-reliance on arm pulling.
The culmination of all this hard work came in early August 2020 when Stu attempted his third Channel crossing. His progress was simply phenomenal: he landed on the shore of France in 11 hours and 59 minutes and in so doing taking a whopping six hours and 29 minutes off his 2018 time.
It’s an incredible improvement and testament to what can be achieved with an attitude of humility, a willingness to learn and the right coaching.
Let’s Hear It For Ears
My Dad, (who is a genius by the way), once told me the ideal way to talk to six-year olds. It’s simple, all you do is repeat back to them exactly what they have just said to you by making it into a question. Thus a typical conversation when I was young might go like this:
Son: “Dad, I’ve lost my ball”
Dad: “Oh, you’ve lost your ball have you ?”
Son: “Yes, the red one”
Dad: “Oh, the red one, eh ?”
Son: “Yes, it’s my favourite”
Dad: “Your favourite one, is it ?”
Son: “Yes, I think I’ll go and look for it”
Dad: “That’s a good idea, you go and look for it”
Brilliant eh ? An entire conversation and I’ll guarantee that Dad didn’t listen to a word of it.
Sometimes I wonder whether if, as coaches, we are guilty of the same thing; having an entire conversation with our swimmers without ever listening to what is said. Which would be a pity and an opportunity wasted.
Our ears are superb gatherers of information supplying a never-ending stream of facts to the brain. It’s the brain which filters this information deciding what is important and what isn’t. This information flow is relentless. Even when we’re asleep the ears are still providing it and the brain is still filtering. That’s why a noisy lorry passing by outside the house will fail to wake us but a quiet, unexpected footstep on the staircase will mean we are instantly awake.
But sometimes our brain needs guidance on what is important and what isn’t. The reality is that every interaction we have with our swimmers is an opportunity to learn more about them, about their motivations, their ambitions, their opportunities and their restrictions. Of course swimmers usually provide some level of background information before attending a session. However, this can often be wildly over-optimistic and exaggerated or woefully under-representational of their true level of expertise. Thus athletes with a stated intention of completing an Ironman in six months’ time are found to able to barely swim a stroke whilst others who state they can swim just a little are clearly quite able to complete a 10K swim already without any trouble.
Only by talking to, and more importantly, listening to our swimmers can we tailor our sessions accurately to their needs and abilities. And the more accurately we are able to do that the more beneficial our instruction becomes and the more likely they are to return. It’s a perfect virtuous circle – but one which often needs to be initiated by the coach.
So a seemingly casual conversation about the swimmer’s home life, the number of children they have, the job they do, how far they have to travel to a pool, the length, type and frequency of their current practices, etc., can all provide valuable clues regarding the conflicting demands they may have on their time and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to practice.
Photo by Christof Görs on Unsplash
Our eyes can tell us how a swimmer behaves in front of us in the water but only our ears can give us clues regarding how they may act between sessions.
Of course one should not make assumptions. The busy entrepreneur running a fledgling business may not be able to find any time to practice her swimming. On the other hand she might be precisely the sort of expert in time-management and self-discipline to dedicate herself to any goal she decides upon. Only once a coach has discovered which type of person they are dealing with can they decide the structure of their sessions and the amount and pace of information they contain.
But the coach doesn’t only need to listen to their pupil. They also need to develop the often far more difficult trick of listening to themselves and the teaching they provide. Is it clear, precise and comprehensible? Is enough explanation being given for the reasons behind the instruction? Or is it too much? And does all that apply to the swimmer in front of them? Everyone is different and an approach or an image which is usually a sure-fire winner with most people may not be hitting home this time. A coach needs the ability to listen to themselves and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction, adapting it instantly if necessary.
Feedback from the swimmer can be invaluable here, so coaches mustn’t forget to constantly ask for meaningful responses from them which can demonstrate the level of their understanding of what is being taught. A swimmer who is able to articulate and quantify an experience or feeling is likely to be able to replicate is far more easily in their own practice even if they haven’t yet been able to master it in the session. But only by listening carefully to what a swimmer is saying and never being afraid to push for more information if it is not freely forthcoming can a coach be confident of the effectiveness of their teaching.
So let’s make some noise for our ears. They are amazing and unique things. No two human ears are identical (even on the same head) just as no two swimmers are identical. They are providers of a constant stream of information. We may, like my Dad when I was a kid, merely hear that information without processing it. Or we can truly listen to it, channel it and mine it as the rich and valuable source for better coaching that it is.