Covid 19 has severely limited the options for many wishing to be active as gyms and pools remain closed and look to stay that way for some time to come. So for many the Great Outdoors has beckoned ! Let’s assume you’ve decided to join them (maintaining a respectful social-distance at all times of course) and that cold water swimming is for you. Great!
Be safe !
We’ll assume that you have found a safe location and that you have supportive, experienced albeit socially distanced friends to accompany you. It is absolutely essential that you minimise the risks as far as possible (you’ll never eliminate them entirely), especially as medical services have more than enough to do at the moment without rescuing the likes of those mucking about unprepared in freezing rivers and lakes. At SwimMastery we like to encourage people to enjoy open water swimming and build skills for safely handling the wild natural conditions.
Still determined to go in ? OK, well it’s important to know how your body is going to react to the dramatic decrease in temperature. We could go into all sorts of medical jargon here but essentially it boils down to this. Your brain will divide up your body into two categories; first, those providing vital functions to keep you alive and second, everything else. The vital parts are things like the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the brain itself. Your brain will instruct the body to do all it can to protect these areas by circulating warm blood around them. Although you might be quite attached to the other bits (arms, legs, hands and feet etc) these are unfortunately regarded as expendable when the brain perceives the threat to life posed by the water. Thus blood circulation to these limbs is either reduced or stops altogether.
When you get in, your body will require a few moments to adjust to the temperature. If you stand on the shore, dipping in one toe at a time you’ll probably never pluck up the courage to get in. However, to take the “Geronimo” approach and leap with gay abandon from the jetty is equally ill-advised. The shock to the system could bring about all sorts of unpleasant consequences. A confident, determined yet slow approach is the only way to do it.
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Whether you’re striding out into the lake or gingerly descending a ladder one of the first things you are likely to do is gasp at the cold and take a huge intake or air. (This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t be underwater at the time having jumped directly in). The next step is blindingly obvious but often more difficult to remember when you are actually in the water. Breathe out ! And in again. Get the breathing cycle under control as far as you are able. The reasons are obvious. The practice of doing so is sometimes more difficult if you aren’t used to it.
If you are standing waist deep in water, you might like to try splashing a little water on your face before you begin swimming. Again, this is to get the body used to what is to come. Normally it’s nice to swim with as few accoutrements as possible but some basic equipment is advisable. An inflatable tow float has multiple uses. In an emergency you could hold on to it for buoyancy, the highly visible material from which they are made can help you be easily located by others and finally the waterproof pocket can be used to hold valuables such as phones and car keys which you may want to keep with you, and other useful equipment such as a personal locator beacon. On windy days or in strong currents the float may begin to get ahead of you and interfere with your stroke. Nevertheless serious consideration should be given before discarding one.
Entering the water requires not only a degree of fortitude and courage but also common sense and preparation. Once you have managed it, however, you need to remain vigilant. Try to calm your stroke as much as possible. The temptation will be to swim rapidly to maintain what warmth you can. However, this can easily lead to hyper-ventilation and loss of buoyancy leading to panic and possible disaster. Try to remain calm and swim at your normal tempo. It may not be as easy as it sounds. If you normally swim freestyle you will no doubt return to this as a default. However, for the novice this may not be the best idea. Heads up breaststroke will not only keep the head above the water but will also remove many of the problems which may arise with breathing technique. Until you are used to the shock of the cold it’s always best to be as kind to yourself as possible.
Deciding how long to swim will depend on the individual and on the conditions. Some prefer to stay in for a set amount of time, others will come out once they feel they have had enough. Whilst the latter approach might seem to be the more sensible one, bear in mind that in such an alien environment, you may not be able to accurately judge exactly how you are feeling. You cannot base it merely on how long you stayed in last time because even slight decreases in water and air temperature can greatly change your body’s tolerance level. You might be feeling really exhilarated whilst in reality your core temperature is plummeting to dangerously low levels. It is likely to take several swims before you know the boundaries of your tolerances. it’s best to come out before you think you are ready rather than risk getting into trouble. As a general rule of thumb, you should exit the water before you lose feeling and control in your fingers and toes.
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Whilst it may appear that getting into cold water is the most difficult bit, it should be remembered that getting out also needs to be carefully managed. A little preparation for this can make all the difference. The process of re-warming the body needs to start as quickly as possible. Towels need to be accessible immediately. Investment in a dry-robe is worth the money as these not only retain body warmth but also provide useful modesty cover whilst wet garments are disposed of. It is important to remember that your core temperature will continue to fall for up to twenty minutes after exiting the water – a process known as Afterdrop. A warm bath or shower might be tempting but in reality may not be advisable as this will stimulate the circulation too rapidly. Cold blood from the extremities will be pumped around the body into the heart causing a drop in blood pressure and possible dizziness or fainting. The continued cooling of the body may well result in slight cognitive and muscle impairment. Beware of driving home too soon after a swim.
The best method is to get as many layers on as possible and warm up slowly. Minimise evaporation from the skin. Don’t worry if you are shivering excessively. This is perfectly normal and will pass. Lay out your clothes in the order in which you will be putting them on and, if possible leave them so they can be slipped on with the minimum of fuss. A useful tip you could try is to take a hot water bottle inside a supermarket freezer bag. Wrap your base layers around the bottle before you go for your swim and they should be nice and toasty for when you return. Make sure you leave the freezer bag open though, you don’t want to be struggling to open it with freezing hands later. However, if you do need to warm your hands quickly, try placing them on the back of your neck. You have two large arteries there full of warm blood which you can use to your advantage.
Think about where you will be getting changed too. You may not have the luxury of a changing room. As a substitute many people use a large plastic laundry bucket. Not only can you stand in this to keep off the muddy ground but it is also a useful way in which to carry home your wet stuff. Take a little gentle exercise to get your system functioning normally again but don’t over-do it. If you have a car by all means sit in it with the heater going. But don’t be tempted to drive straight away.
And the best bit about finishing a cold water swim is that you are well advised to have something to eat and drink. A completely guilt-free hot chocolate and slice of cake ! What could be better ?! In fact, in reality, a hot drink is unlikely to warm your body a great deal (think about the volume of liquid in a cup compared with the amount in your body !). You’d probably be better off simply holding it rather than drinking it. But where’s the fun in that ? Besides, now’s the time to maximise on that natural high that you will be feeling hopefully with friends who are in the same zone.
Those who partake in cold water swimming on a regular basis will tell you that it has enormous benefits for your health and general well-being and next time out we’ll delve just a little into some of the science which backs up these claims. However, it must be approached carefully with good planning. Know your limits and push boundaries extremely cautiously and over a period of time. However, for those who are hardy enough to partake it’s an excellent way to extend the pleasures of swimming all year round.
In everyday life we take our hands for granted. Incredibly useful things for picking stuff up, holding onto things, pushing, pulling, waving, stroking, scratching; they all need hands. Without my hands I wouldn’t be able to type this article and I wouldn’t have been able to let that driver who cut me up this morning, know exactly what I thought about the standard of his driving.
It’s no wonder that our hands have a bit of an ego and an inflated sense of their own self-worth.
However, all that changes when you get into water and start to swim freestyle correctly. Yes, the hands still have their part to play, but they are no longer the indispensable members they once were. Now we are more interested in the body as a whole, the right amount of rotation for forward momentum, the relaxed position of the head to lead spine alignment, the movement of the scapula and the position of the pelvis. Even when the hands are involved vitally in the catch, the forearm is contributing just as much.
It’s little wonder then that the hands can get a little miffed at this lack of prominence and, like a moody teenager, start to wander off and lose interest in the whole process. It’s important, therefore, that you let them know that they are still appreciated. Still part of the team. And, as such, from time to time, you must spend some sessions giving them a bit of attention.
This may seem counterintuitive. During the arm recovery we are told to lead with the elbow and to disregard the forearm and hand completely, letting them dangle below it, just going along for the ride. An easy enough instruction, but turning off muscles in this way is often more difficult than engaging them. Go to any public pool and you will see hands doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things, heading off in unknown parabolas, flying high above the swimmers’ body and often completely taking over the process of bringing the recovering arm forward rather than simply being a passenger.
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Often the problem is that once the arm and the hand have exited the water, the swimmer has very little idea exactly where they are. Out of sight and with no other reference point, the hand takes this as licence to effectively go AWOL for a while. Yet for every moment the hand is heading off in its own direction and for every moment when it’s above the swimmer’s body, it is adding inefficiency to the stroke. Ideally the hand should be just skimming above the surface of the water being taken directly forward by the elbow above it. If the hand is travelling out to the side or high above the body then, aware or not, the swimmer needs to make compensations to bring it back on track. The higher the hand is in the air the more the weight of the whole arm will be pushing the swimmer deeper under the surface. It may only be for milliseconds, but if it happens each and every stroke, the cumulative effect over hundreds of strokes is significant.
One useful drill which can be used to heighten awareness of the hand position during the recovery phase is to leave that hand in the water. Start by swimming small repeats leaving the hand in the water to the depth of the wrist. Let the resistance of water against it remind you to let it dangle. If this doesn’t feel restrictive then you probably aren’t doing it correctly ! But now the brain can begin to tune into the path of the hand and the movement required of the upper arm in order to keep it there. As the sense of position and path of the hand during recovery gets stronger, gradually remove the hand until just the fingers are submerged and then just the fingernails brush the surface. Simple enough to describe in a few short sentences but these exercises will be challenging you to undo what may be deeply ingrained muscle memory, and it may take many sessions and much practice until this is mastered.
Photo by Tracey Baumann
Once this new pattern has been ingrained, with ego restored, the hand can feel that, even by doing almost nothing at all, it is still making a vital contribution to the overall stroke.
Now all we have to do is consider how it enters the water again and what it does once it gets there. But those are topics for another day…
It’s not uncommon that with swimming drills you can find yourself stuck in a rut trying to get a skill to stick so that it shows up in your normal swimming. No matter how hard or how often you practice any improvement seems elusive. If that sounds familiar here’s an experiment you might like to try.
Now, cards on the table: this might not work. But it might. That’s what an experiment is right, testing out stuff to see what works and what doesn’t ? And what do you have to lose ? It’s really simple. Just try changing something about how you are doing the drill.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the whole point of doing drills is to try and repeat the same actions in the same way, over and over, in order to imprint them into ‘muscle memory’, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And this is why you should try changing something else about the drill.
Let me explain where my idea comes from.
In the mid 1970’s a trio of psychologists from the University of Michigan performed an experiment to study the effect of location on learning 1. The basic structure was to take two groups of students and ask each of them to study a list of forty four four-letter words. They were given two ten-minute sessions to do this. Then, three hours later, they were tested to see how many they could recall. The difference between the groups was startling. One group averaged a recall rate of 16 words whilst the other managed an average of 24.
The difference was that the study sessions for one group were held each time in a neat bright room overlooking a courtyard. However, the better performing group held the first session in the courtyard room whilst the second session was held in a cluttered room in a basement. Care was taken by the researchers that the environment for the study was the only element of the experiment which was altered.
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash Photo by Hitoshi Suzuki on Unsplash
So why the difference ? Why should the same task have an increase in success of 40% simply by varying the location in which the study was held ? Frankly, it seems that opinion is divided, and far too complex to cover here. The upshot really is that no-one seems to know for certain. What should be of interest to us though is whether there is evidence that this study using an academic task could be replicated with a motor task such as swimming.
To be honest, research seems to be sparse (which is why I said your experiment may not work !). A study was done by the philosopher John Locke who observed a man practicing a fairly complicated dance in a room which contained an old trunk.2 However, having perfected it, the man had difficulty replicating the dance to such a degree of competency in environments where the trunk was not present. It’s possible that a similar connection between environment and learning may have been occurring.
So, next time you go to practice your drills I suggest you try a similar experiment and see if it works for you. Don’t change the drills themselves, instead, if you normally swim at a certain pool, in a certain lane and a certain time of the day, try changing one of those variables. If you are able, try swimming in open water rather than the pool. Even just wearing a different costume might make a difference. Maybe no costume at all if you can get away with it ! (Please note, however, that you’re on your own with that one; I accept no liability for any consequences arising from skinny dipping at the Family Swim sessions of your local pool!).
At the very least, before you get in the water, take a few moments to fully take in what’s going on around you; who else is in the pool? Is the lifeguard sitting still or wandering about? How noisy is it and exactly what can you hear? Is the water a different temperature from normal? What can you smell and is that usual? Intently tune into your surroundings and become hyper-vigilant. See if you can spot any small detail about your surroundings that might make this swim stand out from all the others.
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Let your brain become aware of anything and everything which differentiates this session from the last one you completed. Who knows the effect of any variations might have on your success once you start the actual task of swimming?
What I am proposing is that when you change something in your environment or routine, or even just a change in your awareness, this can have a positive effect on your performance in the drills. You just might discover something new or break through to the skill you’ve been aiming for. I’d be really interested to hear how you get on
- Steven M Smith, Arthur Glenberg and Robert A. Bjork “Environmental Context and Human Memory” Memory and Cognition Vol. 6 No. 4
- John Locke “An Essay on Human Understanding and a Treatise on the Conduct of Understanding Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell Publishers
I don’t think SwimMastery coaches know The Best Way to teach swimming.
Now that, I grant you, might sound a bit of an odd thing to say from a SwimMastery coach but it’s true. Let me quickly explain…
Before I got into serious swimming I didn’t really think much about how swim coaching was done. I think I assumed there was just one way to teach each stroke and everyone did it that way. Now, of course, I know differently. There are a myriad of approaches and opinions on how to do this, many of which clearly contradict each other. Some of those systems will even claim that they have the best, indeed the only, effective method.
SwimMastery do not count themselves amongst those.
Why? I think it all comes down to simple mathematics. There are thousands and thousands of swim coaches out there each teaching multitudes of swimmers and among all those people there are thousands of kinds of needs and problems and challenges. Coaches, being a resourceful lot, are constantly responding to the people they work with, tweaking their methods, pushing back on the boundaries and coming up with creative solutions to those problems. Some of their ideas work well, some of them don’t. Some of their ideas work for most of their swimmers and some for just a few.
It doesn’t matter. The point is that all those coaches are probing for the optimal method by which the instruction can be given to the people they work with. Over time, by sharing and by spreading out these ideas to be tried on more people, some replace old wisdom whilst others expand it.
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Coaching methodology is a living, organically developing thing, perhaps as free-flowing as water itself. It cannot be some dust-gathering dogma carved in granite.
In my understanding, SwimMastery doesn’t believe it necessarily has The Best Way for teaching swimming. However, it does believe it is teaching the best methodology it knows with the current understanding garnered from its members and what they have seen or experienced elsewhere. The sum total of that experience comes to many thousands of hours of teaching.
But is it the best ?
Who knows ?
SwimMastery know that tomorrow they may hear of a new idea or encounter new research which challenges what we’ve done, or give us better insight which might take the methodology in new directions. With inquiring scientific minds and practitioners expanding knowledge as rapidly as ever, we believe that it is vital to keep an open minded and flexible approach to our work if we are to continue to develop and embrace the latest validated ideas.
In addition, though collectively SwimMastery have worked with thousands of people around the world, we’re open to the possibility that some new students could come along and present problems we haven’t tackled before and new ideas will be needed. Despite the experience represented by our members it’s never possible to know absolutely everything and because of that we always welcome challenging and constructive discussion on technique and training. Among our chats and in our forums, in the academic spirit, we are always happy to expound on our theories and to explain why we believe them to be the best for maximising the swimmer’s learning experience whilst balancing that with the need to keep them safe and minimise the potential for injury.
In that spirit the discussions and practice are also laboratories where ideas can be examined, tested and pushed to their limits to see how they perform. This, we hope, is always done in a constructive manner. There are a few fundamental principles which SwimMastery will always stand by because those are already well-established in principles for safe human movement and others we hold onto because we see them as those best supported by science and practice.
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But many of those ideas held by other coaches or programs we don’t consider wrong or flawed – just different ways of approaching the same needs or problems. They may not be how we would like to approach those for certain reasons, but nevertheless we would like to see a variety of approaches being used and tested out there. That keeps the realm of knowledge-building fresh and more responsive. We are not interested in provoking conflict between different systems and we are keen to build bridges and exchange information wherever we can.
However, in order for this system of improving our ideas to work we rely on a two-way dialogue and a constant stream of queries and new ideas. We love questions which begin with “Why do you do this?” or, even better “Why don’t you do this?”
In our opinion that’s the only way in which we can move the current thinking forward, help more coaches become better coaches, and help more people to become better swimmers – and we trust that is, after all, the goal for every coach regardless of the methods they use.
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…
Must There Be A Drop In Performance When Improving A Skill?
There are some important differences to consider when teaching a novice or beginner swimmer on this end of the experience spectrum and when teaching an expert or advanced swimmer on the other end.
A novice is considered a novice because he has no motor patterns in place for this activity he is trying to learn, or very weak ones. He does not have neural preference or muscular strength built around any patterns. It is generally easy to introduce a new movement to a novice and have him pick up on in quickly because there is little neural resistance to doing something different than before. And since he could not swim at all or not very well, a newly acquired pattern is going to immediately make him perform better than before, even if he has to pay careful attention to what he is doing.
But that may be in stark contrast to what happens when working with an advanced or expert swimmer who is seeking an adjustment or correction in their movement patterns. This swimmer has very strong neural preference and muscular strength built up around the established movement pattern and she is going to have to work against that to make a change. That existing pattern is autonomously controlled in her brain so that it functions without requiring her attention, and because of that autonomy it will put up great resistance to being altered. When this swimmer decides she wants to make an alteration to the pattern she has to pull that movement out of the autonomous control part of the brain and put back into the conscious control part so she can override the old pattern with a new one which necessarily slows everything down a lot. It can even mess up her whole performance because other autonomously controlled aspects of her performance were tied into it and when one part is pulled back into ‘slow’ conscious control the others lose a big part of their coordination and efficiency with it.
This immediate slow down or disruption to performance can understandably be alarming to the advanced athlete… who expects corrections to come easily and quickly, at virtually no cost. But this may be a consequence of a short-term viewpoint and some lack of understanding of how the brain works. In the long-term view, we understand that neural circuits have to go through a process when being altered – the more complex the change and the more complex the conditions will be for its ultimate application, the more patient the athlete will need to be with the retraining process.
But the process works. The skill is brought back into conscious control and performance is unavoidably slowed down. It is dialed in under easy conditions, tested and refined with feedback. Then the training challenges imposed upon on that skill are gradually increased. Then she is challenged to handle dual tasks (pay attention to more than just the execution of that skill) and eventually totally distracted from it so that the brain is required to pull that skill back into the autonomous control part of the brain, where it ultimately needs to be.
I see in the research of motor learning the attempt to trick the brains of expert performers to make corrections without having to pull that correction back into conscious control, to save time and prevent slowdown. But these studies seem to be looking at small correction and with measurements of performance done over hours and days, not done on major alterations done over week and months. And I have questions about the quality of the conscious cues they have tested against one another. A quick unconscious correction process would be preferable of course, but it may not often be practical for the kind of deep corrections that some athletes need to make.
So this urges us to keep in mind at least two dimension of the process when setting expectations for working with an athlete:
Where does this person fall on the novice to expert performer spectrum? How strong are existing patterns that need to be altered, and what kind of neural resistance will there be for making a change?
And, how big of a change will she be trying to make? There may be a significant difference between making small tweaks and major alterations and the kind of neural tricks one can employ to save time on the retraining process.
In other words, it’s going to cost time for any athlete, novice or advanced, small change or big. For some people and some kinds of change there will be little or no immediate drop in performance, while for others we should expect some initial, unavoidable drop in performance as part of the necessary process to build back up to an even higher level of performance than they had before with better skill on board.