Practice really does make perfect

In 1979, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats famously sang “I Don’t Like Mondays”. For me, Mondays were OK, it was Wednesdays I wasn’t keen on, starting as they did with double French. I never have really got to grips with the language, even though, ironically, one of the French teachers at my school was the sister of Bob Geldof. I do seem to remember learning “Où est la bibliothèque?” although, being unable to speak the language, even at that young age, the library seemed a rather odd destination to want to visit. Thanks to several foreign holidays I have now progressed to the stage of being able to ask some rudimentary questions in French although, sadly, I am completely unable to understand the answers (unless they are provided in perfectly unaccented English, which is usually the case).

My problem at school, of course, was that, between Wednesdays, French simply ceased to exist. I didn’t think about it, practice it or, indeed have any interest in it. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, I made very little progress with it. Had I put any time or effort into French between lessons I still may not have become fluent exactly but I most certainly would be a better French speaker than I am now.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

The same principle of devoting time to practice between lessons holds true for those embarking on a programme of swimming instruction. If the only times that a student swims are during the lessons themselves, progress will undoubtedly be made, but a massive learning opportunity will be wasted. 

Instruction provided by a coach either one-to-one or in small groups is invaluable but, if one is learning a different way to move one’s body then it is unrealistic to expect that to come together in the relatively short period offered within a formal lesson.

The primary function of lessons is to provide information about a particular movement both regarding the physical movements required to perform it and also the rationale behind it to explain its importance. Having isolated a movement the coach will then attempt to provide ways in which the swimmer can replicate it. A variety of techniques will probably be used. These include performing a demonstration of the requirement themselves, taking the student through a series of drills or providing images or sensations which the swimmer can think about whilst swimming. Whatever methods are used, throughout it all the primary aim of the coach is not necessarily to perfect the movement then and there but to get the student to tune into how it looks or, even better, feels, when the task is mastered.

However, to do this, the student must spend time away from the lessons practising by themselves. This is when the magic happens! 

Coaches are often asked how much time should be left between lessons. There is no hard and fast rule, however, most would recommend that the student has at least two sessions by themselves to attempt to imprint the instructions from the previous lesson. Anything less and it is unrealistic to expect that enough time has been spent on a particular skill to come close to improving upon it. Equally, however, too much time between lessons can result in swimmers imprinting less than perfect movements or forgetting some of the finer points from the lesson. 

Before starting lessons, therefore, a swimmer needs to decide a realistic schedule for the amount of time they are going to be able to dedicate to practice to ensure that sufficient time can be devoted to this. This does not have to be a rigid structure and, as time goes on, it may well transpire that the timings can be adjusted depending on the rate of progress made. However, without sufficient practice, the impact and effectiveness of the lessons will undoubtedly be diminished.

Practice may not always make perfect but without any practice at all progress will be far slower.


Robbed of Olympic 100m glory ? The Lance Lawson story

These days technology seems to be taking over the role of referees and umpires in almost every sporting arena. Whilst not always providing conclusive results the tension and drama resulting from the instant analysis of the TV replay is common-place in football, rugby, tennis, cricket as well and several other sports. Whether we approve of the disruption or not it seems unlikely that the technology is going away any time soon. 

Life was not always so, and in the relatively recent past, we relied on somewhat cruder methods to decide on the big decisions. Swimming has never, fortunately, been particularly noted for controversy but that’s not to say that it hasn’t had its moments.

The other day I came across an interesting story from the 1960 Olympics held in Rome surrounding the Men’s 100m Freestyle final. It concerned the winner who never was and how the race had an impact forty years later on one of the greatest ever performances seen at the Olympics. You may already be familiar with it but, if not, the details are fascinating.

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

Going into the race the two hot favourites were an American, twenty year old Lance Larson and his Australian rival John Davitt. As predicted, the race was a thriller. At the turn, it was, in fact, the eventual Bronze medalist, the Brazilian Manuel dos Santos who held a slim lead but both Larson and Davitt powered down the second fifty touching virtually together at the finish. But who had won? Who had Gold and who had Silver?

The decision initially lay with the small army of timer-keepers stationed at the end wall. Each lane was allocated three judges who all timed the race with stop-watches. The judges in Davitt’s lane were unanimous; they all recorded a time of 55.2 seconds. However, there was disagreement in Larson’s lane. Two judges timed him at 55.0 seconds but one recorded a time of 55.1. The discrepancy became crucial.

Supposedly if two of the three times were the same, that became the official result, in which case the race would have been awarded to Lawson. However, in this instance, it was decided to reject all the stop-watch results as being unreliable and, because there was no overall agreement, regarding Lawson’s time the results from a second group of judges stationed at the side of the pool was invoked.

They were not concerned with the time at all. They merely had to decide on the order in which the swimmers had finished. Again, they worked in groups of three with three judges deciding who had come first, three deciding who had come second, and so on. 

The problem came when it emerged that the result was so tight these judges also could not conclusively separate the swimmers. Of the judges deciding who had won, two came out in favour of Davitt. The gold seemed to be going to the Australian. However, when the results of the officials deciding who had come second were analysed it showed that two of them also thought that Davitt had come second! In other words, of the six people adjudicating by this second method, three thought Davitt had won and three thought Lawson had. Stalemate.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

The final decision came down to the Head Judge, a German called Hans Runstromer. His decision seemed a little eccentric if not downright bizarre. Instead of reverting to the stop-watch results, Runstromer declared that both swimmers should be given the same finish time of 55.2 seconds but that Davitt alone should be awarded the Gold medal. This despite the fact that all three of the lane judges at the side of the pool had given Lawson a faster time than that and, of the twelve judges involved in adjudicating the race, nine of them had given the result to the American.

Appeals fell on deaf ears and Lawson had to settle for Silver. If you like, you can decide for yourself who you thought won by watching the excellent YouTube video “The Race That Changed Olympic Swimming” which tells the tale and shows the finish. However, it is impossible to be certain from the footage whether Lawson was robbed of his Gold or not. Besides, Davitt later claimed that he touched the wall first with the hand which was underwater which further complicates matters for those trying to decide. As Davitt later admitted the result was so close that not even the swimmers themselves can ever know for sure who had actually won.

And how does all this affect that later Olympic achievement? Well, one of the legacies of the race was to phase out the manual timers. By the next Olympic Games held in 1968, the banks of judges had been replaced by the far more reliable electronic touchpads which allowed far more accurate times to be recorded. In 1988 at the Beijing Olympics Michael Phelps was to be particularly grateful for this accuracy as he beat Mark Spitz’s record in winning no less than eight Gold medals. His seventh Gold in the 100m Butterfly was another nail-bitingly close finish as he beat Milorad Cavic of Serbia by the narrowest of margins. His time of 50.58 seconds was a new Olympic record. But his margin of victory? A mere one-hundredth of a second! 

It would have been interesting to hear the views of Lance Lawson on that!  




Getting into cold water swimming. And getting out again.

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. 

Getting In

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.

Photo by Tsunami Green on Unsplash

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.

Moving Around

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. 

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Getting Out

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.

Taking the plunge: why you should be cold water swimming

As restrictions of what most of us can and cannot do due to the Covid virus remain in place, many people are looking for new ways to get out and exercise. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of people taking up open water swimming. Whilst the joys of being out in the open air, communing with nature are obvious, unfortunately for many of us, particularly those of us in the UK, open water swimming at this time of year also means cold water swimming. And there the search for the enjoyment can seem somewhat more challenging !

In my experience, those committed to cold water dips seem to have an almost evangelical zeal when trying to persuade others. They cite boosts to the immune system, anti-inflammatory benefits, cleansing of the blood cells, improved skin, energy boosts, increased mental toughness with better mental health in general, shared social interaction and a massive rush of endorphins which, quite simply, is guaranteed to make you feel terrific afterwards. These are pretty impressive claims. Who wouldn’t want all that?!  But can they be proven ?

Well, it’s a very long list and we don’t have time to study each and every claim here.  However, it is an area of active scientific investigation and results show that there is a factual basis behind many if not all of them.

Some Facts

Let’s look at a couple of examples. The Biohacker summit promotes itself as “the focal point for learning faster, performing better, living longer, and enjoying more what you wake up for every day.” The 2020 event was addressed by biochemist Rhonda Patrick Phd, co-founder of a website dedicated to promoting good health.  She has studied the effects of cold on the human body.  She explained that when the body is immersed in cold water it increases the levels of norepinephrine which promotes greater focus and attention, increased vigilance and a better overall mood.  The drop in temperature changes the neural pathways and the body becomes more sensitive to the effect of the production of endorphins.  It is thought this may even lead to an increase in life expectancy.  Even extremely short periods of immersion can have a dramatic effect.  Just twenty seconds in water of 4.4 degrees raises the levels of norepinephrine by as much as 300%

Photo by Katie Barnes on Unsplash

The change in temperature also triggers another effect known as mitochondrial biogenesis. This process attempts to keep the body warm by producing more energy.  In adipose tissue (i.e. fat) this has the result of burning the fat stores and reducing weight.  In muscle tissue oxygen is used for energy which increases the aerobic capacity of the body and also aids recovery of damaged tissue (which is why sport-people often take ice-baths to recover after endurance events)

In a separate study reported by the BBC in the Autumn of 2020 Professor Giovanna Mallucci of Cambridge University announced the conclusions of a three year study using groups of cold water swimmers and tai chi students as a test group.  She had found that the swimmers were producing a protein linked to the linking of cells in the brain.  It is hoped that this work may be developed to help combat the onset of dementia.  

How Tough Do You Need To Be?

However, these benefits all come at a cost. One needs to prepare carefully for a cold water swim and follow a thoughtful adaptation process. Some mental toughness is required, but not as much as you think when you follow a good, gradual process of adaptation, one that does not cause unnecessary stress to your body or mind. The physical and psychological discomforts can be perceived in different ways – making them more or less unpleasant. Under guidance, one can have a relatively pleasant experience, even from the start. It is an incredibly subjective experience but one which needs planning the advice and expertise of others more familiar with coping with the conditions. 

In fact, if you want to add another benefit to cold water swimming with a group of friends it might be that it will increase your vocabulary. Because, in addition to all the lingo for the process of adapting, you’re going to hear all sorts of words coming out of the mouths of people you would never suspect of knowing such language – let alone using it !

What About The Workout?

It is important to notice one of the things missing from the list I have quoted as well. There are many benefits to cold water that I mentioned, but getting a big aerobic workout isn’t going to be one of them for quite a while. So if you’re looking to replace your hour long gym session with a cold water swim then you might have to think again.. Granted if you get to the stage where you are taking on Ice Mile challenges and the like there is definitely going to be an aerobic benefit. However, the vast majority won’t get to that stage. For a cold water swimmer ten minutes to a quarter of an hour is a pretty long swim. Many only manage a few minutes. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t swim, just that you should recognise that these are very different beasts.

So, you’ve girded your loins nicely, taken a deep breath (don’t stop doing that!) and decided to literally take the plunge. What now ? Rule one, particularly if you are starting out is to put safety first. So never go alone. Besides, you may well need someone who is able to support and encourage you.  Choose such people wisely.  Make sure they understand the process you are going through and know how to keep you safe.  Preferably choose someone who has done it before themselves.  There is a fine line between support and encouragement on the one hand and ill-informed badgering, bullying and peer pressure, (no matter how well intentioned), on the other. Make sure that line has not been crossed. Take things at your own speed. Sure, you’ll be out of your comfort zone, but make sure you aren’t too far out. Safety first.

Photo by Glenna Haug on Unsplash

It’s a good idea to have at least one person on the bank as well. They are far more likely to be able to see what’s going on if someone gets into difficulties. And make sure you have a plan for what to do if something does go wrong. There’s no point in waiting until someone is struggling before looking round to see if there is a life-ring on the shore. Humans are not aquatic animals and there is always a certain degree of danger when we enter water. But if the temperature is low that factor multiplies significantly. Recognise that things can go very wrong very quickly. Everyone – both those in the water and those out of it – needs to be even more vigilant of the state of those around them than normal. In an emergency it is important to know what to do and how to do it. Remember too that circumstances will be different. For example, it’s no good throwing someone a rope if their hands are too cold to grasp it. So make a plan. A realistic plan. And pray you’ll never have to use it. Safety first.

One of the advantages of having an experienced friend with you is that they are likely to know the best locations in which to swim safely. It is essential that you can get in and out of the water quickly and easily. Think about conditions underfoot, the slope of the ground and, if swimming in rivers, the height of the bank. Make sure too that the water is safe. Beware of obvious things like reeds and other objects hidden beneath the water but also remember when swimming in lakes and rivers that recent rain may well have washed significant amounts of chemicals into the water from nearby farmland. Regardless of the season, if the water quality is low, don’t go in. If swimming in the sea ensure that you know all there is to know about any currents which might take you unawares. Safety first.

There is little doubt that cold water swimming can bring enormous enjoyment and well-being. You rarely see someone who has just completed a swim in a freezing river, lake or coastline who isn’t grinning like a maniac. Undoubtedly it comes at a cost but you too could feel like that. If you think you’re brave enough, go for it ! Good luck !!

Lessons from the Dark Side.

The devastation wreaked by Covid 19 has seen the passing of a fair number of the great and the good this year. Amongst these and almost un-noticed was actor Dave Prowse. 

I’m sure most of you know exactly who he was but for the uninitiated I guarantee you will have seen his work at some point either at the cinema or on TV. Dave Prowse was probably most famous for being the actor beneath the black helmet of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films. 

But if you grew up in the UK wearing flares and a tank top during the 1970’s Dave Prowse had a second equally iconic role. Sporting a rather dodgy low budget spandex get-up, he found fame as the Green Cross Code Man in the Government’s Road Safety campaign. He would pop up at random moments in ad breaks telling us all how to cross safely without being knocked down by a reckless driver of a brown Hillman Avenger or the like.

He was, by all accounts, very successful in his role and I got to wondering if he would have been equally successful as a swim coach, particularly if his pupil was Darth Vader. (Hey, come with me on this one – it’s Christmas-time !)

It’s widely recognised that getting the head position right is one of the non-negotiables when it comes to efficient swimming, and mastering the turn to the air is a huge part of this.  Therefore, the basic message from the Green Cross Code man of looking left, looking right and then left again (begin with the opposite direction if you drive on the right!), seems a pretty useful start point. It does at least get the eyes moving on the correct plane. So often we see swimmers who can easily master this basic instruction whilst standing vertically but find it much more difficult once they get horizontal. You would be forgiven for thinking that Dave Prowse had said “Look at the sky, now check out the shoes of the chap standing over your left shoulder, right, now back at the sky…” and so on. 

Once in the water, the brain enters a slight panic mode. It is used to being able to see where it is going and definitely used to the body being able to breathe easily. It might be a natural instinct for a swimmer to want to look forward but translate that back to the vertical and the swimmer would be staring at the clouds with a crick in their neck. Uncomfortable for any period of time but, more importantly this restricts the movement of the scapulae resulting in a lordosis of the back, the raising of the rib cage and a loss of connection between the torso and the lower body. 

Equally, looking over one’s shoulder in order to take the breath might seem a good idea for some. However, it can easily result in over-rotation, with the knock-on effects on the timing of the stroke and definitely will take the head off the central axis which in turn will take the body away from the desired forward direction. 

This might be the time of year to be looking forward and also looking back but it’s never a good idea if swimming freestyle.

So if you’re looking for a new image for your swimmers you might like to get them to imagine that they are wearing Darth Vader’s helmet.  This might prove to be a useful aid. Like many elements of the costumes worn by fantasy heroes and villains (what is this obsession with capes ?), Darth’s helmet looks impressive but is massively impractical for day-to-day living, restricting, as it does, both vision and movement. However, for the swimmer this is no bad thing. If they imagine that the helmet makes it impossible for them to look either up or down then the head can only move in a horizontal plane. If it helps, they could visualise the Lego version of Darth Vader if they like, who is completely incapable of moving in the incorrect plane


Photo by Gita Krishnamurti on Unsplash

Additionally, strap his light sabre to the top of the helmet and instantly they have a cue for the desired direction of travel for the head as well. 

Of course this only addresses the basic plane in which the head should travel. Once this is understood, it is essential to connect it with the rotation of the body and to the correct timing in order to achieve maximum efficiency. However, these are huge topics in themselves so for the moment let’s just concentrate of making sure the eyes and head are moving along the correct path and that bad habits are not being imprinted.  To quote another Star Wars icon, the wise Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”  Granted I don’t think he was talking specifically about freestyle swimming but he easily could have been.

Turning one’s head correctly may seem like a very basic skill, yet in such small steps are galaxies overthrown. The position and movement of the head is the first step in unleashing the true power within the body.  

Get it right and the force may be with you !

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