Swimming masterclasses: improve your stroke
Swimming can be the perfect therapeutic exercise – but only if your technique is faultless. Rebecca Taylor has her stroke diagnosed
It’s the ultimate Time Out challenge! Can internationally renowned swimming guru Steven Shaw teach me to swim in 30 minutes? Okay, I can swim, really. But during the last six months I’ve suffered with back pain and an osteopath has warned me that swimming (particularly breast stroke) is not good for the back. I’ve also got two metal discs welded into my spine after an operation 20 years ago – oh, and I’m almost seven months pregnant. If this man can get me swimming comfortably and safely, he can get anyone to swim.
Treading waterBut first the basics. Shaw immediately dispels the notion that swimming is out of bounds for back problems. ‘I’ve heard this repeatedly and there is simply no evidence for it,’ he says. ‘It’s about how your body is aligned in the water.’ If there’s one person who can help me get that alignment right, it’s Shaw. For the last 14 years, he has been teaching swimming based on the Alexander Technique, a theory which aims to re-educate the body to assume a more natural and effective posture. Shaw has taught all standards, from complete beginners and those who fear even putting their faces in the water to top-level triathlon athletes.
We start by launching my burgeoning and creaking torso into the pool, as Shaw observes how I move. I feel like an bike in need of oil. After a few heavy-going laps of breast stroke, he gives me some feedback. What is really hindering my progress is what he calls a ‘screw’ kick, whereby one of my legs is twisting, instead of making the classic breast-stroke ‘frog’ kick; my upper body is doing far too much work (‘Breast stroke is really about the legs,’ he points out); I’m straining my head too much; and I’m also doing far too many strokes – he counts 27 – than is really needed to get me up and down the pool.
The guiding principle of the Alexander Technique (which Shaw has evolved into the ‘Shaw Method’) is the relationship between the head, neck and back, and it’s this alignment, rather than anything my arms or legs are doing, that is the crucial element. An effective alignment will also increase my speed and ease my movement.
Shaw drops into the water next to me, and we begin with a simple floating exercise: lying flat with my head submerged and arms outstretched as he guides me forward by my elbows. It seems incredibly simple, but once he lets me try by myself I lose my balance and swivel to one side. Shaw explains that I have a tendency to cock my head fractionally to one side when I’m speaking, or even when I’m still, and this tiniest of gestures, so ingrained in the way I comport myself, is now magnified, skewing my balance in the water. It’s remarkable that something so small can have such a dramatic impact.
But I’m terrified of putting my face underwater. What if I start to choke? I begin to tense up and simply can’t put my head under. Shaw is unfazed and very calmly and gently takes me through some breathing exercises to help me regain confidence.
Breathe calmlyBreathing is key, the most important rule is not to worry about inhaling, but instead focus on the out-breath, calmly and gently exhaling the air. ‘You even see top swimmers gearing up for a swim by taking great gulps of air. It’s just not necessary and causes hyperventilation and strain on the body,’ says Shaw. Having mastered the ‘float’, the rest of the steps are added in isolation: the lift of the head and the pull of the arms – a neat scoop is better than my wide stretch which is arching my back. Lastly, Shaw corrects my screwy kick by getting me to flex my feet and put power into the straight-legged thrust, rather than the bended ‘froggy’ bit. Finally it’s time to run it all together. It’s a lot to think about, just to achieve one stroke. I remember the breathing, but forget to flex my foot and keep my head straight. But patience is all part of mastering it. ‘One of the biggest obstacles is that people try too hard to get the stroke right. That causes tension, and it becomes harder to swim correctly. Children are often easier to teach than adults as they place less pressure on themselves to get everything perfect quickly. Be prepared to experiment and repeat the practice thousands of times, as you are unlearning what you have been doing for most of your life.’
Different strokesBy the end of the session, I’m slowly getting the hang of it, although there’s a lot of work still to be done. Shaw recommends another three or four classes, with a couple of practices in between each. I swim a last lap and he counts my strokes: it takes me just 15 strokes to swim a length using his method: considerably fewer than it took me to swim the same distance at the outset – and they get me there in half the time. More significantly, my body feels completely different – lighter, fluid, very relaxed and without a twinge of pain. Before I leave, Shaw demonstrates some other strokes. His butterfly is a thing of wonder, incredibly balletic and buoyant, making him look like a large exotic fish surfing through the waves. From beached whale to flying fish? Give me time.
Steven Shaw’s company, Art of Swimming, runs workshops, individual lessons and holidays for all levels. A half-hour class with a Shaw Method teacher costs £45. (020 8446 9442/www.artofswimming.com).
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