Swimming has always been my favourite form of exercise, and it is also the only sport I ever excelled in. At school I had spent years training and swimming competitively so, when I started swimming regularly again during my Alexander Technique training, I was appalled and mystified to find that after only one or two lengths I was completely breathless.

This led me to start looking at how I was swimming, and I was introduced to Steven Shaw and his Art of Swimming method using the Alexander Technique where process is the most important thing, not progress. I quickly discovered that most of my problems arose due to my being in habitual racing mode. I was trying to swim fast. In fact I realised that I would always be racing other people in the pool, whether they were aware of it or not, and when I tried not to do this, I found it very hard indeed.

Steven pointed out that most swimmers, even good ones, are really quite frightened of the water and that one of the tell-tale signs is that they hold their breath in the water. I suspect that this was how I was taught to swim, but in any case I found that it was what I did. Again, when I tried to breathe out under water as I swam, I found this very difficult and panic-inducing.

And so started a long process of examining my stroke and trying to change how I proceeded through the water. I adapted my stroke so that it was slower and more streamlined and gradually things started to change. But progress was slow. I realised that in many ways I was fighting the water and not allowing it to support me. I wasn’t balanced in the water and would take a new stroke to prevent myself from sinking. Slowly I learned to trust the water, to see that it helped me and began to swim with greater ease.

The breathing was the last thing to come right. When I slowed the stroke down it meant a longer gap between breaths, and if I thought about it at all I would panic. Eventually I realised that I could also prolong the gap between breaths – If I needed to, I could roll onto my back and kick gently for a while until I was ready, and then turn back into the water. The mere knowledge that this was possible improved matters. I had many lessons with Steven Shaw and then trained as a swimming teacher where I learnt how poorly swimming is understood by those who train our children. Much of what is standard practice in swimming teaching tends to encourage and reinforce some very poor practices which are likely to lead to excessive effort being used, and which are in any case all geared to swimming fast rather than well. After that I worked regularly with Colin Beattie at the Constructive Teaching Centre for over 5 years where we would work with trainee Alexander Technique teachers in the water, and where I leant more about different swimming habits and how to work with people to develop a free and easy technique in the different strokes.

Once I had mastered the art of breathing while swimming the Front Crawl I was able to swim for as long as I liked without fatigue. It was almost as though having known how to sprint I had leant how to walk. Now, if I want to swim fast I can speed up my long-practiced slow and easy stroke without reverting to my old patterns which no longer were working for me.

Having learnt how to crawl, I then decided to learn how to fly… but that’s still a work in progress and another story.

Homepage image courtesy of Art of Swimming