At a gym you get a tour, an induction, a programme; at a pool you simply get told where the changing rooms are. But bad stroke technique can be counterproductive and even dangerous.
There’s a woman I see regularly at the pool where I swim. She completes one length of breaststroke – at best – to my three, an expression on her uplifted face suggestive of the pool being filled with sewage or something equally terrible. It’s plain that she is enduring rather than enjoying her swim, and I can’t help thinking that part of the reason is her lack of proficiency: after all, mastery enhances the pleasure to be had from executing any skill.
I often feel sorely tempted to say something. If only she’d stop kicking her legs and stroking with her arms simultaneously, she’d stop cancelling one action out with the other. “Legs then arms,” I silently will her.
Of course, she’s not a solitary example. My pool, probably like yours, is filled with people struggling along with a grimace. A few years ago, a group of US researchers stated that 98% of recreational swimmers fail to improve aerobic fitness – presumably because they aren’t working hard enough to elicit gains. That might sound surprising when you consider another study that found untrained swimmers used 50% more oxygen to achieve the same speed in front crawl as trained swimmers did, but the chances are that the exhausted majority simply throw in the towel (or pick up their towel) before they’ve done enough to impact on their fitness level. And in the meantime, those arched backs, craned necks, strained knees and shoulders could be taking a bit of a beating.
“Oh leave us alone, you swimming fascist!” I hear you cry. “Let people swim how they want.” But should we? Even if they might be doing themselves at best no good at all, and at worst harm? Envisage a similar scenario in a gym, where people come in and yank weights around with appalling technique – or get on the treadmill, only to walk slower (holding the handrails) than they did from the car park to the gym – while the instructor looks on and says nothing.
Is it not in everyone’s best interests that every exerciser is shown how to get the most out of their efforts? While a swimming teacher might not always be present at the pool, I would imagine that the average lifeguard is capable of spotting obvious technical faults (given that a criterion of qualification as a lifeguard is being able to swim 50m in under 60 seconds).
“Many recreational swimmers seem to think that whatever they do in the water is going to do be beneficial,” says Ian Cross, swimming and Alexander technique teacher at Swimming Without Stress. “Medical professionals who recommend swimming to people without questioning what kind of swimmer they are don’t help either.” Six Physio, a London-based chain of clinics, is so keen to ensure that when their clients hit the pool for rehab they don’t do more harm than good that they refer them for a “swim check” – a stroke assessment with Immerse, which specialises in teaching adults.
For Nick Fugaccia, co-founder of Immerse, one of the biggest no-nos is swimming with the head out of the water. “You’re creating a high-resistance position and literally trying to drag yourself through the water,” he says. Often, a raised head is down to anxiety rather than to a lack of technique and, as Cross points out, it’s tricky once you reach adulthood to find the time, space or resources to overcome this. “Pools seem to cater mainly for swimming up and down,” he explains. “So people who aren’t technically proficient or relaxed enough in the water to benefit from swimming laps have no other choice. Pool managers could change the way we approach swimming in UK by creating spaces for people to work on themselves in the water. Almost like aquatic yoga studios, instead of aquatic gyms.”
I like this idea – and I admit it sounds much more nurturing than the protocol in my “raising the standards of swimming” fantasy, where the lifeguard roams the side with a megaphone barking: “Lane six, drop your head a little! Lane two, you’re too flat in the water. Rotate your body. Lane three, arms then legs!”
Personally, I’d welcome feedback on my stroke when I’m knocking out my morning 2km, and in fact it was some tips from a fellow swimmer (who turned out to be one of the masters club coaches) a couple of years back that galvanised me to join a masters group and up my sessions from two to three a week.
“The problem with swim club training is that often the focus is often on going further or faster, rather than on improving technique,” says Fugaccia. True – and you need to already be pretty proficient to keep pace with many masters groups.
I ask Fugaccia why he thinks we are so bad at swimming in the UK, compared to his native Australia. “We’re so safety conscious about the water in Australia – mostly because we’re surrounded by it and we have greater access to it because of the weather,” he says. “You’d be hard-pressed to get through school without learning to swim to a reasonable standard.” In contrast, an Amateur Swimming Association survey in 2012 found that one in three British children couldn’t swim by the time they left primary school, despite lessons being part of the National Curriculum. As a result, the ASA has launched a manifesto to improve the situation. But the statistic does shed light on the reasons why so few of us can swim with finesse as adults.
I wonder if public pools could run regular open sessions, where anyone in the pool can get feedback and suggestions on their technique from attendant staff. Or what about swimming “inductions”, where you get a brief outline of stroke basics when you join a leisure centre or health club?
“It’s tricky,” Fugaccia says. “If someone identifies themselves as a ‘strong swimmer’, you have to be careful with that. People don’t take kindly to criticism. You’ve got to wait until they ask for help.” Help from Immerse comes in the form of one-on-one sessions, for which the instructor is in the pool with you. “So many people have bad memories of swimming lessons,” says Fugaccia. “Being freezing cold, not being able to see properly, a teacher towering above them on the side yelling instructions. Swimming clubs or group sessions that place less focus on performance without losing the commitment to swim well would be helpful. We aim to get people to feel relaxed and have fun in the water first – then when it comes to the arm and leg movements it’s easy.”
One pool operator that has taken a fresh approach is DC Leisure, which launched its Swim4Health initiative in 2010 – winning a ukactive Flame award for innovation (and a host of new swimmers). “We offer a whole range of pool-based activities via Swim4Health – from aqua jogging to aqua fit, Aqua Zumba and Swim4Fitness – but more importantly we provide the same sort of supportive, hand-holding approach that you’d get on joining the gym,” explains group swimming manager Mark Haslam. For example, at Buxton Swimming and Fitness Centre, one of 40 DC Leisure-operated sites offering Swim4Health, you can book in with an “aquatic advisor” for a free 30-minute appointment to learn about what’s available and to help identify your personal requirements. “When you join a gym, you get a tour, an induction and a personal programme; usually when it comes to swimming you’re just told where the changing rooms are,” says Haslam. “We wanted to offer a sort of aquatic equivalent to gym membership.”
One Swim4Health offering is “stroke and coach” sessions – instructor-led courses or drop-in sessions for adults. “Adults don’t always like being classed as ‘beginners’ and there can be some stigma surrounding having ‘lessons’ – but these sessions strike the right balance of providing technique guidance and feedback along with good camaraderie and motivation,” Haslam says. “With kids, there’s a clear learning pathway when it comes to swimming, but that’s been missing with adults until now.”
Swim4Health participants can also sign up to Swimtag – a free “tracking” service. You simply don a wristband each time you hit the pool, and afterwards you can go online to check out your stats – for example, how many lengths of which stroke you did, your stroke count and average length speed.
I hope more pools seek out ways to help the 5.56 million of us who count swimming as regular exercise to improve our techniques. Or at least to swim with a smile on our faces.