mundane adventures in running

Adult swim

I know that my swimming is fairly horrible. When I’m at the pool, and I think I’m going hell for leather, I’m fairly frequently overtaken not just by the obviously fit, strong swimmers with rippling backs, triangular torsos and matching swimhat swimsuit combos, but by old men, overweight people, teenagers, children, the infirm. I frequently feel that I’m fighting the water, and struggling for breath, especially when i try to go fast. Graceful I am not.

When i’ve heard proper swimmers describe how they swim, I realise I’m not doing it right.

“Extend and catch”


“Keep your head still”

These are concepts which are alien to my freestyle technique.

In about March this year I looked at a couple of Youtube videos, and started reading a book applying Alexander Technique to swimming, hoping that genning up on what makes a good front crawl might help. I got bored of the book, and all I learned from the videos was that I shouldn’t be swimming with my arms straight, as I had been.

I started to investigate getting swimming lessons at Brixton, where both my kids learn to swim. My lovely wife picked me to the post, and for my birthday gave me a swimming lesson with Ray Gibbs at Swim Canary Wharf who came highly recommended by a couple of her colleagues who had taken triathlon training sessions with him.

Beforehand, I was incredibly nervous. I’ve never had any coaching and I don’t always take criticism and instruction that well; I was worried I wouldn’t get on with Ray, that I’d find the experience demoralising and depressing. Added to that, my hips were still really tight and inflamed after overdoing the running in france, and I was worried that an hour of kicking might leave me unable to walk. Oh, and I went to Dishoom for lunch and ate a lot of curry, so I was a little concerned I would fart/ vomit/ sink.

So, it’s a simple idea. Ray has an endless pool: a 3-4 metre long, 1 metre deep trough of water with a powerful pump sucking water from the bottom end and forcing it out into the front, creating a strong artificial current. The pool is set up with a mirror at the front set on the floor at 45 degrees to help you set your position, and a number of cameras: one overhead, one front and one placeable. You swim, ray videos and records commentary on how you are doing, you stop swimming, Ray plays you back the video and explains how you could improve. As you progress through the session, Ray gives you feedback on technique, exercises, things to concentrate on, drills to try.

After about five minutes of instruction, my nervousness dissipated and I got into the grove of the lesson.

One of the greatest luxuries you can enjoy is that of having someone focus on you, talk about you and listen to you with a quiet non judgemental, softly didactic air. This is what Ray does. He is kind, smiling, optimistic, and only critical in a very soft “don’t worry, lots of people do it, we’ll get this sorted way.” He listens to whatever you say, is unflaggingly nice, sincere and appropriately flattering in a measuredly patronising, or perhaps paternal, way. Oh, and he seems to know what he’s talking about, he’s got a good track record of success and talks a good game.

Another concern before starting was that I’d get hooked on the process, and end up having to stump up cash for repeated visits. It was probably about ten minutes in that I realised I would be going back to Ray, and happily paying the price to get a near perfect freestyle technique.

Looking at myself swimming, I could see immediately how bad I was, how woefully inadequately I had interpreted the youtube videos I’d watched, how clumsy and not aqua-dynamic I was in the water.  Horrible, as you can see you for yourself:

As the lesson progressed it became clear that there were easy and obvious things I could work on, then a whole other raft of stuff to get better at after that, and tiers in turn over those. It feels like a long but clearly structured journey to perfection. First get extension right, then rotation, then perhaps start to think about timing, and kicking. I am expecting a reliable reward structure, that if I do as I’m told and put the effort in, I’m going to improve.

So, I’ve bought a pair of flippers for my drills. I’m about to book another lesson. Watch this space for swim technique domination.


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