One of my pupils recently told me how much he loved the writing of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I have just started running regularly and so, with my pupil in mind, when I saw Murakami’s memoir and treatise on running ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, I was curious to read it. I loved the book and read it in one sitting.
As well as running, Murakami has competed in several triathlons. For many people the swimming section of a triathlon is most difficult. With swimming it is not enough just to swim a lot in order to train. It is not just a matter of putting in the hours, to swim efficiently and well you also have to understand and work on your technique. In this short book Murakami talks about the difficulty of finding a good swimming coach. He says
‘Lots of people know how to swim, but those who can efficiently teach how to swim are few and far between. That’s the feeling I get. It’s difficult to teach how to write novels (at least I know I couldn’t), but teaching swimming is just as hard. And this isn’t just confined to swimming and novels. Of course there are teachers who can teach a set subject, in a set order, using predetermined phrases, but there aren’t many who can adjust their teaching to the abilities and tendencies of their pupils and explain things in their own individual way. Maybe hardly any at all.’
I completely agree with Murakami. Teaching swimming is difficult. The problem is not the subject matter, the technique, the strokes; these don’t change. But every person is different and reaching each one and helping them to learn or improve on a skill that can either save your life, or, in the worst case, cause you to lose it, is very difficult indeed. You have to understand what the person needs and wants, and to find ways of helping them to achieve their goals. Because of this my work is endlessly fascinating and I learn something new from each person I teach.
Many dogs of my acquaintance love to swim. They seem to understand the pure joy of being in the water. Unlike humans, dogs, and most mammals it seems, don’t need to learn to swim. They can just do it, in fact most dogs are better swimmers than humans. Their heads are above water, their fur keeps them warm, many have waterproof undercoats, they have a low centre of gravity, their lungs have a higher capacity than most human’s and some breeds even have webbed feet.
The beautiful, kind and radiant, Riff Raff, who sadly died yesterday was an exuberant and enthusiastic swimmer. Watching her leaping into the water reminded you what joyfulness, hope and optimism was.
I mostly saw her swimming in the Thames but here she is on one of her Scottish holidays, deep in canine meditation, immediately pre-dip.
I often tell my pupils, mainly the children, that if you want to be able to swim fast, you have to learn to swim slowly. In other words it is not about thrashing madly through the water, it is about developing a smooth efficient stroke so that you cut down water resistance and maintain a strong streamlined stroke. There is great pleasure and satisfaction to be found in perfecting the stroke, listening to the water and finding a relaxed and sustainable pace.
With this in mind I was delighted to read about the swimming technique of Alexander Popov, the Russian swimming champion. Popov became the world’s fastest and most efficient human swimmer partly through learning to be like a fish. What I mean by this is that he seems to have worked on ways of gliding through the water, creatively finding ways to cut down the water resistance. I believe when you are swimming you have to read the water and adapt your body to the response you feel from the water. In this way you can use the water to help you.
Popov’s stroke is long and relaxed. He stretches his arms forward to achieve a long glide and he looks straight down at the bottom of the pool. Although he swims fast scientists estimate that his power output is at least 25 % lower than most of those he races.
Apparently Popov does most of his most important training at slow speeds. The emphasis is on getting the stroke just right, not on swimming as fast as possible. This is what I call mindful swimming.
I have noticed that whenever I am feeling low going for a long swim lifts my mood. It has helped me through some fairly prolonged troubled patches in my life. I found that no matter how bad I was feeling, if I went for a swim, my mood would lift significantly about 2 to 3 hours after I had left the pool. The effect was clear and predictable. I always felt better, at least for a time. The effect would then last for 3 to 4 hours.
I believe that part of this is the effect of excercise on the brain, and would have perhaps been the same if I had gone for a run, but it seems to me that there is something extra that swimming does to the body.
I looked to see if I could find some research on the effect of swimming on mood, but although it may exist I couldn’t find any. All I have to go on is my own experience.
I have a regular weekly appointment to go swimming with a good friend of mine who suffers from a chronic physical condition, rheumatoid arthritis. She swims every day partly because it is the only form of excercise she can realistically do, and partly as a way of coping with the challenges of her illness. I always meet her, every week, for a long swim, no matter what else is going on in my life. There have been some bad times when it has seemed like the only thing I could rely on. We usually go to the local pool. There is an outdoor pool that is open from May to September so five months of the year we swim outside. We always have a coffee and a chat afterwards and that can be very therapeutic in itself as my friend is very calm and kind and wise, but I am sure there is something in the swim itself that is so helpful and healing.
Besides possible biochemical changes in the brain, swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern. These are key elements of many practices, from hatha yoga to progressive muscle relaxation, used to evoke the relaxation response. Because it is so rhythmic swimming lends itself easily to a meditation. As I am always trying to work on the smoothness and efficiency of my stroke I am very aware of my whole body and how I am using it. I often chant or even sing to myself as I am swimming.
Again I have nothing to prove it but I am sure that swimming strengthens the immune system. I swim at least one kilometre a week and have done regularly for the last six or seven years. I swim mainly front crawl and I swim quite strongly. Although I do very occasionally get colds, I find that they are over very quickly, just as they were when I was pregnant. The cold would come and go very quickly instead of dragging on for days or even weeks which was sometimes my experience before I started swimming so much.