Get Swimming, Week 3: My tip? Put your head down – there are no sharks

Trying to teach a 35-year-old (stroppy) dog a new trick is never going to be easy

 Irish Times swimmer Laurence Mackin’s tip: Head down and look down your front at your swimming togs. This will immediately streamline your body and you will instantly feel the movement easier in the water. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Irish Times swimmer Laurence Mackin’s tip: Head down and look down your front at your swimming togs. This will immediately streamline your body and you will instantly feel the movement easier in the water. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Laurence (off-kilter) Mackin

It is fair to say that I am not at the top of the swimming class. Instead I am at the bottom. Bumping along the pool’s floor, to be precise, wondering which way is up.

My fellow swim-a-milers all have issues, but they’re mostly minor, and the same can be said of their swimming technique. Peter Conway is expertly adjusting as we go, tinkering a stroke here, coaxing a bit of breathing there, forcing a head underwater when it’s needed.

I, though, present a whole range of problems. There’s the fairly bad stroke. The useless footwork. The panic breathing. The off-kilter shape in the water. Bit by bit though, Peter has been focusing on one particular area and trying to get it to something approaching functional. With the patience of Job and the confidence of Donald Trump, he’s been telling me where I’ve “a little bit of work to do” and how to do it.

The improvements are not immediate. No sooner have I maybe got one bit right, then the head starts worrying about some other sputtering part of the process. This throws a mental spanner in the works, I try to fix everything at once, and not for the first time I get that sinking feeling.

This though is what the process is about, and trying to teach a 35-year-old dog a new trick is never going to be easy. That’s a long time to build up bad habits and a stroppy attitude.

What I’m finding about swimming is how mental a process it is. Peter spends most of this time trying to get us to slow down and control the stroke. This relaxes the process and makes it easier.

Swimming a mile is not about speed, it’s about endurance, and like a musician running through their scales at glacial pace to get the feeling utterly intuitive before building up to blistering speed, I’ve got to get a stroke down to seconds long, so that I’ll be able to go the distance.

But back to the mental part. One of the key things in learning how to swim is having that row with your brain. When something goes wrong, it panics: fear of instant death from drowning (not a thing that exists I’m reliably told) kicks in, and all limbs unloose in an effort to stay afloat/get to shore. I’m learning though that if I can check myself, get back in gear with the right stroke or legwork, then I can get back in control without losing the length entirely.

There are a few things I’ve made minor gains on, and a few tips I’ve picked up in the way.

First, get your head in the water. That means don’t be sticking your head up and looking around. There are no sharks in the vicinity. So have your face down as much as possible. Better still, look down your front at your swimming togs. This will immediately streamline your body and you will instantly feel the movement easier in the water. Give it a go.

Get the right stroke in the water. Do not slap it in and dig down. Slide the hand in front of you, palm flat, just beneath the surface, as if you were slipping it into a sleeve. Hold it there for a beat. Then push down and power away (this next bit I won’t describe as I’m still doing it terribly). But, when coming out of the water, roll your arm up and over your shoulder - this gives you loads of power for the stroke, and with your face down in the water it will be much easier. If you find it difficult your head is probably in the wrong position.

It’s been a tough week with no major breakthroughs, but the work on technique is yielding some results. It’s hard to imagine doing a mile of this, but if I can keep coming up with sneaky ways of shaving off the distance this might just be doable.

Sign up for Swim Ireland’s Swim for a mile event at swimforamile.com

Follow our columnists online at www.irishtimes.com/getswimming

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