Swimming through the Alexander Technique

Swimming really takes a lot of consciousness, doesn’t it? Unlike running, which is reflex-governed, swimming demands constant mobile direction, checking on body rotation, hand entry, pull and exit, and especially neck release, lengthening through each stroke.. I’ve been swimming for about 65 years now, my freestyle stroke has gone through several major alterations, and my swimming still requires a great deal of constant awareness.

When I was a child, I had severe asthma, and couldn’t make myself exhale fully underwater. I don’t know how I progressed through Junior Lifesaving! Many years later, I had multiple injuries from how I approached dance, and I went to the pool, as running was not an option. I learned to breathe, at least.

Then I entered Alexander Technique training and went back to the pool to completely reconstruct my stroke, learning to let my head float (not lifting it) and learning to let my body rotate from side to side on each stroke, allowing my lats to fully engage while extending my whole body. Head turn for breathing has always presented an interesting challenge. I do find I have to work against the natural impulse to lead with the head and to let my pelvis rotate to begin the body turn, and sneak in the head turn at the end. Kind of. I also sometimes think about letting the top of my head float in the water, so it’s not a pure pivot, but more leading with the mouth to the breathing side while the head tilts toward the extended arm, its weight still floating. Even after all of these years, I have to resist lifting my head when I turn to the right, as you can see in this video (it’s an old video – I think I’ve gotten better, but, like many aspects of swimming, I have to remain conscious of what I’m doing – it never just does itself).

One of the ways swimming helped me to work on the Alexander Technique was how the full extension of free-style glide encouraged length in the neck and opening of the ribs on inhalation. Extending the arm into the glide would take my shoulder away from my neck and upper ribs and thus allow the whole rib cage to open on inhalation, drawing up on the ligaments from the dome of the diaphragm to support its work of lifting the ribs. There is no place for abdominal breathing in an open free-style stroke.

For years, I was the only nut swimming in the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. I’d run over the Jacques Cartier Bridge, and swim along the island early enough to avoid police (not legal to swim there!). Now I have a cottage on a little lake where there are no motorboats allowed. For the first time, I really don’t have to think about where I am or where I’m going. I can just delight in the motion of my directed body as I head across the lake. Heaven! When it gets cold, I switch to cross-country skis or roller skis. The arm muscles in poling are pretty much the same muscles used in free-style stroke, so I need no period of seasonal adaptation and I can stay out of the crowded pools.

It’s a good life! Here’s that right turn head-lift in action: