Ruth Walker: The life aquatic

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BACK in the heady days of 1972, an era of long, hot summers and excruciating childhood awkwardness (for some of us, at least), there was a public information film that boiled burgeoning relationships down to one simple fact: swimming.

And your ability to partake thereof.

So, while Mike could swim like a fish, and therefore swam off into the sunset with the girl of his dreams, Dave was left standing on the beach with sand in his face. “I wish I did’'t keep losing me birds,” he moaned (this was the 1970s, remember). To which his fairy godmother replied, “Then learn to swim, young man, learn to swim.”

Well, meet Steven Shaw. He swims like a fish. And he can teach us the same grace, speed and efficiency too. Inventor of the Shaw Method, he has helped 80-year-olds learn butterfly stroke. And he has taught septuagenarians previously only been able to do breaststroke, heads held up like meerkats with the scent of lion in their nostrils, to do 50 lengths of front crawl.

It's not just those lacking confidence or starting from scratch who can benefit from his method; he says it’s ideal for triathletes and open-water swimmers as it teaches them to swim without straining the body and uses less energy, so they can swim longer distances.

“A lot of people can swim front crawl for a burst of speed over a short distance,” he says, “but open-water swimming is really about confidence and building a sustainable stroke. Triathlon and open-water swimming have really taken offs, and a lot of people would love to take part but just don’t have the sustainability.”

Inspired by David Walliams’ epic Thames swim perhaps? “I think that was a fantastic achievement,” says Shaw, “but he could have swum it much more efficiently.” Ouch. “Now, if you look at Ian Thorpe [the Australian Olympian nicknamed the Thorpedo], he's the most elegant and efficient swimmer of all time. He would break world records looking like he’s going in slow motion.”

For some of us, however, we don’t want to break any world records; we just want to swim more competently. At most, we might have a triathlon in our sights. “If you look at a really good swimmer,” says Shaw, “they look athletic, graceful yet powerful. Like a dolphin. Look at people who are not so competent in the water – either it’s very gentle and they don’t seem to be moving anywhere, or they look like they’re having a fight with the water. They don’t understand the principle of smart swimming. This is knowing where to apply effort.”

A former competitive swimmer, Shaw was inspired by David Wilkie to take up breaststroke in the 1970s. But, forced to give up after developing problems with his back and neck, he was introduced to the Alexander Technique. “It is about body-awareness, body-alignment, breathing and coordination,” he says. “I found the link between the mind and the body quite interesting, so decided to go to Israel and train as a teacher.”

There he was encouraged to get back in the water. But the only way he could change his style of swimming – which had been the cause of his injuries – was to teach himself from scratch, using the Alexander Technique as his basis.

Now in demand around the world, his Art of Swimming workshops are coming to Scotland this month. Prepare to learn you’ve been doing it wrong all along. “The relationship between your head, neck and back affect your swimming more than any other factor,” explains Shaw. “If you swim with your head up or pull it back violently when you take a breath, you can do yourself more harm than good.”

This is why learning to breathe properly is so important. “Look at a really good swimmer and watch how they breathe – they do it without disturbing their rhythm of movement. People who are not such good swimmers will put their heads down, swim as many strokes as they can, then lift their head up and gasp. The skill is learning the art of passive breathing.”

He describes the learning process as a little like tai chi, in that each stroke is broken down into a series of steps that can be practised in water and on dry land. But can he teach me, with a fairly confident breaststroke, to crawl instead of thrash around helplessly in the water? “Breaststroke is a stroke in which it is easier to breathe because the body’s more stable,” he says. “With front crawl, people tend to feel a bit more disorientated. The whole balance is more difficult.”

A common mistake is in positioning the arms. “People tend to breathe and, instead of leaving their lead arm out, they’ll drop it, and as they do that their face will fall under the water. You're not working like a windmill: you need the front arm to balance you while your other arm is coming over the top. First you learn the body position,” he says, “then you learn the timing of the arms, and when you can do those two things correctly the breathing will fit in. Also, if you rotate at the hip, you don’t need to lift your head up: it floats to the surface naturally.”

Fortunately, my problem is a common one. “We get lots of people who have run a marathon, can cycle 200 miles, but within 20 seconds of getting in the water are breathless. It’s because they hyperventilate. They don’t know where to take the air.”

The bonus is that, once you’ve learned these concepts in the pool, you feel the benefits on dry land. n

Steven Shaw is holding workshops in Aberdeen on Saturday and teaching private lessons in Edinburgh next Sunday and Monday. See www.artofswimming.com