I love swimming. It’s one of my favourite activities, and it’s definitely my favourite exercise. My mum was a good swimmer in her younger days – she swam breaststroke for the county and for the RAF, and she taught us when we were quite young. I remember also going for swimming lessons at the sports centre in the school holidays – she says that although I could swim, I didn’t really have much confidence in the water, but those lessons gave me that and I never looked back. Swimming lessons only taught us breaststroke though – I suppose that’s what they teach kids because you can learn it with your face out of the water, so my other strokes – front crawl and back stroke – are self-taught. I’ve never learned butterfly. (And while we’re on the subject, “freestyle” is not a stroke. Freestyle is a term used in swimming races which means the swimmers can choose whichever stroke they prefer. Most swimmers choose front crawl, which is the name of a stroke, because it’s fastest, but that does not mean the front crawl stroke is called freestyle). Breaststroke comes very naturally to me. It’s as easy for me as walking. I’m very comfortable with it and I don’t get tired – stick me in a pool and tell me to do breaststroke at my own pace and I can go all day. In addition to her own swimming, mum used to coach and she says she saw very quickly that I was a naturally good swimmer, and she asked me if I wanted to join a club and compete, but I didn’t want to.
I have hardly ever swum for years now, apart from in the sea on holiday. The reason for that is eczema – I’m very prone to eczema and it can be very unpleasant. At its worst it’s been so bad every time I flexed my fingers the skin on my hands would crack and split and bleed. The chlorine of the water dries my skin out badly, no matter how well I moisturise, and so that’s why I don’t swim much.
I had an appointment with the hip surgeon last month to talk about the ongoing pain I’m having in my hip. What the surgeon says is that although the fracture in my pelvis is healed, the force of the fall jammed the head of the femur into the acetabulum and it’s damaged the bone surfaces in the medial area of the hip joint. He doesn’t think there’s any surgical treatment at present, and it’s pretty much guaranteed the joint will eventually be arthritic – I’d say in the next 10-15 years. I’m really pissed off about it. I went in there expecting to be told “this is what’s wrong and this is how we’ll fix it” so “this is what’s wrong, there’s nothing we can do and eventually you’ll have a painful and disabling condition” wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all.
One of the things we talked about was the need to keep active, but it’s hard to find stuff I can do. Anything too high impact isn’t good for me, and while cycling isn’t high impact on the joints, it’s uncomfortable to be on a saddle for any length of time. The obvious low-impact, strengthening, cardiovascular, calorie-burning exercise seemed to me to be swimming. So I went back to the (newly refurbished, Olympic-sized Royal Commonwealth) pool on the 25th August and did 20 lengths breaststroke without difficulty.
Big, huge mistake.
A few hours later I was so sore it took 500mg mefenamic acid, a co-codamol and half a bottle of red wine before it stopped hurting, and that’s obviously not a pain regime compatible with a job. So I emailed the surgeon, explained breaststroke was hurting my hip, and asked if I should continue and ignore the pain, as a way of working the joint through a full ROM in a non-weightbearing situation, or if I should do another stroke. He said do another stroke.
The trouble with that is that my crawl is awful. My back crawl isn’t bad, not fast, but not bad, but the pool is too busy to do a lot of back crawl safely, especially because I veer. My spatial awareness is lousy and I tend to end up on a diagonal. And before anyone says line yourself up with the ceiling lights or something, my spatial awareness is lousy and I can’t. So, front crawl. My front crawl is about as good as my spatial awareness. And it’s very tiring, much harder work than breaststroke. And my breathing gets all muddled and I get a mouthful of water and it all goes bad.
So, I went for a one-to-one stroke development session with a swimming coach at the Commie. And it was awesome.
Things I learnt about my crawl
- I have a very powerful kick (as I said to the coach, a few years of cycling round Edinburgh hills does wonders for the leg muscles
- some of my difficulties are because I try to make my arms go as fast as my legs. If I accept my arms should be going slowly, I’m much better
- I breathe well from my left side when I’m rotated onto my right, but I have difficulty rotating onto my left to breathe from my right
- I tend not to keep my head still and let my body rotate around it – my head goes all over the place, my body follows, then I get generally deranged and near-drowning ensues
- if I slow my breathing down to every third arm stroke rather than after every pair of arm strokes, I do much better
- doing a proper crawl is way more tiring than doing a good breaststroke
Things I began to learn to do
- to correct the problems as above
- to bring my arms out of the water elbow-first
Nice things the instructor said
- I have a very good kick
- my stroke is much better than she was expecting from my description, and especially given I’ve never been taught crawl
- I’m a good natural swimmer
- I’m doing some things naturally, like when she said concentrate on bringing my arms out elbow-first, she didn’t tell me to just relax my forearm but I did it naturally
- I’m a good natural swimmer
I was so glad I went. With the hip, and the whooping cough, so much of this year has been “I can’t do that because it hurts” or “I can’t do that for long enough to make it worth doing at all because it hurts” or “I can’t do that because it makes me cough” or “I can’t do that because it hurts and it makes me cough”, so to be told several times “you’re actually pretty good” and “you’re doing this right” and “you’ve got natural ability” and “you’re much better than you think you are” was so good to hear.
I kept practising on my own during my week off, and I’ve been swimming at least 5 times a week since I went back to work, and I’ve been back for two more coaching sessions. I’m working on my rotation still, and on keeping my arms really long and slow, which gives me more time to breathe. I’m not quite getting it yet, I can do it some of the time, but I don’t do it consistently. I’ve booked three more half hour sessions for October and if I keep practising in between, I’m hoping that by the end of the month I’ll be doing it right consistently. I can’t do 50m front crawl yet – I can do 25m, and then I tire and I lose control of it all and swallow a mouthful of water and have to either switch to breaststroke or back crawl, but I am getting better. The Commie pool is really busy in the evenings, so I’m going in the mornings before work – and as a thorough completely absolute non-morning person, I’m not hating it. Getting out of bed is the worst bit, I loathe it more than I can say, but once I’m in the water, I’m happy. I do ten lengths – 500m – in about 20 minutes. I tend to do a length of breasstroke as a warm-up, and then I alternate either full back crawl lengths, or I start a front crawl length until it goes pear shaped and then switch to either breaststroke or back crawl. I try to keep the breaststroke to a minimum though because it really does hurt my hip -but I treat myself to a breaststroke length to finish with as a cool down.
In the 5 weeks since I started swimming again, I’ve swum 10660m, plus what I’ve done in the diving pool in the 2 hours of coaching sessions I’ve had, lost 5lbs (although a pound of that is probably eczematous skin flaking off) and one set of nose clips. And I am loving it.