Health: Lie back and learn to crawl

You've got the determination, the Speedo bathing-suit and the anti-chlorine shampoo, but despite years of practice at the local pool you still swim like a dog. Just relax and go with the flow, says Steve Crawshaw
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Over-eating, over-drinking, over-everything in recent days? It's that time of year again, when the nation collectively heaves into guilt mode, and feels that it should do something Healthy and Sensible in the coming months.

If you're going to do something healthy and sensible, it is not a bad starting-point to choose something that might have a chance of being satisfying and fun. Until recently, I had reconciled myself to accepting that my swimming was doomed. Suddenly, I have found that I can swim more or less properly, instead of floundering around in a hopeless mess. Surprises don't come much bigger than that.

I blame my poor swimming on the geography of my upbringing. I was born and grew up by the seaside. Consequently, like most of my classmates, I never learnt to swim. We went to the beach a couple of times a week; we learnt enough to swim from A to B. But it wasn't exactly fancy stuff. School tests involved swimming (a) 10 yards (paddle furiously) (b) 25 yards (paddle more furiously) and (c) 50 yards (bravo!). Once you had completed the 50-yard test, you were deemed to be fully competent. Technique? Forget it.

In common with millions of others, my swimming involved my head protruding from the water, like a lost dog. All attempts to try anything different turned me into a spluttering mess. I assumed this was a permanent condition, the conjugation of my life: I swam like a dog, I swim like a dog, I will always swim like a dog.

When I visited the local pool, everybody else seemed to swim so elegantly. In addition, head-in- the-air lengths were desperately tedious. I remained the swimmers' equivalent of a rusty old bicycle, while everyone around me per- formed an aquatic Tour de France.

And now, all of a sudden, I inhabit a different world. I keep pace with all those macho swimmers at the pool who make such a demonstrative fuss about Swimming Fast. And to do it I do not even have to try.

The improvement, I should add, is not because I have turned into a natural born swimmer. The clue was a few sessions of something called Alexander Swimming - based on the tried and tested Alexander Technique. The original Alexander Technique is based on the principle that you should stop trying so hard to get things right. Slouch, and you end up in pain; try too hard to keep a straight back, and you also end up in pain. Find a relaxed straightness - avoid what Alexanderers call "endgaining", where you think so hard about the result that you never achieve it - and you may be lucky.

Steven Shaw, a trained Alexander teacher and former competitive swimmer, has, together with his wife Limor, also an Alexander teacher, extended the same principle to swimming. Take it easy; and then go for it. In his words: "Traditionally, the emphasis is on making an effort. Our emphasis is on letting go. It's more like learning t'ai-chi, a sequence of moves, than covering a certain amount of lengths in a certain time." In past years, I had tried conventional swimming lessons in order to cure the difficulties, with little success. I decided that if you fail to learn these things properly as a child, then you have missed the final boat.

Now, however, I discover that I was mistaken. My breast stroke is Definitely Not Bad - at least by comparison with some of those who clearly think of themselves as the aquatic bee's knees. And as for the crawl - I hesitate to make any great claims, lest you run into me at the pool and say: "Ha! How could you describe that as a decent crawl?" But if you had seen what passed for my version of the crawl before, you would be as astonished by the improvement as I have been.

Put your head in the water, stop trying - and that's it. Can it really be that easy? Apparently so. Shaw's method has some impressive advocates, including the former Olympic swimmer David Wilkie.

Meanwhile, for perfect happiness, all I now need is to learn to dive. I've wanted to dive since I was 10 years old. Thirty years later seems as good a time to learn as any. So, if you see somebody at the pool doing superbly supple somersaults culminating in an oh-so-elegant dive - it is sure to be me.

Shaw Method of Swimming, 27 Greenway Close, London N20 8ES; 0181-446 9442