Swimming – fitness can damage your health

The fitness enthusiast and the competition swimmer as described above demonstrate instances of the attitude which in the Alexander Technique (AT) is termed end-gaining’. Focusing on the attainment of a distant goal prevents us from paying sufficient attention to the processes involved. This both impedes our ability to attain the desired end and does nothing to enhance the quality of our experience. Exercises that are performed in sets, such as weight-lifting, sit-ups and press-ups, are particularly conducive to an end-gaining mind-set. If we are concerned about getting to the end of the set of exercises without collapsing, we are less likely to pay due attention to the way we are using or misusing our body.

We have seen how the pursuit of fitness itself offers a prime example of the drawbacks of end-gaining. Although modern culture advocates strenuous exercise to improve our mental and physical condition, there is little critical debate about the benefits it is alleged to provide. In fact, even a little more sensitivity to the working of our organism as a whole enables us to notice how fitness regimes can work against our natural balance. Exercise programmes tend to reinforce bad habits and misuse, and the tendency to stiffen the neck and pull the head back is exaggerated as the speed of movement or the effort required increases.

Some routines deliberately treat us like machines whose component parts can be worked on and built up in isolation from the functioning of the whole. Mechanical activity which isolates individual muscle groups in this way is bound to ignore the integrated nature of a healthily functioning musculo-skeletal system. It can result in our developing some areas of our body disproportionately, thereby reducing our overall flexibility and impeding the smooth functioning of the joints. Furthermore, such routines smother our sensitivity. The body’s signals of misuse, such as persistent aches and pains, are ignored in the drive to improve our ‘form’. It’s not surprising that the incidence of exercise-related injury grows year by year, and that sports-related therapies – virtually unknown a decade ago to all except professional athletes, have become a regular feature of the modern fitness scene.

Sports medicine has identified a wide range of specific injuries sustained by competitive swimmers, such as a form of tendonitis referred to as ‘swimmer’s shoulder’, and disabling pain caused by the erosion of cartilage around the knee (‘breaststroker’s knee’). Much more common is the unpleasant experience of cramp in the water. This is most often due to the inadvertent over-extension of less-used muscles in the legs and torso. Although swimming is alleged to be innocuous, it clearly presents risks of this kind if pursued in an unconsidered way. It’s important to be aware of the potential hazards, and to know how strain and injury can occur despite the fact that the water acts as a cushion against ‘high-impact’ injury.

The support offered to the body by water, with its dual property of both yielding to and resisting our actions, certainly offers us the opportunity to increase strength and stamina while moving more freely and fluidly than is possible on land. Swimmers intent on achieving a goal of fitness rarely appreciate these advantages to the full. Their ease and enjoyment are reduced by the sheer effort of trying to swim a given distance in a set time, in an inflexible way. If their system is already out of balance, even the advantages of buoyancy in reducing the requirement for effort are not realized: the unhealthy imbalance is merely reinforced.

Excessive effort and poor technique can actually do more harm than good. Swimming awkwardly can reactivate old injuries, aggravate disorders, and result in neck, shoulder and back pain.

End-gaining thus serves little purpose apart from providing a distraction from performing the activity in hand. Those who swim with the overriding intention in their minds to get fit, strengthen their muscles, or lose weight – typical examples of end-gaining approaches – usually have fixed ideas of what they should do to achieve their aims. Little thought is given to the way they move through the water; attention is switched off and automatic habits take over. This tendency can be a major obstacle to learning to be free and feeling at home in the water.

Even though the buoyancy of water in principle reduces the need for effort and can accordingly have a positive effect on our use, in practice few swimmers have sufficient awareness of their use to develop a style for themselves that exploits this advantage to the full. So if you have specific goals, be aware of how focusing on the end can actually hinder you from attending to the most effective way of achieving the desired result. You can take the first step to a new and healthier way of swimming simply by reconsidering your motivation for being in the water in the first place.

The method proposed by the AT of overcoming the drawbacks of end-gaining in practice is to learn to pay attention to the intermediate steps. This was called by F M. Alexander ‘attending to the means-whereby’. By eliminating the unnecessary pressure caused by trying to attain a particular end, one can become more aware of the moment and thereby achieve greater command over one’s thoughts and actions – in other words, greater control of the whole self. The removal of an automatic end-gaining response makes it possible for a more mindful attitude to emerge, resulting in more effective learning.

A mechanical routine which smothers awareness by setting artificial goals is apt to suppress unarticulated anxieties in the process. This is another way in which the blind pursuit of fitness goals can be dangerously counterproductive. Anxieties remain obscure to their owner, only to emerge in awkward symptoms such as stroke defects and strained breathing. In the urge to achieve a stronger or faster stroke, swimmers develop awkward movements without realizing it. In addition, problems of style which swimmers already display may be exacerbated as they plough ahead unthinkingly. Often only when fears are revealed clearly and explicitly can they be systematically addressed and overcome.

For example, the involuntary twisting round of one leg in the breast stroke (known as the ‘screw-kick’) sets up a negative chain of movements throughout the body. This places uneven pressure on the hips, lower back, and ultimately the entire spinal column. The tendency is very hard to eradicate, and can only be effectively countered by careful attention and the mindful practice of moving both legs symmetrically when lying on front and back, both in and out of water. Swimmers who remain excessively focused on fitness goals are unlikely to be able to correct this often deeply ingrained and potentially harmful stroke defect.

A screw-kick affects the whole body, not just the legs. By not turning both feet out evenly, serious injuries can occur, especially to the knees, hips and lower back. A symmetrical kick not only maintains good alignment, it also enables a powerful thrust through the legs to be achieved without damage.

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