During pregnancy there are many changes in the body. Among these are physical and hormonal changes as well as the possibility of added anxiety or stress.
The physical changes that occur mostly affect the back and the balance due to the increased weight at the front of the body. To add to this imbalance the hormone relaxin is also present in the later stages. The main purpose of this hormone is to make the cartilage around the sacroiliac joints, and pubic joint more pliable to aid the birth process. However it can also affect the discs of the lower spine, making them increasingly prone to misplacement.
Women are often advised to continue to exercise throughout pregnancy if they can and the most often recommended exercise is swimming. There is an obvious reason for this; the weight of the baby is supported by the water, the pregnant woman can therefore move more easily.
However with traditional Breaststroke, the kick that most people have been taught is what we call a whip kick. This is done at the finish of each stroke and is extremely powerful. Between 70 to 90% of the power in that stroke comes from the legs some of the most powerful muscles in the body. It is for this reason that the kick can also cause severe back pain or neck pain if the spine is not in good alignment. If the head is up out of the water, the kick can give the equivalent of a small whip lash to the neck; but without the forward resistance of a solid surface as in the water, we don’t even feel or register the full impact of this action often until we are out of the pool. It shows up later in the form of neck pain and/or lower back pain. The whip kick is also responsible for many of the major knee injuries in breaststrokers.
During pregnancy the tendency is increased curvature for the lower back which can increase risk of lower back pain and in some cases even sciatica.
It is for these reasons that good swimming technique is essential. First of all, the pregnant woman needs to have good alignment of the spine which she can maintain even with the added weight of the baby at the front of the body. Secondly the timing of the stroke is paramount, when the legs finish, the face must be back in the water with the head, neck and spine in good alignment to prevent neck damage. Thirdly the kick needs to be a much gentler form, we teach a wedge kick to prevent knee damage and to help maintain balance in the water and aid breathing.
When we learn a physical skill at a certain level much of the activity becomes what we call automatic, which means it is also a bit difficult to change, because it has become a habit.
So how does one learn all of this?
The swimming we teach applies the Alexander Technique. First we work on good alignment of the spine which is the basis for each of the strokes. Then we teach each part of the stroke seperately to enable an easy learning process. The Alexander Technique is taught hands on in the water and is a fantastic way to learn for adults.
The major role of the technique is to re-educate us, mind and body, and teach us to avoid old habits. So teach students to inhibit the old habit first, and this enables them to learn a new way in which to move. In swimming, for instance, we are required to turn our conscious thinking to our alignment. Then think consciously through the new movement, while maintaining our directions: the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back. This reduces unnecessary tension throughout the muscles of the body and therefore economizes effort.
We can almost describe it as intellectual swimming, as it requires thinking in the activity so that it becomes like tai chi or meditation. Thinking our directions throughout the movement connects mind and body and reduces unnecessary stress.
This method is taught by the teacher using her/his hands, directing you to experience new freedom and ease of movement in the water.
- written by Jan Jordan Published in NCT magazine Herts 2005
Image by Phalinn Ooi