Searching for Still Water

Does too much head movement negate the benefits of swimming for people with sensitive vestibular systems?..

“ The vestibular system is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance.” (Wikipedia).

I was disturbed recently to come across a video of young adults with autism/ learning difficulties swimming front crawl, badly, at top speeds. They were putting their bodies under terrible strain, under the watch of a Special Olympics coach. It seemed like a kind of abuse, albeit unintentional, and reminded me of a comment Chris Packham made, summarising approaches to working with autistic people in America, “Let’s force these people rather than adapt to accommodate them”.

Indicators of a sensitive vestibular system

Traits common to people with a sensitive vestibular system are: difficulty paying attention in a classroom; sensitivity to noise/ difficulty filtering sound; poor posture, balance and coordination; travel sickness; difficulty reading a map or moving in a straight line with eyes closed; ear trouble.

For anyone with these tendencies, it’s unlikely that swimming the formal strokes, with all the head movement and consequent overstimulation of the vestibular system this entails, will be stress free, especially in noisy, heavily chlorinated pools.

While I don’t have learning difficulties, I do have a sensitive inner ear which doesn’t like too much head movement.  So I have first hand experience of stress from swimming strokes, however carefully, particularly in my late forties.

When I think that 20 lengths of breaststroke means moving my head from underwater to a breathing position about 200 times and 20 lengths of crawl means turning my head 120 times, it isn’t surprising that I can get out of a pool after a lane swim feeling frazzled.

Last time I went to the pool I found myself doing a whole length of butterfly without coming up for air. But that was probably too much head movement too. Even front crawl with a snorkel can be problematic. My head stays still as my body rotates, as it should, but deep down it wants to turn and this causes conflict in my brain and tension in my neck. There’s no two ways about this, it’s because of a vestibular reflex called the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex.*

I don’t want to get out of the water feeling like I’ve been at the fairground, over excited, dizzy, headachy. As I get older, every lane swim carries that risk. It’s time to stop forcing myself. I need to adapt.

The real benefits of being in water, so obvious that we forget them, are contained in floating about without having to get anywhere; escaping from noise under the surface; enjoying weightlessness, space and freedom to move in all planes and directions, exploring the possibility of swimming without stress.

While I believe that, for people like me with a sensitive vestibular system, swimming the competitive strokes may do more harm than good, I do think that all human beings can benefit from being in water, especially people with sensitive vestibular systems!

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