You might think training to be a stunt double is somehow superhuman but as someone doing just that, I know that what it really involves is no different from the average person taking on any sporting challenge. Training to be a stunt double basically involves attaining national standard in a number of sports from a selection, each with their own unique set of demands incorporating fitness, reaction speed, bravery and skill. But nearly everything I’ve learned through my stunt double training is relevant to open water swimming.
I started training as a stunt double at the age of 28 with little previous experience. Each element of it is therefore a serious personal challenge. Training takes over your life. It wears you down. For each sport I start at the bottom of the pile, looking up to the professionals and wondering if I’ve got what it takes to get anywhere near their level. I have to bounce back again and again after failures and that’s before you even factor in the physical stresses and injuries incurred. It can be the same for anyone taking up swimming, or attempting a huge swimming challenge such as crossing the English Channel. I have seen first-hand some people choosing to learn to swim and going through the same process, and I’ve discovered that a lot of my own experiences can benefit others to become superhuman in their own world.
Three ‘F’ factors stand out for me in stunt double training – fear (and how to manage it), failure (and how to overcome it) and fun (making sure you’re having it) – and these are all relevant to open water swimmers.
Whilst a strong swimmer can find peace and tranquillity lazily stroking their way along a beautiful river on a summer’s evening, the same situation can pose a real danger to someone who can’t swim. If you’re in the latter category, it’s normal (and a good thing) to feel fear. But don’t let that stop you from working towards your dream. Recognise the fear and don’t let others make you feel stupid. At one time or another, those strong swimmers were afraid of the water. It might just be that enough time has passed since then that they’ve forgotten that fear. Or maybe there’s something else in their lives that they are equally afraid of that you find easy, such as public speaking. Find a coach who can help you learn in a safe environment and keep working to overcome that fear. Be patient and it will come.
Setting yourself big challenges is a good thing. You get excited about the potential and it motivates you to train. You can envisage yourself a hero at the end of it all. But what if it all goes wrong? You get hauled out of the water with exhaustion, cramp, seasickness or some other problem. There’s no elation, just a feeling of failure and embarrassment when you go back to your friends and supporters and admit you didn’t make it. At times like these you can feel like giving up on it all.
Instead you have to remind yourself why you wanted to do it in the first place. There have been many times when I consider the enormous financial outlay of stunt training and how much it hurts. In those darkest times I consider packing it all in, but ultimately I know that when I’m too old to train for it I’ll always wonder if I could have made it, so pick yourself up and keep fighting. Adjust your objectives, break down your targets into something more manageable, find a way to give yourself a different approach to training and keep believing in yourself.
Do you remember the first time you truly appreciated open water swimming? Maybe it was a chilly early morning dip and that oh so welcome steaming mug of tea afterwards… the most perfect start to a day you could think of. Since then, has the magic worn off? Have endless training swims taken over and you’ve forgotten to enjoy the beauty and privilege of the activity? It’s very easy to turn a hobby into another chore, so take the pressure off and remember to have fun again.
Stunt training methods to help you become a better swimmer
• Stunt swimming involves being able to swim long distances underwater. Overcoming the panic and having greater control over your breathing can help to make you a stronger and more confident swimmer.
• Wearing clothes when you swim creates a lot of drag, meaning that you have to work harder. You will dramatically improve your strength and cardiovascular fitness by doing this on a regular basis. WARNING: this can be dangerous, so if doing this in open water, make sure you have a quick exit strategy and a buddy with flotation equipment available. You can get very tired quickly and unable to swim the distances you are used to. Be careful on your choice of clothing too as some items can float and tangle around your neck.
• If clothes are too much for you, then try swimming in shoes. Flat, inflexible soles make a crawl kick un-propulsive, so you will have to work your upper body harder or try breaststroke for a great resistance workout for the legs.
• A stunt person must be able to swim all four competitive strokes to a high standard as you would double up for an actor on screen and your swim will have to look perfect on camera. Though an open water swimmer may have no desire to swim butterfly, learning it will give you a more powerful front crawl, it provides variety to your exercise and it is another skill to master that will bring a sense of achievement. Acquiring as many aquatic skills as possible will make you an all-round natural in the water.
Underwater swimming tips
Repetition. The first few goes are really hard and you panic, but persevere and the distance does increase.
Rest. Take lots of rest in between as you can get very light-headed and in danger of passing out.
Zone out. Go into an almost meditative state and distract yourself by looking around you, singing a song in your head or thinking about what you’re going to have for tea. The calmer you are the further you can go.
Count strokes. If you know it’s only 12 strokes to the end of the pool you will push yourself to just do those last painful few.
Never alone. Inform a lifeguard what you’re going to do and ask them to keep a specific eye on you. Swimming underwater long distances can cause sudden loss of consciousness and there are no warnings. Or train in pairs and get a buddy to keep an eye on you as you take it in turns.
Don’t overdo it. Come back to it another time for the best progression, but don’t leave it too long as you lose the ability over time.