Swimming just behind someone else can be worth as much as 10% in energy savings. Just as helpful, you can let your draftees do the work of navigation while simply follow in their wake– but do check their bearings from time to time. I practice drafting in the pool, as I said, and at the lake, where I sometimes start at the back of the pack to practice drafting. I’ll do my no-look strokes and practice following other swimmers without actually looking for them. I try to sense their proximity by feeling the bubbles from their kick. You can also catch a ride by swimming alongside another swimmer (or between two swimmers) but close enough to stay within their bow wave, by keeping your goggles somewhere between their knees and feet. When drafting that way, can keep your “rabbit” in view with normal side-breathing.
After swimming “blind” for 40 or more strokes, I’ll sneak a quick peak at my draftee’s cap or for the center of the cluster of caps. Another way to use the pack to stay on course is by swimming to one side. If you know, for instance, that you typically wander to the left while swimming, position yourself to the right of most of the pack. Everyone else else will keep you in line.
Practice with Purpose
In addition to the gear-changing and timed pool sets outlined earlier in this book, in the lake I test and develop my ability to stay smooth at racing speeds with a variety of pacing games. I will generally swim in a range of three “gears.” Silent is virtually effortless. Cruise is a bit faster with some feeling of pace. Brisk represents the effort and pace I’d usually feel in the course of a mile race–but my race is complete after I swim, so this pace may be a bit faster than most triathletes would want to swim. Here’s a sample “lake workout” to show the range of creativity that is possible– each “set” represents one “lake lap” or just under 400 meters:
Swim Super-Slow and Silent. I try for the lowest possible stroke count and try to cross with fewer than four “looks” to sight.
Speedplay. Alternate rounds of 40 strokes Silent with 20 strokes Cruise. Try to be just as quiet and splash-free as you accelerate to “cruise pace.”
SSP (Sensory Skill Practice). Alternate thinking about your head position (relaxing the neck, hanging the head) and timing your switches, with purposeful exaggeration. Count strokes.
Speedplay. Alternate 50 Silent strokes–10 Cruise strokes, 40 Silent–20 Cruise, 30 Silent–40 Cruise, 10 Silent–50 Cruise. Be just as smooth for 50 strokes of Cruise as you are for 10.
Drafting Practice. Start at the rear and practice “feeling wakes” and not looking very often. Also practice how to advance within the pack by leapfrogging from the “free ride” of one wake to the free ride of another wake further ahead in the pack, like a trout working upstream from rock to rock.
Speedplay. Alternate 20 strokes Silent–20 strokes Cruise–20 strokes Brisk. Try to stay just as smooth and fluent at Brisk as at Silent. You can also practice adjusting your tempo in the core, by keeping your arms connected to your faster-moving torso as you cycle through this repeatedly.
Pickups. Start at the rear of the pack, give the leaders a bit of a head start, then build your tempo and pace steadily across the lake, from Silent through Cruise, Brisk, and finally to full speed in the final 50 meters or so. This lap is a microcosm of a whole race, distilled to 400 meters.
Each summer, I divide my swimming between an outdoor 50-meter pool in New Paltz, and several lakes in the nearby Shawankgunk Mountains. At the pool, I swim at slack times, with no lane lines so I sometimes have to weave through other bathers, providing “open-water practice” of a sort. I further simulate open-water in the pool by doing the following:
Swimming “blind.” Swimming 50-meters without lanes lines tests how straight I swim when not following a line. As I take 30-40 strokes per length, I may swim 20-plus strokes with my eyes closed and see how far I’ve wandered from the line where I started. This will help me pick a frequency for sighting when I race.
Sighting. Once or twice each length, I can breathe and sight to the front, specifically practicing my ability to maintain balance and rhythm as I do. I can combine this with blind swimming– opening my eyes only when I lift my head– for an even more accurate simulation of the open water experience.
Drafting. I sometimes “draft” a few friends to swim with me and practice close-order drafting, swimming in tight single file down the pool, with the leader dropping to the end at each wall. [More detail in Ch. 21 of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy]
Porpoise. At the shallower end of the pool, I (or we) can begin the length with 3 or 4 porpoises before we begin stroking. We work on efficient, low-angle porpoising– channeling energy forward as we dive toward the bottom and back toward the surface, and on grabbing the bottom and pushing off quickly.
Look This Way
Without a line to follow, any swimmer will eventually travel in a circle; the best swimmers, in a 10-mile circle, others within the turning radius of a VW. In open water, you stay the course by occasionally sighting on landmarks, buoys, and swim caps. Practice can help you do that without losing your balance and flow. Here’s what I practice:
Look less often. When your technique improves, you’ll swim straighter. I often swim considerable distances without looking. It usually takes me about 320 strokes to cross the lake (yes, I count strokes even there), so I’ll often begin by taking 100 “blind” strokes without checking my bearings, to see how straight I swim. If I’ve gone considerably off, I’ll take fewer strokes before looking again. This gives me a sense of how often to sight in a race.
Sight smart. As we swim westward, our target is a dead tree angled into the water. Coming east, we swim toward a dock. Complicating the westward trip is sun glare that obscures the dead tree until we move into shadow, about 50 meters from the shore. How do I sight for the first 350 meters? On the bluff above the shore the treeline dips slightly just right of the spot we’re aiming for. So I sight on the dip in the treeline until we reach the shadows. Heading east, the dock isn’t clearly visible until the last 100 meters, so I use two buildings behind it, one a bit to its right and one a bit to its left, to “triangulate.” While warming up for a race, check for landmarks and other features that can help guide you when visibility is compromised.
Sight seamlessly. Sometimes the lake is almost as calm as pool water. When it is, I practice “surfing” my goggles barely over the surface, using my extending arm for support as I lift my head up and forward. Staying that low is far less tiring than holding my head aloft for several strokes in a row, but I may not get a completely clear picture. This sighting style is so easy to fit into a normal stroke rhythm that if I didn’t get a complete picture, I assemble one by taking a series of “snapshots” with brief peeks forward. And when windchop kicks up on the lake, I adjust by lifting just a bit higher or by taking more “snapshots.” These techniques help me maintain seamless balance and flow.
Breathe This Way
Breathing to both sides is a key skill for open water. Breathing to one side for 20 minutes or longer can leave neck and back muscles tense; breathing both ways keeps you looser. Second, you never know on which side your landmarks and buoys may be. And finally, waves, chop, or splashy swimmers on one side can be a problem unless you’re comfortable breathing the other way. Fortunately, our T.I lessons [earlier in this book] should have helped you become comfortable with bilateral breathing. I do most of my swimming in both pool and lake, breathing alternately. That could mean breathing every three strokes, or every five if I’m going super slow (my effort level is low and so is my oxygen consumption). It could mean breathing on the right side while heading west and on the left going east. It could mean 10 breaths on my right, followed by 10 on my left. I practice all kinds of alternating patterns, so I can shift easily while racing.
The following article is adapted from the transcript of a talk that Terry Laughlin gave at the 2004 American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA) World Clinic. For brevity, this lengthy talk has been edited for this blog, but readers can view the entirety of the transcript HERE, on ASCA’s page. Terry entitled the talk “Five Gear Swimming” and describes in-depth how one can develop “gears” in one’s stroke, by consciously cultivating a range of precise stroke counts over different speeds and different distances. Among observations in his full remarks, Terry said: “What I see distinguishing champions from all the other gifted and highly trained athletes at a World Championship is the ability to execute with greater choice and control. And this is something that I think any swimmer – even 10 year olds to some degree – can be taught. If we can identify the skills, habits and behaviors that are associated with winning important races, it’s my contention that we should spend as much of our training time as possible teaching and honing them….and we get in shape while we do it, rather than focus on getting in shape and hoping that race-winning skills somehow develop along the way.” This talk– and Terry’s practice sets at the bottom of this transcript– are focused entirely on demonstrating how we can hone and train those skills, particularly increasing stroke length and developing precise speed (similar to consciously shifting gears on a bike or a car). Enjoy and Happy Laps!
[Editors Note: There is a copy of Terry’s practice set handout at the end of this article.]
Over the years I’ve talked to a half dozen swimmers who set world records. I always ask them: “What did it feel like to swim faster than anyone in history; what sensations did you experience during the swim?” Every one of them described feeling great. None talked about having to “push through pain barriers.” I spent the first week of February in Austin with Eddie Reese. While there, I asked Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Neil Walker, and Ian Crocker that question. Aaron described his world record swim in the 200 backstroke this way: “When I hit the touchpad I felt like I could have kept going at that speed.” All four said similar things.
I think that can help us understand how Michael Phelps is able to string together so many fast races in period of a few days, setting four or five world records in a few days at the World Championships, or racing 17 times in eight days at Athens. One critical reason is that his lactate reading is incredibly low after a fast swim – he’s been measured at 5.0 millimoles of lactate per liter of blood, compared to readings of 15 or higher in some swimmers. Some people think he just has freakish physiology. I’m more inclined to believe it’s because he swims with superhuman economy of movement. I think he swims so fast precisely because he doesn’t give a maximum effort – because he’s always under control. That makes me think we may put too much emphasis on pushing through pain barriers. I’d rather have my swimmers feel like Aaron or Michael in their races. To get them there, I teach them to feel good at slower speeds and to continue feeling good at progressively faster paces.
We do that through the kind of training described on these slides, which has the goals of: (a) increasing your SL, (b) expanding your capacity to go greater distances and achieve greater speeds within your SPL range and (c) learning how to be effective at your red line.
This slide illustrates how we describe training speeds for our swimmers. I suppose many of you are familiar with the list of training speeds prescribed by U.S. Swimming. The other day when I led the Stroke School, I had to ask coaches in the audience what they were. After 32 years of coaching I’m clueless as to how they’re labeled and what they mean. I’ve read the list but I can never remember all the labels, let alone the work-to-rest ratios and rest intervals for each. If I was to tell someone on my team, “I want you to swim this at EN3,” they’d just look at me blankly.
So we use a much simpler set of just five training speed descriptions that have proven perfectly adequate in my own training. I didn’t bother giving them labels until I began coaching the team, because I needed a simple way for them to understand what I was asking for in a set. I expect they will work better for my team of average swimmers than a more complicated system. Here are our training speeds:
Perfect – This is our slowest training speed — warmup or recovery pace or even below. It represents whatever speed you are able to do when swimming the most meticulously perfect stroke you can. Whenever we do any recovery swimming after intensive efforts we’ll do it at the highest possible efficiency levels.
Cruise – This is our next training speed. If I ask you to define “Cruise” for me what words would you use? That’s right: smooth and sustainable; in running terms, it might be called “conversational pace.” I can continue at this pace for a while without feeling any stress or perhaps breaking a sweat..
Brisk – At this level I’m adding a little speed. It’s like breaking a sweat while running, feeling that your heart rate is rising. My chest isn’t heaving, but I have the feeling of doing a bit of work, but still submaximal. Another term for it might be “easy speed.”
Race – This pace is race specific. If I say “Race speed” and we’re talking about the 100 Breaststroke, that’s one feeling; if we’re talking about a 200 Breaststroke that’s another feeling. “Race” will mean something different when thinking about the middle of a 1500-meter free than when thinking about the middle of a 400 meter free. The most important aspect of this training speed is that I want my swimmers in training to be able to vividly relate nearly any set to a specific sense of effort/tempo/power they would feel when swimming their best at a particular stage of a particular race.
Race Plus – This speed is anything above that. And once again it’s race specific. A training set that feels like “Race” speed for the 400 meter swim could be “Race Plus” for the 1500 meter swim. If the swimmer is training to race the 1500 meters at 38 SPL (per 50 meters) and expects to race much of the 400 at 40 SPL, then the stroke count being maintained in the set could determine whether the swim was Race or Race Plus. A set of 35-second 50s at 40 spl could be Race for the 400 meters. A set of 35-second 50s at 38 spl would be Race Plus for the same swimmer’s 1500.
What I like about this structure is that it employs language any swimmer can understand immediately and it’s highly practical. If I say Cruise to my swimmers, they know instantly what I’m talking about. Further, after training for 30-plus years myself, I’m pretty tuned into effort levels, but I simply cannot make distinctions between 9 levels of effort so I can’t help but wonder what practical purpose that serves. Five training speed categories seem quite adequate to me.
Another way to do what I’m describing here is to use tempo trainers – the beeping device you can wear on your goggles or in your cap. But if I have 30 swimmers and each trainer cost 25 bucks and we all have to fiddle with setting them before each set, that’s not practical in a team setting. Whereas if they each know their stroke count ranges from months of counting on various sets, we can easily use those counts to customize training for each individual.
I want my swimmers to own the controlling mechanism for their race. You can’t wear a tempo trainer in a race, but by counting strokes constantly and learning to adjust them at will, they can make decisions such as Brendan did in his 200 meter breast, in their own races. The steps to achieving this level of control are outlined on the handout:
Step One: Learn your Strokes Per Length (SPL). You do it by making stroke-counting a habit. We count all strokes, all distances. You’ll have the largest range of counts – four to six — in freestyle. In backstroke the range might be reduced by a stroke or two, depending on where you surface. Butterfly and breaststroke the range gets smaller yet, because a cycle of fly or breast equals two strokes of free or back. In breaststroke we work with a range of 3 or 4 stroke counts. Butterfly has the smallest range of counts to work with, because fly is pretty much all or nothing in rhythm. Reduce the rhythm too much and the stroke stalls. We have a range of 2 and in rare cases 3 strokes to work with. Again, if your pushoff is taking you 15 meters down the pool, that will reduce your range. For warmup we regularly do 100 IM’s with a range of 40 to 46 strokes. I also figure out appropriate stroke count ranges for every stroke combo (fly-back, or back-breast, or breast-free) we could do.
We start many of our practices with about 30 minutes of sets with Fistgloves. We count strokes with the gloves on and take note of how it changes when we remove them. Sometimes we swim at lower counts after removing the gloves and other times I’ll instruct them to take the same number of strokes without gloves that they took with them, to emphasize speed and tempo more.
We count cycles on many of our drills as well. We count the number of cycles it takes to complete 25 yards underwater dolphin. We do breaststroke pulls with no kick and goggles held above the water and count how many pulls it takes to go 25 yards. We always count our breaststroke kicks-per-length and virtually always count our dolphin kicks per length in streamline on the back or side. The count is a concrete measure of how effective your propulsive movements are.
I have no problem with people swimming slower when they are focused on improving their current SPL levels. Slower swimming with a purpose of examining and improving your efficiency – to strengthen your foundation when you resume speed later – is valuable. Swimming slowly, but with a very low count is an example of practicing discipline and concentration; the intent is always to add speed back in later but you should “drive a hard bargain” in trading strokes for speed as you do.
Step Two: Develop your range. Here are two simple examples. If I instruct a swimmer to go 25 yards at 13 strokes, then 50 at 26 strokes, then 75 yards at 39, and finally 100 yards at 52 strokes, as the distance increases, she’ll have to be more focused and disciplined to maintain the same SPL she might have done with ease for 25 yards. Going in the other direction, if I give a set of 200 + 150 + 100 +50, all done at 14 SPL, the swimmer will be able to add speed as the distances decrease, without trying simply because it gets easier to hold 14 SPL at progressively shorter distances. They may have to be careful and attentive to hold 14 SPL for an entire 200, but can move more freely as the distance gets shorter. By the time they get to the 50, they can swim somewhat aggressively, which naturally leads to swimming faster.
What’s the desirable training effect in that set? As they gain speed on the 150, 100 and 50 from their initial pace in the 200 – and maintain the same stroke count – in effect they are creating more V by raising their SR, while keeping SL the same. I didn’t tell them to raise their SR – it just happened as they swam faster. This gave them an experience of maintaining SL while raising SR, simply by reducing the repeat distance. That experience goes into their nervous system and becomes an aspect of skill that is usually only displayed by gifted swimmers. This way, we’re teaching “average” swimmers to master a very advanced skill. We may not talk about this explicitly but through practice this skill becomes implicit in the “neural software” they use to control their swimming.
If we do a “Pyramid” set – increasing distance on the first half of the set, then decreasing distance on the second half at a constant SPL – they practice being careful and disciplined going up, then adding speed as they come down. This way they solve two different puzzles on the same set.
For a distance set, let’s say we have a swimmer who has mastered the challenge of maintaining 13 SPL for a set of 10 x 100, and I want to test their ability to maintain 13 SPL for a full 1000, without taking a break every 100. I’ll emphasize to them that the challenge is to maintain 13 SPL for as long as they can do so comfortably, without straining to do so. Concentrating intently is good; putting a hitch or delay in your stroke – or gliding into the turn – is not good, because that’s bad practice. When they can’t maintain 13 SPL with rhythm and flow, I instruct them swim a length of “recovery backstroke” then resume freestyle at 13 SPL. The effect of this “active recovery” is to let them feel a bit more refreshed on freestyle.
The first time I give this, they might need to include 5 lengths of recovery backstroke in the 1000. The next time we do it, the goal would be to complete it a bit faster – or to need only 4 or fewer active rest backstroke laps. Working at it this way we can systematically expand their “efficiency range” while practicing only good form and rhythm. And as they subtract “recovery laps” from their total, they’ll also naturally improve their total time for the 1000. When they finally complete a nonstop 1000 at 13 SPL, they’ve programmed themselves to swim 1000 with consistent efficiency, rather than the more typical process of losing efficiency progressively as a swimmer pushes on to complete a long swim.
This doesn’t mean that I want them to swim a 1000 at 13 SPL all the time. But when they master it, if I tell them to swim a 1000 but allow them 14 SPL, they’ll be able to swim that 1000 at higher speed and still be at a great level of efficiency. And if I give them the OK to swim the second 500 at 15 SPL, then they can pick up speed. That gives us an implicit and natural way to practice and master negative splitting.
Step Three: Introduce “Gears” Practice. When they’ve mastered the art of swimming at a good level of efficiency, and applying that SPL over different distances and speeds, we can introduce what I call Gears practice, which I describe as “playing stroke counts like scales on a piano.” Before they ever attempt even a simple piece of music, piano students spend many hours moving their fingers up and down the keyboard and developing a facility for finding the right notes with ease. We want our swimmers to develop similar facility with their stroke counts or SL. A very basic set of this sort would be 4 rounds of 4 x 25, where on the first round they go 12-13-14-15. On the second round, they reverse that, then repeat those patterns on the next two rounds. As I said, I try everything myself before giving it to my swimmers. If you try this, you’ll discover that it’s a totally different puzzle to go from 15 to 12 strokes than it is to go from 12 to 15.
What I’m constantly looking for in practice design is to change the task with frequency, balancing the difficulty of the puzzle with their ability to solve it successfully. I make these puzzles progressively more challenging with time because I want their nervous systems to always be dealing with tasks that require concentration to succeed at. The swimmers love coming to practice when every set is a problem-solving exercise, rather than a rote repetition that’s little changed from day to day.
We don’t use the pace clock very often for these sets. Instead we’ll set the interval at a certain number of what I call “yoga breaths”, usually three to five. Or we’ll say that the first swimmer in the lane will leave when the third or fourth swimmer finishes. I want them to be totally focused on calibrating their SL, not on watching the pace clock.
Another important part of practice design is that virtually all of our sets include a basic group of tasks, which are repeated several times. We usually do three to four rounds of the basic set. The reason for repeating it three or four times is that usually spend the first round figuring out the puzzle. Their choices and adjustments improve in the second and third round and they consolidate the optimal solution in the fourth round. I explain that the first round or two their only goal is to get better at calibrating so if, on a particular lap you’re supposed to take 14 strokes, you reach the other end and strike the wall with your 14thstroke, no stretching or rushing necessary in the last couple of strokes. As you gain confidence in your calibration, you can swim more aggressively and add a bit of speed. This feels like effortless speed, because it comes out of an adjustment in timing rather than an increase in effort.
The series on this slide represents several different puzzles on rounds of 4 x 25, then 3 x 50, then 2 x 75 and finishing with 1 x 100. On the first round, they’re all at 12 SPL, requiring the discipline to maintain the same SL over increasing distances. On the second round, it’s still 12 SPL on the 25s, but we add one SPL at each increasing distance—13 SPL on the 50s, 14 SPL on the 75s and finally 15 SPL on the 100, allowing them to maintain or perhaps increase speed as the distance increases, but still be at a good level of efficiency at the end. The final round is the most difficult task of all – we allow 15 SPL on the 25s, reduce to 14 SPL on the 50s, to 13 SPL on the 75s and finally just 12 SPL for the 100. Subtracting strokes is always more difficult than adding, but subtracting as you increase distance is about as challenging a task as you can come up with. You’ve got to be relentlessly tuned in and meticulous on that 100.
What all those sets have in common, because of the constantly changing repeat distances and stroke counts, is the need to have every single brain cell turned on from beginning to end. I think the most valuable items are those that require intense concentration and meticulous execution. If I can keep their brain cells fired up for an hour or two, we’ll have a high-value practice. I think it’s far more important to turn on brain cells than muscle cells. Muscle cells will get recruited regardless – you can’t go down the pool without using your muscles and aerobic system — but if I consider brain cells first when planning practice, I’ll end up with swimmers who are fit and better prepared to take initiative and be resourceful.
Time or speed are secondary when I introduce these Gears sets; we usually don’t even use the pace clock on them. My initial goal is for them to master the art of making subtle changes in stroke length and gain the control to swim at any count in their SPL range at will and with consistent accuracy. When I see they can choose and achieve their counts consistently, and seamlessly change counts up or down then we’ll start referencing the pace clock.
Another reason we don’t use the pace clock initially is to foster the “clock in the head” feeling. I want them to “know in their bones” whether they’ve gone faster and to develop a more finely calibrated sense of relative speeds. First gain the coordination to change stroke counts seamlessly, then learn how to swim faster without changing your counts, then learn how to swim faster BY changing your count – speed as a product of higher level coordination, rather than more intense effort. And finally we can use the pace clock to let them associate a concrete value, in minutes and seconds, with the kinesthetic sensations they’ve already developed.
Too often the pace clock becomes an unforgiving taskmaster, in every set, from beginning to end of season, from start to finish of practice. By turning off the clock when I introduce these sets, we focus on the skills and coordination that produce speed, then quantify those speeds later. I think this is the key to developing high-level racing and pacing skills. You can’t refer to the clock in the middle of the race; all you have to go on is your own sense of speed. I believe that sense is more highly developed if they train without the clock at times but are given “speedplay” exercises.
Step Four: Introduce the Pace Clock By introducing the pace clock as one measure of how you’re swimming, but not the only measure, and introducing it when your swimmers have mastered foundation skills, I think you can use it more effectively. Swimming Golf is one of the simplest ways to do that. The simple way is to add your Strokes plus Seconds for a given distance to arrive at your score. 25 strokes plus 30 seconds equals a Score of 50. Adding one more measure to that score increases its value enormously. That would be your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or perhaps Heart Rate (HR). Scoring 50 with an RPE of 2 (on a scale of 5) or HR of 130, would be better than the same score with an RPE of 4 or HR of 180.
We do Swim Golf in many ways. If you do four 50s, all at 35 seconds, but figure out how to subtract one stroke each time that’s a valuable exercise. Or four 50s at 25 strokes, but figure out how to descend 35, 34, 33, 32 seconds without changing the stroke count is a completely different puzzle, equally valuable. Or I might ask them to swim four 50s, all at a total score of 60. First 50 is 32 strokes and 28 seconds, next at 31 strokes and 29 seconds, third at 30 strokes and 30 seconds and the last at 29 strokes and 31 seconds. As you go through the set, you’re asking yourself which combo, at a score of 60, gives me the lowest RPE. What’s the easiest way for me to achieve a score of 60? An exercise like this helps them develop a feeling for swimming some stage of some race more economically and effectively; at some point they’ll probably use this intelligence to stay in good position, while remaining well under their red line…and that becomes a skill that may produce a winning finish.
I explain to my swimmers that the feeling and SL/SR combination that produces your lowest Golf score will not equate to your top speed. As you approach your highest speeds, you can’t really trade one stroke for one second, without overkicking or something else that increases your energy cost. But a great Golf score does equate well to how you’d like to feel in the first quarter of a race, when you’re trying to put yourself in good position, with the lowest heart rate or stroke rate of anyone in the field, setting yourself up to control the pace in the second half.
In another exercise we’ll descend several brief rounds – perhaps 3 x 50s in each round – at each of several stroke counts, perhaps a round each at 26 strokes, 27 strokes, 28 strokes and 29 strokes. I would probably put a recovery 50 – at 23 strokes — between rounds. Our goal is to aim for your best possible score at each count. I’ll ask the swimmers to find out which stroke count produces the lowest score at the lowest RPE; the answer will not be the same for every swimmer.
What I like most about this set is that it gets them to execute a slightly different set of neuromuscular instructions on every single 50. As they swim slightly faster on each of the first 3 x 50s, at 26 strokes, they will have swum a slightly different V/SR combination at the same SL on each 50. They’ll repeat that at a new SL in each successive round. In the course of those 12 x 50s, they will swim 12 slightly different, but completely unique, combinations of SL and SR. If you value nervous system stimulus as part of your training, what could be more valuable as a way of discovering their own most optimal combination of SL and SR?
That systematic experimentation is utterly different from what happens most of the time in conventional training. We give our swimmers countless sets of 500s, 200s or 100s in the course of a season…and they swim them all pretty much the same. But the primary requirement to create continual training adaptation is to find stimuli for our various physiological systems; it seems to me we’re missing out on a great opportunity to..
This week’s post is the final installment in a series of articles we’ve shared this past month on Kaizen Training, all of which have been excerpted from a companion instructional manual that Terry Laughlin created for T.I. workshop attendees, adapted from his 2006 book, “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body.” Terry’s practical guidance in this manual focuses on how T.I. swimmers can strategically develop a Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) Training approach to their swimming practice in the first several weeks or months– and beyond– following a T.I. workshop (or after learning with T.I. self-teaching tools). In this article, we pick up where we left off in last week’s post on “Effective Swimming,” which described how to develop efficient speed through the practice of stroke counting. Now, we add the element of time to our practice– in these sample “Swimming Golf” practice sets– to demonstrate how to effectively use the pace clock with our stroke counting to advance your development of smart speed. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
SELECTED EXCERPT FROM:
“KAIZEN SWIMMING: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TOTAL IMMERSION WORKSHOP”
PHASE III: EFFECTIVE SWIMMING– SWIM FOR TIME
Up to now, we’ve ignored the pace clock– something verging on heresy among swimmers and coaches. But we’ve had good reason: Allowing you to fully develop swimming as an art has readied you to train for it as a sport, with far greater return for your investment of precious time and energy. With stroke count now ingrained as your most important piece of training data, you can then begin using the pace clock to give you another piece of information to cross-reference with your stroke-count numbers. This will give you the complete swimming-improvement picture. This includes “Swimming Golf” and many creative ways of doing time-oriented sets. Here are several examples to get you started:
We introduce the pace clock, but use SPL and perceived effort (heart rate) to measure the “cost” of any speed increases. The easiest way to increase speed isn’t more or harder work; it’s by learning to swim any given speed more economically, freeing the energy to go farther or faster.
Version 1: On successive 50s, swim the same time but reduce your stroke count.
32 total strokes + 50 seconds = a score of 82
31 total strokes + :50 = 81
30 total strokes + :50 = 80
The goal is to repeat the same time on each 50, but to continue subtracting strokes, until you can’t shave any more from your count without sacrificing speed. Solving it will give you valuable “swimming intelligence.”
Version 2: On successive 50s, maintain stroke count, but descend your time.
30 total strokes + :45 = 75
30 total strokes + :44 = 74
30 total strokes + :43 = 73
To improve your score you need to keep exactly the same stroke length, but take each stroke just a bit faster to shave seconds. You’ll be amazed at how quickly a bit more effort can add a lot more strokes. If those strokes don’t translate into enough speed to lower your total score, you know you’ve been wasteful and can take immediate steps to fix the problem.
VARIATIONS ON SWIM GOLF
[Editorial Note: If you do not own Fistgloves, swim with closed fists. To learn more about this tool, click HERE.]
“Play” golf with fistgloves. How close can you come to our ungloved score? After several rounds with gloves on, do another round without them. Does your score improve over previous ungloved sets after “educating” your hands? If so, lock in the sensations you got.
How many ways can you score? After you’ve established your “par,” test how many different stroke counts you can swim at a slightly higher score. If your record score is 77, can you swim a constant score of 80 at 30 and 31 and 32 and 33 and 34 strokes? Which feels easiest?
Take your Heart Rate or estimate your Perceived Exertion after a good score. A score of 64 with a HR of 120 is much better than a 64 with a HR of 150.
There you have it– the final practice tool to start on the path toward Kaizen Swimming. Happy Laps!
Advance beyond the basic T.I. skills with this comprehensive guide on pursuing the kaizen path of swimming to the highest levels of swimming mastery:
Continuing with the series of articles we’ve shared in the last several weeks, this post– “Phase III: Effective Swimming”– is another excerpt from a companion instructional manual that Terry Laughlin created for T.I. workshop attendees, adapted from his 2006 book, “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body.” Terry’s practical guidance in this manual focuses on how T.I. swimmers can strategically develop a Kaizen Training approach to their swimming practice in the first several weeks or months– and beyond– following a T.I. workshop (or after learning with T.I. self-teaching tools). In this article, Terry breaks down the elements of building smart speed through the practice of stroke counting. Since we know that Stroke Length x Stroke Rate = Velocity (SL x SR= V), stroke counting is an integral practice for learning how to deliberately calibrate one’s swimming speed with awareness and precision. Next week we’ll wrap up the last article in this series, looking at how we can effectively incorporate the pace clock with stroke counting in “Swimming Golf” practice sets. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
SELECTED EXCERPT FROM:
“KAIZEN SWIMMING: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TOTAL IMMERSION WORKSHOP”
PHASE III: EFFECTIVE SWIMMING– INCREASE MASTERY, DISTANCE, AND SPEED
Your goals in this phase are to be able to increase your awareness, control, and coordination to be able to swim farther and faster with the least additional effort. Your specific training goals are:
(1) Develop the ability to choose any stroke-per-length (SPL) and swim effectively.
(2) Develop the ability to increase your speed, without increasing your SPL and while maintaining a sense of relaxation.
(3) Swim near your “red line” [race pace] with control and gradually raise your red line.
(4) Be able to apply everything you do in practice while racing.
20% Drills– focused on stroke timing, patient catch, and trapping water
20% Mindful Swimming– in drill/swim sets and whole-stroke sets
30% Stroke Counting and “Gears”
20% “Swimming Golf” [this type of practice will be shared next week] or Descending Series
10% Distance Development or Speedplay
If you’ve been wondering where in Total Immersion “training” happens– those timed sets on the pack clock that other swimmers seem to rely on exclusively– this is it. But with a crucial distinction: the difference between T.I. training and traditional workouts is that T.I. swimmers focus on relaxation, control, and fluency.
You practice Effective Swimming by getting in the habit of:
(a) Counting your strokes
(b) Comparing your stroke counts at any distance or speed to the best you’ve done at that distance or speed
(c) CHOOSING your stroke count on any repeat or set
Once you reach this point, you’ll be ahead of 99% of all swimmers in the effectiveness of your training.
The motto: “Never Practice Struggle” will help you answer virtually any question that might arise as you progress from learning new skills, to developing those skills into habits, to building fitness in such a way that it reinforces those skills. Never forget that you can reduce energy waste far easier and faster than you can create energy stores. And that it takes only half as long to learn a skill correctly from the start than to correct a bad habit. So Effective Swimming will produce far more “functional fitness” in far less time than traditional workouts.
Here are the basics for getting started:
STROKE COUNTING: FIND YOUR STROKES PER LENGTH (SPL)
If you’re not doing a drill or mindful swimming, count your strokes– every stroke, every lap. This will give you real-time info on your level of efficiency. How much does your count increase when you swim 50s at 40 seconds, rather than 45 seconds? Or when you swim 100-yard repeats, rather than 50s? With than information, you can then begin setting efficiency goals for every length of practice. Those goals are not strictly about taking fewer strokes. They can also include:
1. Reducing the increase that occurs when you swim faster.
2. Reducing the increase that occurs when you swim farther.
One caveat is that you’ll probably find it challenging to keep track of your stroke count and concentrate on a Focal Point at the same time when you initially begin monitoring SPL and doing SPL exercises. As you start out, separate the two activities and use them to provide information that helps each. However, over time, stroke counting will become almost automatic and you’ll use only a little brainpower to keep track of SPL. Then you’ll be able to concentrate on a Focal Point and track your count at the same time.
HOLD YOUR SPL FARTHER
Once you have awareness of your stroke count range, you can begin to use that knowledge by doing sets that increase your ability to maintain a longer stroke for a greater distance, and develop your aerobic capacity at the same time. You do this with moderate distance repeats (50 to 300 yds/m) in sets of 1000 to 1500 yds/m in an orderly distance-building, efficiency-maintaining progression. Start with shorter repeats at a moderately challenging stroke count, then increase the repeat distance while maintaining the stroke count. When you’ve progressed from 50-yd repeats to 200-300-yd repeats at that stroke count, you can drop your count by one stroke and start the process over again with 50-yd repeats. Your speed on these repeats is less important than a sense of smooth, consistent stroking over longer distances. To train a bit faster, just reduce the repeat distance at the same stroke count for a set– or session– or two.
CHOOSE YOUR SPL
If you rode your bicycle on a hilly course with only a single gear, your legs would be toast in no time. If you drove your car in only one gear, you’d burn out your engine in a hurry… and limit your speed dramatically. And yet, virtually every swimmer has only one “gear” for swimming– mainly because they swim most of the time with just one stroke count and rate. The next stage of Effective Training is similar to a piano student playing notes, chords, and scales until she becomes deft in striking the right keys every time.
Your next set of exercises is designed to teach you to “play” SPL as easily as a pianist playing scales, and then help you use your developing “gears” to learn how to build speed almost effortlessly. Having established your range of stroke counts (in a 25-yd/m pool, most swimmers should have a range of about four stroke counts; mine ranges from 12-15 SPL), your next goal is to: (1) learn to swim smoothly and effectively at every count in that range; (2) be able to “calibrate” your stroke so you can push off a wall and swim at any count you choose in your range, and (3) increase your speed with far less effort by smoothly increasing your stroke count (and consequently, your rate) to move more freely.
Here are a few simple exercises you can do to begin that process:
SPL EXERCISE #1
Swim 25+50+75+100. Rest for 3 to 5 yoga breaths after each swim.
Take note of our stroke count on the 25, then without trying to strictly limit your count, just swim at a consistent pace or effort and see what happens to your SPL average on the the other swims. If you took 15 strokes for the 25, how far above 30-45-60 strokes are you on the 50-75-100? Don’t judge yourself; just take note and file the information for future reference.
SPL EXERCISE #2
Swim 100+75+50+25. Rest for 3 to 5 breaths after each swim.
Start with an easy 100. Count your strokes and divide by 4. This number becomes your “N” (benchmark SPL) for the rest of the set. For example, if you took 72 strokes for a 100, your N is 18 SPL (72 divided by 4 lengths). Again, simply note how far below 54-36-18 strokes you are for 75-50-25.
SPL EXERCISE #3
Repeat Exercise #1, but this time with a specific focal point– e.g. releasing the weight of the head, or slipping through a smaller hole, or swimming more quietly. Just take note of your stroke count; don’t attempt to hit any particular count. This is purely an experiment to see if technique “tweaks” affect your SL, teaching you that you can affect– and ultimately choose your SL.
SPL EXERCISE #4
Swim 2 rounds of: 25+50+75+100.
1st Round: Swim with Fistgloves.[If you do not own a pair, swim with fists closed.] Just swim at your previous effort, not trying to hit any particular count. How many strokes above your ungloved SPL are?
2nd Round: Remove Fistgloves. [Again, if you do not own a pair, now swim with open hands.] Without trying for a particular count, compare your stroke counts to your previous SPL, to discover how Fistgloves (or closed fists) affect your efficiency.
Next week: The final excerpt in this series of articles on Kaizen Training– Using the pace clock with “Swimming Golf”
Advance beyond the basic T.I. skills with this comprehensive guide on pursuing the kaizen path of swimming to the highest levels of swimming mastery:
Over past couple weeks, we’ve shared excerpts from a companion instructional manual that Terry Laughlin created for T.I. workshop attendees, adapted from his 2006 book, “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body.” The purpose of the supplementary material in this manual was to provide practical suggestions to guide T.I. swimmers through the first several weeks or months following a T.I. workshop (or after learning with T.I. self-teaching tools). This week’s post is another excerpt from that manual, focused on the first phase of Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) Training: Energy Conservation. In this article, Terry details the importance of spending time on balance, comfort, and relaxation. From this solid foundation, one can build a stable, fluid, and efficient stroke… and be well-positioned to then cultivate advanced stroke mastery, increase distance, and increase speed. We’ll go in-depth on those latter topics next week, when we’ll share another post in this continuing series of excerpts from Terry’s workshop manual on Kaizen Swimming. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
SELECTED EXCERPT FROM:
“KAIZEN SWIMMING: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TOTAL IMMERSION WORKSHOP”
This part of the Workshop Manual will guide you through the first several weeks or months of training after your T.I. workshop (or after beginning T.I. practice with self-teaching tools). Pages 136-164 of the T.I. book Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body (“ES4EB”) also includes detailed guidance on how to plan a Kaizen Training program for the long term. Here’s an overview of what do in the first few weeks or months of your T.I. practice.
PHASE I: ENERGY CONSERVATION
Every workshop alum (or self-taught T.I. swimmer) should devote at least 10 to 20 hrs of practice to balance, comfort, and relaxation. (Some swimmers have remained at this level for a year or two without stagnating.) Your goals are to eliminate discomfort and tension and develop basic habits of efficient, fluent movement. For many swimmers, drills are essential for this, but whole-stroke can be helpful too. The specific foundations you should form include:
(1) Make breathing routine so it doesn’t distract you while working on other foundations.
(2) Create effortless support or balance by imprinting a neutral head position and the right position on the “track” for your relaxed extended hand.
(3) Make long, “slippery” bodylines a habit by learning to “pierce the water” with your spearing arm and follow the “track” with your bodyline.
(4) Make whole-body propelling movements a habit.
30% Balance Drills to learn balance and imprint sleek bodylines
40% Switch Drills- Focus on minimizing drag and turbulence, and becoming “patient” in trapping water
20% Mindful Swimming (whole stroke with focal points) to transfer awareness gained in drills into whole stroke
10% Stroke Counting to measure your improvements in efficiency and compare the effectiveness of various focal points
Efficient, fluent swimming starts with exploring basic movements and positions with a sense of curiosity– and no sense of urgency. Whenever you feel discomfort during a drill, your natural reaction will be some kind of compensation– craning your neck, sculling, kicking too hard. These unconscious reactions imprint energy-wasting movements on our nervous system.
Patience in mastering basic skills may be natural to martial artists and dancers, but not to most swimmers. I only came to appreciate its value after a few years of regular yoga practice. The most beneficial goal for your first 10 to 20 hours of pool time following the workshop (or after first working with T.I. self-teaching tools) might be to make mindful, examined movement a habit. Don’t count laps or watch the pace clock; focus purely on sensation and awareness– aiming to reduce effort and increase flow. Your period of concentrated drill practice may last a few weeks for some students, several months for others. Your drill practice will benefit greatly if you follow these guidelines:
Short repeats. 25s or less for the first week or two, and seldom longer than 50s.
Short sets. To maintain acute attention, change your focus regularly. Alternate tasks that require intense focus, with less exacting ones.
Clear focus. Think about doing just one thing well on each length. Break it down finely. (e.g. on Switch Drills, you could divide your focal points into soft arms on recovery, recovering arm deep and slow, leading with your elbow, slicing your hand to your target, and tipping your fingers down.
Ignore the clock. Use “yoga breaths” to regulate your rest interval between repeats. 3 to 5 breaths should be sufficient.
Last week we shared an excerpt from a companion instructional manual that Terry Laughlin created for T.I. workshop attendees, adapted from his 2006 book, “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body.” The purpose of the supplementary material in this manual was to provide practical suggestions to guide T.I. swimmers through the first several weeks or months following a T.I. workshop (or after learning with T.I. self-teaching tools). Continuing in this vein, this week’s post is another concise excerpt from that manual and is focused on the shift in mindset as you get started with Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) Training, after learning the basics of T.I. fundamentals– and illustrates the contrasting benefits of pursuing a Kaizen Training approach instead of a traditional training approach. In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to share more excerpts from the manual on Kaizen Swimming, including the topics of energy conservation, and increasing mastery, distance, and speed. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
SELECTED EXCERPT FROM:
“KAIZEN SWIMMING: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TOTAL IMMERSION WORKSHOP”
KAIZEN EQUALS PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
I’ve emphasized that T.I. Swimmers have a very different mindset from most swimmers. Our paradigm for training is no less distinctive. Those training the T.I. way are not only improving steadily, but also enjoying it more than ever. In a few words, we believe in the pursuit of pleasure, rather than pain. This section provides guiding principles for maximizing the value– and enjoyment– of every hour you spend in the pool (or open water).
Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.
There’s a great deal of “folklore” about swimming technique and training. One goal of T.I. instruction is to replace those misconceptions with clarity on how swimming works and to make that knowledge the basis for effective goal-setting. Since I entered my 50’s, I’ve begun every practice with two conscious intentions. Since I made this my practice– at an age when most swimmers are slowing down– my improvement not only continued, but accelerated.
Intention #1: My intention in every practice is to swim better than I ever have in my life. Setting the bar that high keenly concentrates one’s mind. Since I adopted that intention, I’ve enjoyed great fulfillment– and even excitement– in virtually every practice. A key to making this happen is to never push off a wall without a specific purpose.
Intention #2: My intention on every set and repeat is to accomplish whatever task I set for myself (whether technique, stroke count, time, or some combination) with as little effort as possible. In conventional training, the goal is typically to work harder, to increase physiological capacity. But time and energy are finite, while opportunities to increase efficiency are virtually infinite. After more than 40 years, I’m still improving my sense of how to swim more economically.
WHAT ABOUT FITNESS?
In writing about training, I don’t mean to suggest that fitness is unimportant. But instead of training to “get in better shape,” train to improve your swimming. Conditioning will be something that happens to you while you improve your swimming. To illustrate:
Redefine Endurance. Webster’s defines endurance as “the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.” T.I. defines Swimming Endurance as “the ability to repeat effective swimming movements for a duration and speed of your choosing.” That definition places as much importance on nervous system development as on aerobic system development. The critical difference is that when you train the nervous system, the aerobic system also receives the training it needs; when you train the aerobic system, there’s no guarantee that the nervous system will be trained the way you wish.
Ideal for Fitness Swimming. Many of those who take our workshops swim purely for fitness, rather than speed or performance. A common question among fitness swimmers is: “If I swim easier, will I lose fitness?” You won’t– and here’s why:
(1) A quality workout is one that makes good use of the body. T.I. practice makes better use of the body than conventional workouts, minimizing the chances of injury and increasing the likelihood that you’ll be able to do healthful training consistently.
(2) Motivation matters. If you enjoy and are engaged by your fitness routine, you’ll continue for the long term; if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll lose interest. Kaizen– Continued Improvement– Swimming will keep your interest higher than conventional training that you do simply because “it’s good for you.”
(3) Increasing intensity is always an option. Once you begin to master the basics of efficient T.I. swimming, you’ll find yourself able to swim longer– and faster– with less fatigue.
Should I Increase Yardage? In Kaizen Training, the primary reason for swimming more yards is to increase opportunities to imprint efficient movement. Will fitness increase as you do so? Yes, but your swimming will benefit only if that increased fitness accompanies increased skill. So if increased yardage causes you to compromise form, don’t swim those distances until you can do so and maintain good form.
Advance beyond the basic T.I. skills with this comprehensive guide on pursuing the kaizen path of swimming to the highest levels of swimming mastery:
One of the single most common questions that T.I. swimmers ask after first learning the T.I. drill process and technique-focused approach is: “How do I apply what I’ve learned in the drills to my whole stroke practice?” To help guide our students with integrating T.I. skills in the transition to whole stroke practice, we have long provided a companion instructional manual to our workshop attendees. Below is an excerpt from a workshop manual that Terry Laughlin adapted from his 2006 book “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body,” providing practical suggestions to guide T.I. swimmers through the first several weeks or months following a T.I. workshop. This post highlights a detailed list of freestyle focal points that aims to answer the question of how to transition the skills of T.I. drills to whole stroke swimming– an indispensable aid for both new T.I. swimmers and long-term kaizen learners! Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
SELECTED EXCERPT FROM:
“KAIZEN SWIMMING: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TOTAL IMMERSION WORKSHOP”
DEVELOP YOUR STROKE
This phase of practice can last a lifetime for those most committed to Kaizen Swimming, but it should certainly last between one and several years. Your minimum goal is to swim whole stroke with the same degree of balance, ease, and control that you enjoy in the drills. You do that by:
(1) Learning to swim balanced and tall
(2) Learning to breathe rhythmically without interrupting your flow and while keeping a hand extended and anchored
(3) Learning to start each stroke with a “patient hand”– taking time to trap the water with hand/forearm before stroking
(4) Develop “gears” by establishing an SPL (strokes per length) range of three to four 25 yd/m stroke counts (e.g. 14-17 strokes per length, calibrated precisely according to your chosen pace) at which you can swim efficiently… and be able to swim 400-1500 meters without exceeding your SPL range… and to swim sets of shorter repeats (repeats of 25-200 yd/m in sets that last 10-20 min.) in the lower half of your SPL range
Following a period of intensive drill practice, you have two priorities: (1) Apply what you’ve learned in drills to whole-stroke and (2) Begin imprinting an economical stroke into muscle memory. The two key ingredients are Drill/Swim Set and Mindful Swimming. Earlier in this practice guide Coach Brian Van de Krol gave great guidance on Drill/Swim sets. [Those particular drill/swim sets will be shared in a separate blog post in the coming weeks.] Basically, take what feels good in the drill and make it feel the same while swimming whole stroke. At first, it might take you 75 yds of a drill to get a clear idea of the sensation you’re trying to replicate, and you might be able to “hold that feeling” for only 25 yds of swimming. With time, that mix should become 50 yds drill and 50 whole stroke, then 25 drill and 75 whole stroke. Prioritize clarity by having a specific focus at all times and keeping that focus from drill to whole stroke. For example, if you practice Skating with a focus on establishing “wide tracks,” then focus on following those wide tracks in whole stroke.
When you increase your whole-stroke practice, it’s best to simplify your task and heighten your focus with Mindful Swimming. Pages 115-127 of “Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body” [available for purchase– follow this link to the T.I .Store] provide a detailed context for all Freestyle Focal Points. Here is a consolidated list to begin your freestyle practice.
Completely release the weight of your head to the water
Imagine a laser beam coming from your head-spine line– keep it pointed forward
Feel that the back of your neck is lengthened
Hang your extended hand– keep fingers below wrist and wrist below elbow
FOR LATERAL STABILITY
Keep extended lead hand outside of shoulder
Follow “Wide Tracks” with recovery and extension
Rotate only enough for shoulder to clear the water
FOR LONG, SLEEK BODYLINES
Spear hand forward to a target located in Skating and reinforced in Switch drills
Line up your body to follow your spearing hand down the track
Keep legs inside the “shadow” or slipstream of your body
Always have a hand forward of your head
FOR RECOVERY AND ENTRY
Ear Hops– Hop fingers over an imaginary bar coming from your ear, then into the water
Marionette Arms– Hang hand/forearm from your shoulder like a marionette or rag doll
Mail Slot– On entry, slip hand and forearm through a visualized mail slot forward of your shoulder
Soft Hand– Entering hand should be relaxed enough that fingers separate loosely
HOLD YOUR PLACE
Enter fingers opposite the elbow of extended hand
Pause hand– fingers down– for a brief moment before stroke
Trap the water behind hand/forearm before stroking
Hold– don’t pull– as best you can
PROPEL EFFORTLESSLY WITH YOUR CORE
Spear your entering hand past your grip
Spear your hand through the target established in Skating and Switch drills
Drive down the high hip as you spear
Count strokes with hip drives instead of hand entries
Drive opposite foot as you spear your hand
Finish each stroke to the front
Bubble out immediately and continuously after inhale
Blow out the final 20% more forcefully as you roll to air
Use the spearing hand to take you to air
Follow shoulder back with your chin and look past your shoulder
Keep the top of your head down, aligned with spine
Get taller as you roll to breathe; stay taller as you return face-down
Legs should be as passive as possible (if you came to workshop with “busy” legs)
Keep kick as small and “neat” as possible
Try to close feet briefly as you spear
Kick from “gut” and top of legs– don’t feel it in your thighs
Synchronize left foot drive with right hand spear and vice-versa
Do everything as quietly as possible– drilling, swimming, increasing speed or cadence
Never Practice Struggle
If you’re counting, that makes 38 different focal points– but it’s not an exhaustive list. I’ve used every one of these, some for hundreds of thousands of strokes, others for tens of thousands. All have contributed something meaningful to my efficiency. I never take a stroke– in training or racing– without thinking about one of them. Each focal point works on a particular part of the stroke. And each lap you consciously focus on, for example, slipping your arm into a mail slot, faintly imprints a new groove in your nervous system. After 5 or 10 minutes thinking only about that, it will feel a bit more natural and improve the chances that you’ll continue doing it when you’re thinking about something else.
Through practice, you’ll narrow the list to a few particular favorites. Once you do, you might note those on an index card and laminate, or put it in a Ziploc baggie and take it to the pool with you. Put it at the end of your lane, and then do several 25s of each “cue” on the card. Take enough time between reps to catch your breath and think about how you feel. As they become easier, progress to 4 x 50 of each cue. Then, 4 x 75. The level of focus required to do these and groove them into your nervous system makes the time fly, so enjoy this exercise in Mindful Swimming, while you build efficiency and fitness.
Terry practices “chunking” several mini-skills during this breath rehearsal drill
One of the most distinctive and effective aspects of the T.I. approach to swimming is not merely our focus on efficient technique– it’s the way in which we approach the learning process itself. “Meta-learning”– or learning how to learn– is a key element of how we pursue swimming as a path for kaizen mastery (continuous, life-long improvement). We set clear intentions through deliberate practice of specific and discrete skills, and every feature of practice is purposeful, designed to sharpen our mastery of even the subtlest movements within a swim stroke. The complex movements of whole-stroke swimming are deconstructed into its simpler skill components (“mini-skills”) for ease of learning and practice, building the stroke piece by piece, from the ground up. Teaching though this building-block method has always been an integral part of the T.I. process and our swimmers’ success, as each drill and skill in our learning progression builds upon the previous drill and skill. A credo Terry often quoted from the U.S. military is the philosophy that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”– it is imperative to learn and master foundational skills at slow speeds in order to perform them impeccably at faster speeds and in more complex movements. This September 2016 post from Terry is an in-depth look at how T.I. applies the specific learning strategy of “chunking”– breaking a component into smaller “chunks” of related information– to the practice of swimming, and how this approach is a key to your success in swimming mastery.
September 13, 2016
At some point, all kaizen swimmers employ a learning strategy that cognitive scientists refer to as “chunking.” Chunking refers to grouping separate pieces of information together to facilitate learning by remembering the groups as opposed to a much larger number of individual pieces of information. The types of groups can also act as a memory cue. In TI we group by body segment (head, torso, arms, legs) and skill type (Balance, Core Stability, Streamlining, Propulsion).
We learn to read via a chunking process. First, we learn the sounds of individual letters which assemble into words we generally know before beginning to read. Three individual letters (d-o-g, c-a-t) form a group that represents a family pet.
Next, we combine a series of words into a phrase or sentence. Via several additional chunking steps we may acquire the skill of speed reading, in which we rapidly scan pages of text, identifying key phrases which convey the main ideas of what we’re reading.
Chunking is a key strategy for learning complicated physical skills such as swimming. In T.I. methodology, we call this approach “Blend-and-Harmonize”– as in, blend several discrete mini-skills, then bring the new skill set into harmony with the whole stroke.
Long before I knew of it as a learning strategy, I instinctively employed a chunking process to learn new skills. This first occurred nine months before the first T.I. camp, before I’d chosen the name Total Immersion, or even thought of offering a swim camp for adults.
The first skill was Balance, to which I was introduced by Bill Boomer. Bill taught me to align my head with my spine and shift weight forward to my upper chest. We called it “swimming downhill.” Practiced together, these two skills (aligning head and spine; shifting my weight forward) made my legs feel light, something I’d never experienced in almost 25 years of swimming.
From the start, I realized that I couldn’t fully concentrate on both of these new thoughts or sensations at once. So I’d spend 10 to 30 minutes concentrating on feeling a straight line from the top of my head to the base of my spine. Then I’d focus on leaning on my upper chest (we no longer teach balance this way) for a similar duration. This particular approach is called “Block practice.”
After several weeks, I felt sufficiently familiar with both sensations to begin alternating them—focusing on head-spine alignment one length and swimming downhill on the next length. This approach is called “Random practice.” (Note: I also practiced a head-lead balance drill—similar to today’s Torpedo—that highlighted both, giving me a heightened sensory benchmark to aim for in whole stroke.)
After another few weeks, I began to blend the two thoughts. One length focusing on head-spine alignment, one length on swimming downhill, and a third length blending the two thoughts/skills. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Now I was “Chunking.”
I learned later that sequencing Block, Random, and Chunking practice (the names for which I didn’t even know when I began doing that) accelerates transfer of skills from conscious to autonomic control. Or to use a more familiar phrase: Forming a Muscle Memory.
It took me about five years of similar experimentation to achieve Balance in even a rudimentary way –it felt great at the time, but I didn’t yet know how much better that sensation would become in the years ahead. Over the next 10 years, I continued to discover new mini-skills—like the Mail Slot entry and reaching below my bodyline–that improved my sense of weightlessness in the water.
But the bottom line is that Balance originally occurred to me as several discrete skills, which I focused on and sensed individually. After the passage of time– and without my realizing consciously what had occurred– the multiple, individual sensations consolidated or “chunked” into a single awareness I call “Swimming in Balance.”
When Balance became a single, seamlessly-integrated “sensory package,” that freed up mental bandwidth to add new skills—Stability, Streamlining, Propulsion, and Breathing.
It would be many years before I read about chunking as a learning strategy and I could apply that term to what had occurred to me– finally, I could articulate the theoretical framework to describe how I’d intuitively been practicing all along. Both before learning about chunking, and since then, I’ve developed countless skills by the same process.
For instance—as outlined in the 1.0 Effortless Endurance Self-Coaching Course—I achieved a far more refined and efficient freestyle recovery by breaking it into three discrete mini-skills, each of which occupy only a micro-second in the stroke—Elbow Swing, Rag Doll Arm, and Paint a Line.
As brief as these mini-skills are, I have a keen awareness of each, acquired by applying the proven sequence of Block, Random, and Chunking (or “Blend-and-Harmonize”) practice to them.
Fast forward to the present day: I have a far more expansive and holistic “chunk” to which I could give the term “My Utterly Blissful Freestyle,” which integrates six to eight sizable chunks of skills that I’ve developed over the years.
Accessing such high level sensation used to be hit-or-miss. It often took 30-60 minutes to “find” the peak feeling I’d acquired at that point. Now those high quality sensations are absolutely dependable—always there–and I can consistently access them within just a lap or two.
An exclusive excerpt in an ongoing series of material from Terry’s forthcoming final book, Total Immersion: Swimming That Changes Your Life
Over the last year, this blog has released several excerpts from the unpublished draft of Terry’s final book, of which he was nearing completion when he passed away in October 2017. It is currently being edited– for anticipated release sometime in 2019– and this week’s post is another exclusive excerpt from his book. This post is adapted from an early chapter of the book, entitled “How To Swim Efficiently.” In this piece, Terry details the origin and evolution of T.I. techniques; their foundations in the laws of physics, fluid dynamics, and biomechanics; the characteristics of an efficient swim stroke; the T.I. “Pyramid of Skills”; and how our approach has been refined over 30 years and thousands of swimmers. Terry also discusses the ease and grace that is typical of the T.I. stroke, noting the popularity (9+ million views) of a YouTube video of TI Japan Founder and Master Coach Shinji Takeuchi demonstrating T.I. freestyle. If you’ve never seen this remarkable video, we’ve embedded it– and another brief video demo by Terry of the “Elements of Effective Swimming”– within this article as vivid illustration of impeccable technique. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
How To Swim Efficiently
Five-time Olympic running coach Bobby McGee refers to running as “primal” – something we do well by nature. ChiRunning founder Danny Dreyer talks of helping runners rediscover the instinctively relaxed and efficient way they ran as children.
Swimming is precisely the opposite: As you read in the last chapter, in the water we become energy-wasting machines. To develop a high-efficiency stroke, you must make a conscious choice to eliminate energy waste—and renew that choice every time you swim. You’ll need patience and persistence to resist a return to old habits so that new ones can take root.
This chapter details the origin and evolution of TI techniques; their foundations in the laws of physics, fluid dynamics, and biomechanics; and how they were refined over 30 years and thousands of swimmers.
While the efficiency principles described here apply to all strokes, this book focuses primarily on freestyle.
When you’re at the pool, what kind of swimming catches your eye? A swimmer going fast, or one who swims with consummate ease and grace?
On YouTube, the most popular swim video [embedded below] is TI Coach Shinji Takeuchi’s “Most Graceful Freestyle,” which has been viewed more than 9 million times since it was posted in 2008. In second place, with some 5 million views, is a video of Michael Phelps which was posted a year earlier.
The Most Graceful Freestyle Swimming by Shinji Takeuchi - YouTube
Why are so many more people interested in watching an unheralded, middle-aged man than the most decorated swimmer ever? Could it be because grace is a much rarer quality in swimming than speed? And yet—as Shinji, and thousands of other TI swimmers, have shown—grace is attainable, while Phelps’s kind of speed is available only to those with youth, strength, and special talents?
You’ll see countless references to efficiency in these pages. Think of grace as a warmer word for efficiency—and one that’s more accessible. While few of us feel qualified to assess a swimmer’s efficiency, we know it when we see it because all of us feel comfortable recognizing graceful movement vs. ragged or ugly movement.
With human’s baseline efficiency at just 3 percent in swimming, there are nearly limitless opportunities to improve it—with the result of swimming any distance with far more ease and enjoyment, while taking far fewer strokes.
Saving energy will take you almost effortlessly from first strokes, to first comfortable lap, to first mile, and even to a faster mile. When you swim your first continuous mile—and feel energized upon finishing— your stroke is likely to display these characteristics:
Balanced: You feel well-supported by the water—even weightless. This is the characteristic that enables those that follow.
Long: You travel more than the length of your body on each stroke cycle (right plus left arm). When you do, your hand will exit the water, at the conclusion of each stroke, about where it entered.
“Slippery”: You fully extend your bodyline on each stroke, and minimize bubbles, noise, and splash in your stroke.
Integrated: You take each stroke with your whole body—limbs, head and torso–working in seamless coordination, not disconnected parts.
Relaxed: You appear relaxed—never strained–even while swimming at a brisk pace.
And finally, you always feel great while swimming—and better after swimming than before.
Elements of Effective Swimming - YouTube
A Groundbreaking Way to Learn Efficiency
Prior to 1990, I spent nearly two decades coaching club and college swimmers in their teens and early 20s. My highest-performing swimmers-–especially those who won national championships or achieved world rankings—had the best-looking strokes. That motivated me to prod all my athletes to swim with the best form possible at all times.
In maintaining high technique standards for my athletes, I had the luxury of coaching a group of just 15 to 25 swimmers six days a week. And finally, these swimmers were all from the rarefied group ‘inside the bubble’ who—seemingly from birth—were very much at home in the water.
In the early 1990s, I faced a challenge for which all these years of experience had left me unprepared. At each T.I. weekend workshops, some 20 or more inexperienced, and mostly self-coached, swimmers showed up seeking instruction. We had just two days to prepare these new swimmers to successfully coach themselves.
This required an entirely new way of teaching swimming technique—a process that:
1) Could be standardized for many swimmers
2) Would quickly solve significant challenges
3) Be simple enough to follow on their own
Using Bill Boomer’s insights as a starting point, T.I. workshops became a laboratory for refining an all-new approach to improving technique.
The Pyramid of Skills
Learning three skills—in a particular order—has proven to be virtually a sure thing in learning to be efficient. It helps to view these skills as a pyramid.
Balance provides the body control and mental calm essential to learning every skill that follows. Learning Balance replaces the sinking sensation with a comforting sense of feeling ‘weightless’. You accomplish this by working with—instead of fighting—gravity.
Streamline skills come next because water is 880 times denser than air. Why waste energy trying to overpower water resistance when you can reduce it quickly and with relative ease? You accomplish this by shaping your vessel to slip through a smaller ‘hole’ in the water—and by using your limbs as much for minimizing drag as for creating propulsion.
Propulsion skills follow the others because they require a stable body, a high level of coordination and keen self-perception. Yet you can learn them with striking ease after establishing Balance and Streamline skills. You accomplish this by originating power and rhythm in the core and by propelling with your whole body, not your arms and legs.
Besides offering a proven way to become efficient, this sequence of skill acquisition offers these advantages:
Immediate Energy Savings
As energy-wasting machines, we must consider the energy cost of every aspect of swimming—starting with our learning process.
Balance skills focus on relaxing, floating, and extending. These require virtually no energy and lead to immediate, significant energy savings. As well, balance is the key to swimming at the equivalent of a runner’s easy ‘conversational’ pace. You could well be swimming farther after 10 to 20 hours of balance practice than following months of endurance training.
Streamlining skills—lengthening and aligning the body– require only slightly more energy than those for Balance. And, because drag–and the power needed to overcome it–increase exponentially as you swim faster, minimizing drag will make your energy savings exponential.
Propulsion actions—those that move you forward—indeed have a greater energy cost than those we use to balance and streamline. We reduce that by using natural forces—primarily gravity and buoyancy—before generating force with our muscles; and by propelling with the whole-body, rather than fatigue-prone arms and legs.
Put the Odds in Your Favor
The Balance→Streamline→Propulsion pyramid increases your odds of success in two ways:
A Glimpse of Success In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that, to replace an undesired habit with an improved one, experiencing a “small win” early provides motivation to persist through challenges you encounter later. The T.I. learning sequence starts with Balance skills, which reveal how it feels to glide weightlessly and effortlessly. For adult novices, that experience is liberating– even thrilling—and comes as a ray of hope for those who had felt hopeless before.
In the next chapter, let’s move straight-away to learning complete details of the three essential aspects of TI Swimming: Balance, Streamlining, and Core Powered Propulsion.