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How I Discovered Total Immersion -
Triathlon Swimming Made Easy
I’ve been thinking more about my swimming technique and how much I’ve improved in my swimming in the last year and a half. I want to swim faster, and that I think that swimming is my weakest triathlon discipline. But honestly, most triathletes I talk to say that the swim is always the hardest part.
I recently discovered a swimming technique called Total Immersion. This technique has dramatically improved my swimming and I would like to share this information with you.
My history with swimming.
I don’t remember when I learned to swim. Which is to say, I can’t remember not knowing how to swim. As I kid we were always in the water. At the local pool goofing off. Jumping in the deep end of the pool, playing marco-polo, seeing who could touch the bottom or hold their breath the longest. Typical fearless kid stuff.
As I young boy (Cub Scout) I vividly remember getting a merit badge for swimming 1 mile in the open water. I think it was a river with some current, and we had to swim from shore to shore, which meant fighting the current from dragging you down river. This was a huge accomplishment, maybe 10% of the kids were able to do this that year at camp. So I definitely felt that I was an above average swimmer.
However, I never participated in any kind of organized swim coaching or competition. And so although I was comfortable in the water, and I certainly knew how to swim all of the standard swim strokes, I had never received any detailed instruction on efficient swimming style and techniques.
Fast forward to Adulthood
Fast forward, past being overweight and unhealthy, past losing 50lbs and discovering endurance sports, and falling in love with road cycling, to a 36 year old relatively fit guy who figures…
“Hey, I want to take on Triathlon… I want to be an Ironman.”
So I head down to my gym, and I get in the pool, and I start swimming. I can only swim for 30minutes because the pool is busy and there are people waiting in line for a lane… but it turns out, I didn’t need any more time than that. I swam what seemed like a relatively fast but not crazy fast pace for about 10 lengths of the pool (176 yards). When I stop I’m thinking, “Wow, I am tired; I must have been swimming pretty fast.”
I look at the clock, I’ve been swimming for 6 minutes. I quickly do the math in my head, and realize that if I am going to swim the 2.4 miles of an Ironman, and complete it in the 2 hours and 20 minute cut off time, I need to swim that same distance in less than five and a half minutes. I need to swim at least 12% faster. (Ok, I didn’t really figure out 12% faster in my head at the time because I was already mildly hypoxic.)
A Rallying Cry
So being the stubborn guy that I am, I start swimming faster. I turn it on, I go all out. I end up swimming half a mile, 50 lengths of this strangely short pool, and in 31 minutes I have someone starting at me to get out of the lane. I am completely spent, burned out, exhausted. I get out of the pool, drag myself to the shower, and ponder that maybe I am not cut out to be a triathlete, let alone an Ironman.
People who know me, know I don’t give up on things. I may get bored and shift on to something new and exciting, but I don’t give up. Particularly, if I feel like I’ve been confronted with a challenge that truly tests what I’m made of. So this was a rallying cry.
It’s all about Technique
Ironically, I haven’t yet had the realization that this is an issue of technique. After all, I know how to swim. I’ve been doing it my entire life. This must be a case of fitness. Sure, I feel fit, but gosh it was only 3 years ago that I was obese with a BMI of over 34 and body fat over 30%. I’ve been riding a lot of miles on my bike, but I need to get more fit to be a great swimmer! Right!
So I head down to my local favorite triathlon shop, and ask for some books on swim training techniques, swim workouts, etc, to supplement my triathlon training book I already own. Note: I haven’t even cracked open the section in Joe Friel’s Triathlon Bible about swimming… I know how to swim, I’ve been doing it all my life. I just need some workout routines to get into shape.
My triathlon shop is a really good shop. They don’t try to sell you something you don’t need. They are candid and direct, they get to know you and know your skills and they give custom advice for you. What was their advice, “Well, Brad you already have a good book which includes some good swim workouts, but here are some others. Maybe you want to look into technique… have you heard of Total Immersion?”
“Oh, I know how to swim, I’ve been doing it my entire life…”, but ok… if you insist, I’ll check this book out. Let me skim the Table of Contents…
“Chapter 1: If I’m So Fit, Why is Swimming So Hard?”
Hmmm… that sounds like me. Let me flip through some section headlines see if anything grabs my attention…
Three Mistakes Every “Human Swimmer” Makes:
- You think you’ll sink…
- You try to overpower the water…
- You churn your arms…
Yep, that sounds like me.
Part 2: The Smart Swimming Solution
In (this section), we’ll explain the smartest way to become a more effective swimmer. The information we’ll present is simple, readily available, and logical… but largely ignored by swimmers and triathletes, who choose the much harder, more frustrating route of generic training.
Ok, now you’ve got me… I’m going to buy this book and read it. It sounds great.
So I take the book home and start reading it. Let me say that I’m not a big reader. When I read I usually read technical writing, scientific writing, business case studies, etc… standard non-fiction technical writing. If a book doesn’t grab my attention early on with a logical compelling reason for me to be interested in it, I usually won’t get past the first chapter. And since I was looking for answers, I wanted the be convinced this book had them.
Good for me, if I wasn’t already hooked by what I’d read while skimming it in the store, I was absolutely sold on the idea that Terry Laughlin was going to be somebody with good ideas after I read the Introduction. Here’s an excerpt on why TI techniques are so valuable to triathletes, and why traditional swim training programs are probably broken for triathletes.
While most triathletes copy the training programs of competitive swimmers, they shouldn’t. Here’s why:
- Competitive swimming is done mostly in pools; triathlon swimming is done mainly in open water.
- Competitive swimmers have spent years gaining specialized skill and experience; more than 90% of triathlon swimmers are relatively unskilled and inexperienced in swimming, but still need to swim well now.
- Competitive swimming events are primarily 200 meters or less; triathlon swimming happens mainly at distances greater than 400 meters, often much greater.
- Competitive swimmers need to swim with intensity; triathlon swimmers need to swim effortlessly.
- Competitive swimmers can be specialists; triathlon swimmers have to train seriously in two other sports.
The first three chapters of the book go on to further explain in detail why frustration over swimming can be addressed through efficiency and economy of movement in the water. It’s a very logical presentation that had me thoroughly convinced that the program would make sense. There were vague warnings about how this process will totally reinvent your swimming and you may experience more frustration as your body fights to employ old habits as you try to teach in new habits.
I mostly ignored these warnings, because everything it was saying made so much sense. It was so logical. As I read this introduction, I was sure that with this new found knowledge in my head, I would jump into the water and immediately start swimming more efficiently. Sure, I was going to need to do some of these drills, but they were easy… floating on your back… jeez! I know how to swim, remember, I’ve been swimming my whole life.
Total Immersion uses some basic concepts and techniques which are very different from my past experience of swimming. It’s like unlearning some of the old stuff and adopting some new tricks that make the water a friendlier place. I have finally learned how to relax in the water.
Total Immersion: A Revolutionary Way To Swim Better And Faster By Terry Laughlin