25 January 2007

Total Immersion Theory and Technique - Triathlon Swimming: Made Easy (part 2)

Posted by Brad Hefta-Gaub under: Fitness; Ironman; Swim; blogging; triathlon.

Total Immersion - Triathlon Swimming: Made Easy - by Terry LaughlinLet me start by saying I am not writing this blog post to replicate the material in the Total Immersion literature. I love this program as it has made me a much better swimmer, and so I don’t want to in any way take away from the efforts of Terry Laughlin and the Total Immersion team. Please consider this only a review/case study of the technique that I offer as a happy customer.

If the information I have presented here sounds interesting to you, please go buy one of the Total Immersion books, or sign up for one of the many courses that Total Immersion offers around the country.

Yesterday, I posted on how I discovered Total Immersion. Today, I will to describe in a little more detail the basic principals of Total Immersion and give a brief overview of the techniques. Again, for more details, please buy one of the TI books.

The “Total Immersion - Triathlon Swimming: Made Easy” book is divided into 5 parts, with a total of 22 chapters, and 221 pages. It is written as a very practical and easy to read handbook.

Part 1  - ”Why Swimming Frustrates You and How You Can Achieve Fulfillment” (Chapters 1-3) - This portion of the book is essentially an extended introduction that describes the basic techniques. As I described yesterday, TI is based on the concept that there is a form and technique for swimming that allows you to be efficient and effortless in the water. Since the TI approach is designed around teaching you this new efficient technique, Part 1 of the book essentially sells the idea that efficiency is far more important that fitness or strength (or even stamina) when it comes to long distance (anything over 200 meters) swimming. Although Chapter 3 has a brief section describing the 5 fundamental steps to TI swimming, there is very little functional descriptions in this section of the book.

But since I know that many of you are interested in getting to these functional breakthroughs, here is a quick description of the 5-Step Swimming Solution from Chapter 3:

  1. Learn balance. Balance - the feeling that you are effortlessly supported by the water and free to devote all of your efforts to efficient propulsion… In the TI program, mastery of balance is the non-negotiable first step… When you learn balance first, you not only stop fighting the water and wasting energy, you also learn comfort and ease…
  2. Unlearn Struggle; learn harmony. Being able to relax and enjoy the support of the water is just the starting point… At every step you have the opportunity to eliminate struggle and let fluency replace it as a habit…
  3. Learn to roll effortlessly. …You’ll learn to tap effortless power when your rhythms and movements originate in your core body, not in your arms and legs…
  4. Learn to pierce the water. …Slippery swimmers need far less power… to swim at any speed…
  5. Learn fluent, coordinated propelling movements. …In the TI approach, arm stroking is among the last things (taught)… swim with your body, not your arms and legs.

You notice in all of these “steps” and throughout the TI process, there is a massive emphasis placed on balance in the water. One of the things I noticed as I first started practicing the skills, is that when I got frustrated, I could always just float on my back. When I think back to my childhood, and swimming at a very early age, the idea that I was “safe” in the water came from this sense very early on that if I wanted to, at any time, I could “just float”.

In stepping through the TI approach, what I came to realize is that before TI, whenever I started to swim a “crawl” stroke, I would abandon this sense of safety and comfort that I naturally had. I would begin to get that sinking feeling and start to struggle. The more uncomfortable I felt, the more I fought the water.

With the early drills in TI though, and throughout the “philosophy” of TI there is an emphasis on always going back to that “safe” feeling. In fact the idea of a “sweet spot” is taught as one of the earliest drills. Even now as swimming the TI technique for over a year, I always am aware of myself in that “sweet spot” as I progress through my stroke. If I’m out in the open water with a wave crashing over my head (like my Sand Man Tri in Santa Cruz this summer) I don’t stress, I remember that I can sit in my sweet spot, gather my composer and start again when I am comfortable.

Part 2 - “The Smart Swimming Solution” (Chapters 3-9) - This is where the book gets deeper into the theory of TI. It doesn’t yet contain drills or functional descriptions of the techniques, that is saved for Part 3 of the book. But it does go into significant detail about how your body acts as a vessel in the water, what the implications (often negative) of various positions and default actions you might do are, and what you can do to counteract the forces that water places on you as you swim.

I’ll admit, I’m the kind of guy that likes to know why things work the way they do. I am also deeply fascinated by tools. So this level of detail (although it’s only 50 pages) is great for me. I couldn’t put it down. Here are some important topics covered in this section that covers the “why” behind the TI techniques:

  • Stroke Length - How far you move in the water for each stroke is a significant contributor to efficient swimming. Consider this:  Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate. And more importantly, if you can go further on each stroke then fewer strokes are required to go the same distance (obvious right?)… well, each stroke is what takes energy, fuel, effort. So if you take fewer strokes to go .5 miles you will be that much more ready to hit T1 refreshed not exhausted.When I took my TI workshop weekend, every single person in the class improved their stoke length by 25% or more in only 2 days of practicing TI drills. And more than half of the class was accomplished Triathletes who had completed several triathlons over the course of the last couple years.
  • Balance - Balance is more than just being comfortable. It is about being horizontal, it is about being slippery, it is about slipping through the smallest possible hole in the water. Remember water is 800 times more dense than air. Think about how my wind resistance you have when you cycle or run… now multiply that by 800 times. You want to avoid this as much as possible, and being balanced makes you horizontal, which makes you avoid as much of that water density as possible.“Tens years of teaching have shown us that every swimmer who has not consciously worked on balance has room to improve on it. Even Olympic swimmers have told me they could feel their hips become lighter and higher after practicing simple balance drills.”
  • Swim Taller - Basic physics tells us that longer vessels have less drag in the water. This is why racing yachts are long and narrow. The more that you can do to lengthen your body as you swim. The less drag on your vessel and the less effort you will require with each stroke. In fact this simple fact is what actually gives you an advantage when another swimmer is drafting off of you. Two swimmers swimming end to end will almost appear as a single long swimmer with respect to drag.At 5′4″ and 37 years old, I’m not expecting to get any taller. But if I can keep my body long, my arms in front of me as long as possible to increase my vessel length as I glide through the water, I will immediately get an increase in stroke length, simply due to the reduction in drag.
  • Avoid Drag - No amount of fitness, no amount of power will eliminate drag and the resistance that that 800 times more dense than air material is blocking you with. So you have to outsmart the drag. Do everything you can to avoid drag. Using TI techniques you find that you can swim faster (further in less time) with less effort if you focus on eliminating drag.“Even Ian Thorpe… who swim(s) as efficiently as a human can… use - at best - 10 percent of their energy for propulsion. More than 90 percent is consumed by wave making and other inefficiencies.”
  • Learning not use your hands - What? Yep, I thought it sounded strange too. But basically with TI you learn to stop using your hands to try to force the water around… instead you stop using your hands completely for almost all of the initial drills. In fact, they have these things called “fist gloves” that you can get and wear, that will force your hands in to fists, so you can’t try to use them to grab the water. Only after you can comfortably swim several laps with fist gloves are you encouraged to learn how to correctly (more efficiently) use your hands.

Ok, I’m realizing that again, this post is getting rather long, and it’s getting rather late, so I am going to pause the action here. I will pick it up again with a future post (hopefully tomorrow).

In my next installment, I’ll try to get to a brief description of the drills that will teach you these techniques. But again, for the best instruction, I strongly recommend buying the books.


Special Note to Karl McCracken:

Karl, I’m sorry I didn’t get to answering the question, how do I keep from sinking 8 inches below the surface. I am still thinking about how to answer that. Here’s what I can tell you. I used to always sink below the surface maybe as much as 12-18 inches. Now I don’t. I think mostly it’s from practice… and working on balance. I think this is most definitely the key.

I remember in my class/workshop, that some of the coaches were watching me from above and giving me various different pieces of coaching advice. Some of them said I was pointing my arm below 3′o-clock and that that caused me to head downward instead of level with the surface. To compound maters, as I realized I was going down, I would apparently point my arm up above 3′o-clock to try to get back to the surface. I of course was completely unaware that I was doing this… and it didn’t really make sense when they were telling it to me in the class. In fact, I found the 2 day workshop very frustrating and exhausting… but I kept with it after the class, because I was so convinced by the logic. If I could master this, then I knew it would make me a far better swimmer.

Ultimately, with practice, I think I truly learned balance. And this balance allowed me to stay horizontal. If you can stay horizontal, then when you sink, you will sinking horizontally… hmm, does that sound like a good thing? Well it is, because, if you do this, then you will have more water pushing you up; ultimately making you sink less. If you sink at an angle, then you will torpedo down deeper. You will have less water pushing on the front of your body from below, more pushing down from above, and you will ultimately sink faster and faster downward.

This is actually very complicated to digest when you consider that a very common refrain is to “swim downhill”… well, this is great advice for most swimmers… because they are swimming uphill (or actually trying to swim as if they were walking forward with their feet down and head up out of the water so they can breath). But for us sinkers, we need to remember that balance is for our chest and our hips. Stay balanced.

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2 Comments so far...

Karl McCracken Says:

26 January 2007 at 4:20 pm.

Another scorching post - thanks Brad.

I was in the pool today for a 30-minute, and fairly relaxed series of drils while my daughter was having her lesson (jumping in! No longer afraid of the water! fantastic :-))

I spent most of the time focusing on the drill I’ve been struggling with, and at one point found myself almost 18 inches below the surface, but perfectly horizontal. . . . hmmmm.

What I did notice though was that my sinking was only really a problem when rolling to the left - the side I don’t naturally breath on. To the right, it just wasn’t a problem. This means that I don’t have a body that sinks by itself.

So . . . I need to try, try, try again. Terry Loughlin says the Zipperskate that I’m struggling with is one of the most important drills, and one that should be practiced to boredom - at least 30 mins a week.

Sounds like I need another wallchart just for this!

And lastly - I have the “Total Immersion (2nd Edition)” book, rather than the “Total Immersion - Triathlon Swimming Made Easy” that you’ve got. Worth a second trip to Amazon, do you think?


zappoman Says:

27 January 2007 at 2:59 am.

Ahh… the chocolate side vs. the vanilla side…. does your TI book call it that? Mine does. I definitely have one side that I favor more than the other. When I first started doing TI, it was very pronounced. But as I have practiced more and more my sides have become more equal… but not yet perfectly equal.

It sounds to me like you need to just keep up the practice.

But don’t get too obsessed with the drills… I think sometimes they can get too into your head. The point is for you to learn how to achieve the goals I listed above. The strict TI program teaches you to get there through the drills… but if you can get there without the drills, or by emphasizing some of the drills differently, you still got there, and that’s what matters.

I guess, I’m saying… it’s the destination that is more important in this case than the journey.

Now, personally, I can’t do Drill 10 Zipper Skate without sinking pretty deep into the water. I don’t let that sinking bother me, but I do sink. When I do Drill 11 though, I don’t feel rushed, but I also don’t sink. I can have a nice long stroke, while keeping my momentum.

It’s possible that by skipping through Drill 10 like I have, I have missed that essential learning to “lie on my lungs”… but I don’t think so. Maybe if I went back to Drill 10 and focused on it, I’d achieve some improvements in my stroke that would allow me to swim faster (although I don’t think so, and here’s why…).

When I took my workshop/weekend, I finished with a stroke count reduction of 34%. I reduced my stroke count more than anyone else in the class. But I still felt very uncomfortable in the water. It took me another 3 months at least before I felt like I finally “got it”. But one thing that I was doing that weekend, was being very slow and deliberate in my strokes. I totally trusted the water, and didn’t worry about sinking… even though I was sinking all the time. Bob, our head instructor, actually said he thought I had reduced my stroke count too much, that I was holding my strokes too long, and that although he wouldn’t normally suggest this to students, he thought I should speed up my strokes and shorten them.

I think this may also relate to my sinking, and this may relate to yours too. Maybe you’re being too deliberate with your Zipper Skate, and you’re trying to make it too perfect. If so, then speed it up a little, or focus more on Drill 11 Zipper Switch and basically start doing more full stroke swimming, but concentrate on being balanced, on your side, and using your whole body with your stroke.

Good Luck!


About Brad

Me in 2002 - 200lbsThis is my fitness blog. Some people who knew me a long time ago may wonder, what the heck I'm doing writing a blog about fitness. Many of them wouldn't imagine that I'd have anything to do with fitness. You see, up until age 34, I treated my body very poorly. I sat around at home, at work, at play. I ate junk food and lots of it. And the result was what you'd expect 5'4" and 200 lbs with 36% body fat. (more...)