In his bestselling memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami relates how it took him years to find a coach who enabled him to level up his swimming technique. While all of the coaches he worked with were competent, he realized, to his dismay, that not all were effective at helping those who came to them for help. As my teacher in pedagogical approaches would put it: it is one thing to master something, it is another thing to be able to transfer that mastery to your students.
It was, in fact, Murakami’s insight that drove me to keep trying out various swim instruction approaches for adult onset swimmers like me. I am admittedly a special case as I have never really taken any swim instruction all my life. I only became interested in the sport when I started to train for my first triathlon. More to the point, it has taken me more than 8 sessions to figure out how to swim. That is the average number of swim lessons for an average student to achieve a certain level of breakthrough in swimming according to a local veteran triathlon coach.
Then again, he could be wrong. In the highly instructive Your First Triathlon, Joe Friel notes how it usually takes months if not years to really perfect one’s swim technique. To punctuate his point, Friel cited the example of a very efficient swimmer in the pool who took a while to take his efficiency from the pool to the open water. The late Terry Laughlin who invented Total Immersion essentially reinforces Friel’s insight. More specifically, he wrote that of the three disciplines in triathlon, it is swimming that is most unnatural and therefore, the most challenging. Human beings being land-based mammals are naturally designed to walk, run and even cycle. They are not naturally meant to swim. Hence, his insight that a triathlete worth his salt should all the more focus on achieving efficiency in the swim leg to be able to save one’s legs (i.e., pun intended) for the cycling and the running legs of the triathlon.
The preceding might as well ground my seemingly endless search for the ultimate swim instruction. To date it has taken me 4 coaches to finally get to a point where I could truly say I will not just be able to survive the swim leg of my triathlon race. I just might eventually enjoy and thrive in the process. I am not exactly there yet but I could sense I’m about to enter the territory in the next couple of months.
To be fair, I did learn something instructive from my first 3 coaches. But it was my learning experience facilitated by my 4th coach that has proven to be the most game changing by far. That Coach JC Macdonald was personally trained and certified by no less than the Total Immersion Master Terry Laughlin may help explain this.
To celebrate the small wins I’ve been experiencing for the past two months, I am journalizing 10 realizations that have proved helpful to helping me gain the confidence and competence to achieve a series of baby steps that build on each other.
Breathing is everything.
Unlike most swim lessons, breathing is not something that my TI coach added towards the end of the swim lessons. Quite the opposite: breathing was the first thing he made me unlearn to be able to learn the TI approach to efficient swimming. He was very empathic about this. First, one must learn to breathe from the diaphragm rather than from the chest. Breathing from the core relaxes the rest of your body. Breathing from the chest promotes tension and panic.
Just as important, I had to learn how to exhale gently and continuously thru my nose and exhale through my mouth. Interestingly, I was, at the same time, instructed to do both while keeping my mouth open to relax my jaws. This was not something purposively taught to me in my previous swim lessons. In fact, my previous coaches suggested that I apply either the 50/50 exhalation or the 70/30 through either my nose or my mouth or a combination of the two that would work for me.
To my surprise, I have considerably lessened the gasping for air that I used to experience after each lap. Consequently, my rest stops between laps have dramatically gone down from 1.5 to 2 minutes to 10 to 20 seconds.
Relaxation can be learned.
One of the recurrent feedback I got from my first 3 coaches was the need for me to relax. “Relax, Von, relax,” I would often get reminded. “You’re so tense,” they would often point out to me. That I am. I was never comfortable in the water. Water and drowning used to be synonymous to me. That is why I have never taken any swim lessons until the age of 47. Thanks to TI, I learned that relaxation can be learned. Breathing correctly is foundational in this regard. Hand in hand with correct breathing, one must deliberately hang one’s neck and arms and loosen one’s shoulders. These are apparently the most critical body parts which could promote or hinder relaxation. Loosen them up and the rest of one’s body follows. Tense them and you set up yourself for failure. Thus, before starting each practice session, I now make sure I complete a series of superman glides that mimic a rag doll in the water as Terry Laughlin would describe it.
Balance is king.
Doing the superman glide like a rag doll in a public lapping pool actually looks silly. One needs to keep pushing off several times in the course of completing one lap as you will eventually run out of oxygen and sink. It is hardly the kind of pre-workout drill you would find most swimmers do before their practice set. Thankfully, I have learned to ignore the curious and amusing stares I get when I do the superman glide this way. The reward it provides me in terms of how it relaxes both my breathing and my movement far outweighs the curious and amusing stares. Eventually, I realized it’s also a great drill to improve one’s balance in the water. This is on the condition that you remember to keep your ankles and heels together as you do flutter kicks to cover more distance.
Goodbye swim toys.
I used to start all my drill sessions with the use of the center snorkel, the pull buoy and at times, the flippers and the paddles. Not anymore. While my TI coach appreciates the value of these toys for strengthening and improving one’s technique, he sees zero value in them for an adult onset swimmer who is still trying to learn the basics of the free style. What they do, he says, is mask a defect in one’s technique instead of addressing the same. In their place, he’d rather help his student work on each aspect of the free style slowly albeit progressively. First learn the basics then move to the swim toys was how he made me regard the place of swim toys in one’s swim training.
Slope your spear.
Yet another new thing I only learned recently was the value of ensuring that as one spears into the water before pulling, one’s wrist should be aligned to one’s elbow and shoulders like a downward slope. Doing so complements the corresponding clicking of one’s heels to produce a taller posture that aligns with the surface of the water. To be able to picture this under water, the slope being referred to in the TI context is where your nose aligns with your shoulder as it forms a downward slope with your elbow and wrist. It is noteworthy though that the distance from the surface could vary from person to person. Hence, there is value in experimenting until one finds the perfect fit so to speak. Previous to this, what I was taught to do was to reach forward to extend one’s body and cover more distance.
Trim your stroke count.
Less is more. This is the TI approach to the recommended stroke counts to complete one lap. From a high of 40 plus strokes for a 25m lap, my coach was able to trim down my strokes to 25. He did this through the tempo timer which I eventually invested in. What it does is it forces you to improve your balance in the water. Not exactly an enjoyable learning experience as I did the free style around four timings: 1.7, 1.65, 1.60 and 1.55 for several sessions. The objective was to only spear when you hear the beep. This meant that as you awaited the go signal to spear, you needed to rotate your body for your inhalation followed by gentle exhalation. The 1.70 to 1.65 timings were hell pure and simple. I was literally bobbing up and down the water as I sought to complete my inhalation. But persist I did. Lo and behold, the stroke count exercise not only helped improve my balance, it also addressed my tendency to pull my lead arm prematurely as I rotated to breathe.
Swing from your lap.
Next to my breathing, what I do with my arm after I pull has always been a challenge. My other coach used to point out to me that I tend to bring it all the way back. Subsequently, I tend to swing my pulling arm from the back as I maneuvered to spear. Not very efficient. To address this, my TI coach taught me to bring my pulling arm to my lap and then swing my arm sideward before spearing downward. Problem solved albeit since it meant unlearning something I have gotten used to, it was by no means easy. It continues to be a struggle but that is why I continue to work on it. Recently, I discovered that bringing my pulling arm to my lap is a perfect springboard to rotate and inhale. What a welcome bonus.
Learn from the past.
One other thing that amazes me about the TI approach is its extensive use of video analysis. Every single swim lesson is preambled and capped by a video analysis of how I performed a particular drill or technique. To be sure, feedback that is based on recorded data is up there in terms of pedagogical power. You can’t argue with the facts as they say. By reviewing these recordings, you get to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. Just as I thought I was doing a particular exercise right, the video analysis would make me realize what I got right and what I need to work on prior to the next lesson. Very instructive and very humbling at the same time. To the credit of my coach there is always something to affirm and something to correct with each completed video analysis.
Take it a step at a time.
I love the James Taylor song entitled “Line ‘Em Up.” In the song, Taylor talks about how to solve so many difficult albeit mundane problems like Nixon’s wish to say goodbye to every single member of his White House staff or a pastor’s dilemma on how to bless hundreds of couples in a mass wedding. The solution: line them up. This is the signature characteristic of the TI approach. On any given learning day, both the lesson and the homework consisted of only 1 focal point. This flows from the pedagogical philosophy of Total Immersion that the human mind, for all its remarkable capabilities, can only truly focus on one thing at a time. So if it’s the superman glide with breathing for today, that will be the focal point for the next 5 days until the next learning session.
It’s all about mindfulness.
Finally, the TI approach is not just about memorizing techniques mechanically. Much of what would make it work for you has to do with really being there and learning in the moment. Time and again, my TI coach would remind me to be mindful of how I execute every learning focal point. Meaning, each TI swim session is not just a matter of executing x number of laps within the shortest possible time. Learning how to swim the TI way is about being truly in the moment and giving 100% of your focus to what you are doing. Doing so effectively converts one’s swim laps into a meditative activity where you learn more and more about how you learn with each lap that you complete. When this happens one’s swimming progressively and inevitably becomes as rhythmic and melodic as one’s pedaling and one’s running.
For all that, I am humble enough to acknowledge that I am not there yet in terms of swimming tall and solving my breathing challenge completely. Nonetheless, I’ve been amazed by so many things I never thought I would eventually be able to pull off – from improving my balance to lessening my kicking, from making my breathing less tense to partially solving my rotation problem. I really have a feeling I will be able to do open water swimming soon just as I know I will finally be able to enjoy the swim leg of my next triathlon instead of being stuck with the aspiration to simply survive it. Until then, the ultimate goal which is finally within striking distance is nothing less than the late Terry Laughlin’s hitherto fitting epitaph: “may your laps be as happy as mine.”