My recent series of posts on Swimming Principles has resonated strongly with readers, drawing an unusually large number of appreciative comments. However one response expressed some skepticism on a topic of interest to many readers: Must you swim hard to swim faster? Here is an excerpt from that comment. (You may read it in full by scrolling down to the 10th response here.)
I must first thank you for turning this swimmer from someone who the life guards worried would not reach the other end of a 25m pool to someone who swims a mile a day. . . . The elephant in the room is this: If you want to go fast, be prepared to get tired. Let’s not suggest you can swim fast without breaking a sweat.
The most succinct answer to Fintan’s question is that I believe nothing in the principles suggests that a swimmer can achieve his or her true maximum performance potential without some exertion. I’ll recapsulize them here.
First Principles These describe the challenges and conditions we land-adapted creatures face in trying to perform an aquatic skill:
#1 Our opportunity for increasing fitness is finite (especially as we age). But. as energy-wasting machines, our upside for saving energy is limitless. Ergo, we should focus more on that.
#2 Nearly everything we do to save energy (starting with making energy conservation a priority) is (i) counter-intuitive and (ii) goes against conventional wisdom. Consequently, we must replace ‘autopilot’ swimming with examined choices about how to spend practice time.
#3 Though efficiency isn’t natural, it is learnable . . . as shown by thousands of TI swimmers. We should strive to improve on it incrementally, but steadily (Kaizen!)
#4 A sleek ‘vessel’ is more important than powerful propulsion. This principle–though widely ignored by swimmers and coaches–is universally embraced by naval architects and those who study fish swimming.
#5 Every part of the stroke affects every other part. Thus we should treat technique as a holistic system. Practice integration. Avoid practice that dis-integrates the stroke and/or body.
Core Principles These address behaviors and mindsets that flow naturally from the first set:
• Focus on improvement. Mileage and heart rate are ingredients in training, but should not be your starting point in planning.
• Practice economy and sustainability. Explore what you can accomplish by doing less, before doing more. This follows naturally on #1 above.
• Never practice struggle. Many have found this to be good advice for living, not just swimming. However, in swimming, struggle is a primal instinct and we must act consciously to avoid it.
• Swimming should make you feel good physically. As you swim. Following the swim. And over the long term. What feels better almost always IS better. And your fastest swims ever should feel awesome!
• Swimming should make you feel better about yourself. Otherwise, why do it?
As someone who has coached swimmers to national championships and records–and achieved both in middle age–I see no conflict between the principles above and the quest for speed. Indeed, I believe they form a powerful foundation for the most intelligent and effective way to train for speed.
Smarter Choices not Greater Efforts
There are two ways—one subtractive, one additive—to achieve faster times. The most-easily achieved improvements–those we should always pursue first–will be subtractive. Reduce energy waste. Reduce drag. Eliminate erratic pacing, etc. Maximize the gains from this approach before pursuing the additive side–higher stroke rates, increased stroke pressure, etc. Among all the swimmers I’ve coached or observed in 40+ years of coaching, 99 Percent were in a position to achieve highly satisfying outcomes via the subtractive approach. Succinctly put: First explore doing less.
The additive side isn’t about heedlessly working harder: I.E. Don’t break a sweat . . . purely for the sake of perspiration. Instead treat speed as a math problem in which smarter choices will outperform greater efforts most of the time: Stroke Length X Stroke Rate = Velocity. I’ll address this in my next post.
Swim Faster . . . Easier
This first-person account, which came in an I received via email from Des Johnston is a superb example of the subtractive approach to swimming faster:
I was always a typical lap swimmer–at least until last year. Like most of my fellow lappers, I considered swimming as a form of exercise. Thus, I favored more and harder laps over attention to technique. But shoulder pain and a sense of stagnation and dissatisfaction made me curious about Total Immersion and its ‘fishlike’ technique.
Before TI, I swam at a rate of 60 strokes per minute, yet my pace per 100m was only about 2:30. Because my balance and breathing were poor and I had a pronounced crossover in my stroke, I was working so hard for that slow pace, that breathlessness kept me from swimming more than 150 meters
Early this year, I began using TI self-coaching aids to relearn how to swim. I worked on balance with Superman, streamlining with Skate, and core stability with a relaxed arm recovery. I discovered that relaxation improved every part of the stroke. And the TI skill sequences led naturally to a relaxed-but-effective 2-Beat Kick.
With a newly efficient stroke, I now swim 100 meters as fast as 1:40, and seldom slower than 1:50. And I travel so far on each stroke that I can swim those paces at a leisurely 40 strokes per minute. In other words, though my stroke is a third slower, my swimming pace is a third faster!
The key has been relaxation! Let the water support your body (relaxed superman glides, skating). Relax your arms during recovery. Let your lead hand float forward. Take your time and press lightly on the catch. Ease up on your kick. Sometimes I relax so much that I catch myself swimming with my eyes closed!
My swimming goals have changed as a result of learning TI. I now prioritize health, happiness, and enjoyment from my swimming; faster paces simply ‘happen.’
The Ageless Dr. Paul Lurie: Getting faster at 97.
Readers of this blog are familiar with Paul Lurie, a retired pediatric cardiologist. Paul taught at Albany Medical College from age 68 until 93, then retired from medicine and moved to Woodland Pond, a senior living center in New Paltz, where he took up choral singing, woodworking . . . and swimming. Paul began using TI self-coaching tools upon moving to Woodland Pond, developing a balanced and relaxed stroke on his own. He took four hours of lessons with me at age 94. This video shows Paul ‘synch-swimming’ with me a year later, at age 95.
Following our lessons, Paul began swimming a daily 20-length practice of 2 lengths freestyle, 1 length backstroke in the 50-foot pool at Woodland Pond, checking his elapsed time periodically. The first time he checked it as 22 minutes-plus.
Like many nonagenarians, Paul has atrial fibrillation. His heart would race by the end of each length and he needed to rest until it slowed. Paul included the rest breaks in timing his 20 lengths. But he continued to improve efficiency and relaxation and needed shorter rest breaks, so his cumulative time improved steadily.
By early 2014, at age 96, Paul’s time was in the 17-minute range. At this point, he asked me to teach him how to do an open turn because he was sufficiently relaxed to swim two continuous laps before stopping to slow his HR.
When Paul timed himself in under 16 minutes, he thought he’d miscounted so he asked fellow TI swimmer Marilyn Bell (first person to swim across Lake Ontario, in 1954 at age 16) to count his laps and time him. The result: 15:46. At that point, Paul said he was going to ‘retire” the record because he didn’t think it was healthy, at 96, to push himself to swim faster.
Last winter Marilyn contacted me to say that Paul’s record now stood at 14:06. This week she sent me the attached shot of her iPhone representing Paul’s new record of 12:15.–three and a half minutes faster than when he thought he shouldn’t try to swim any faster.
All that speed came not from working harder—which would be dangerous at his age. Rather because he has become more and more relaxed, keeping his heart rate lower, allowing to swim every farther with a low HR, and taking shorter breaks when he needs them.
Following his latest record, Paul sent me this message:
Good morning ,Terry, and a very good morning it is.
I planned this swim, deciding that I could do the whole thing very relaxed and thus cut down the need for seconds spent hyperventilating instead of swimming.
Throughout the swim, I kept saying to myself “Rag Doll, Rag Doll, Rag Doll.” [The TI focal point for super-relaxed arms on recovery.]
I thought I knew something about exercise physiology in the aging. The improvement in my time seems way out of the box to me.
Paul will be 98 in October. He has improved his 20-length time by 25 percent since age 96!
In my next post, I’ll use Katie Ledecky’s amazing performances at the World Championships earlier this month to illustrate the ‘smart addition’ process for gaining speed.