Swimming Principles: Can You Swim Faster . . . Easier?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 31st, 2015

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.

Sincerely,

Fintan

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.

Marilyn, Paul, and Terry at Lake Minnewaska Aug 18, 2014

Marilyn, Paul, and Terry at Lake Minnewaska Aug 18, 2014

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.

Paul new record

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!

Minnebluffcloseup

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.

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20 Responses to “Swimming Principles: Can You Swim Faster . . . Easier?”

  1. George says:

    I have only been swimming for 30 months and find your to swimming instructions have benefited greatly ,I am seventy years old à mere 5ft2 ins tall and swim 66 mtrs in 98 seconds how can improve on this ,is it because of small height thanks

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  2. George – Are you swimming in a 25m pool?
    Go here and get the Green Zone stroke count chart for 25m and see if your stroke count is efficient.

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  3. Norm Siever says:

    Terry,

    I’ve been a TI swimmer for about 10 years and am in the pool almost every day. In a 20 yard pool I warm up at 16 strokes per lap, then maintain 12 spl, and end with 10 spl. When my right hand hits the water, only then does my left hand pull. And vice-versa. I probably should start my LH pull before my RH hits the water. I never seem to get tired this way, but don’t know if I should swim in more of an “egg-beater” mode. When should I start my pull? Will this increase my speed?

    You give scant attention to the legs. My feet are parallel to the surface (pointed toes), which reduces drag, which reduces energy output, which reduces SPL. Also, just a little kicking reduces my SPL with very little energy expenditure. Please, please, talk about legs and kicking. By the way, what is a 2-beat kick? I just kick constantly.

    Hoping to hear from you,
    Norm Siever

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  4. Lou Pitschmann says:

    Terry,
    I took 6 TI lessons in Cleveland in 2007, but did not understand the importance of balance. I just purchased your new self training set and was reading that you swam around Manhattan at a 49 strokes per minute pace. I was encouraged to slow down. That day after work I swam a very relaxed half mile in the ocean. I was going slow enough and stayed relaxed enough to be able to notice my balance much better. I’m going to really focus on balance before I even move on to streamlining. Much happier about my swimming now.

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  5. Penny Armstrong says:

    Terry

    Just had to write to tell you about a recent open water adventure that prominently featured you. A couple of much younger friends and I planned to swim out to a Maine Island, camp overnight, and swim back to celebrate the super moon. I planned the trip and the safety measures: buoys, whistles, kayak support, and glow in the dark caps, etc. I also checked the tides, weather and last minute radar.

    Three quarters of the way thru the swim, which was not easy but doable, a very unexpected squall came up. It got really rough, lots of face slapping chop, and the current seemed to pick up as well. It felt kind of dodgey and I started to ask myself what the heck I was doing out there as a seventy year old late in life swimmer.

    I also knew darn well that I had no choice but to swim. Then two things came to mind- Celeste telling me that the water is always calm below the surface, and the video of you at some race (maybe Tampa?) Stroking away in rough water while everyone around you was flailing. So I put my head down, relaxed, and stroked on into shore.

    The trip was well worth it, would do it again, and wanted you to know that that visual, which I must have seen several times, was just what I needed.

    In a couple of weeks I will swim Sharkfest Boston on Sat and Sharkfest Newport on Sunday. With old cranky shoulders I could never ever be doing that without my TI training and the time I have spent watching videos and getting coached by Celeste.

    So thanks for being along on my swim and making the crossing to that magical island possible.

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  6. Mary Jane says:

    It was so inspiring to see what Paul Lurie can do at his age. Can someone age 89 who is terrified of water learn to swim or is that impossible? I am speaking of my father who lives in Scottsdale Arizona. I like your website so much Terry. I have been following your posts for years and I have steadily improved as a swimmer, though I have to say I am not very fast. But someone watching me, a coach, said ‘you could win an award for elegance even if that is not your goal.’ I had told him I wanted to swim faster. Thanks again for your blog.

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  7. Norm
    Thanks for the suggestion to do a post on kicking. I will certainly do that, very soon.
    In a 2-Beat Kick. a right-toe flick drives the left hand forward and vice versa. Optimally the legs should be stable between those 2 kicks per stroke cycle (or one per arm stroke.)
    You could probably initiate your stroke a fraction of a second earlier, just before the other hand enters the Mail Slot.

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  8. Penny
    Next time you plan an adventure like that, I’d love to come along.
    I will see you for sure at Sharkfest Newport. And possibly Boston too.

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  9. mesut izzet titiz says:

    Thank you for your interesting discoveries and teachings.
    I am 60 years old surgeon.
    I relearned swimming
    I first was intrduced to TI swimming in Istanbul 2010. Mr Pavel from Poland was the instructor.
    Then I practiced according to his teaching and improved my swimming.
    ıt is more fun now to swim.

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  10. Penelope Armstrong says:

    Terry:

    Just found a word for what I experienced on that island hopping swim-ataxaria. I think it worthy of being added to the TI dictionary as it is, I think, the goal of open water swimming the TI way.

    Excited to see you at Newport!

    Penny

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  11. Penelope Armstrong says:

    OOPSS, that should be ataraxia-darn that spell check!

    Penny

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  12. Steve says:

    Terry,
    This recent series I find both inspiring and continually filled with both stories, and methods, for improvement.
    I also wonder, you may have, if one of the aspects that people find a challenge, is that we are all ‘equipped’ with the mammalian reflex. While it is remarkable in what it can do, I also wonder if the ‘closing off’ reflexes can make it more difficult to master breathing techniques. I am not a physiologist, but the reading I have done suggests its purpose is to support mammals during breathholding, not breathing, but it is triggered automatically when the face enters a cool water environment. Just one more thought to support your concept that we are land-based creatures avoiding drowning.
    Been a TI swimmer and tri-athlete for the past few years, and I look forward to years to come.

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  13. Mike Kearney says:

    I had trouble with the 2-beat kick. Seems like I was too involved with what was happening up front to think about what my legs were doing. So I got around the problem by taking a deep breath, starting with half a dozen kicks and then synchronizing the arm action with the legs.
    Terry will correct me if I am wrong, but the 2-beat kick is quite different from what most freestyle swimmers do, which is either a flutter or a thrash. They do this to stop their legs from sinking rather than for forward propulsion. They have to do that because they feel the need to keep their heads out of the water to breathe. They are working too hard, building up an oxygen debt and swimming in a state of near panic. I think of the TI kick as resembling walking slowly while kicking snow off your boots. It makes an important contribution to forward propulsion.
    I have some sympathy with George. I am 5ft 4in an 140lbs. Body mass and length (you can’t talk about height in a horizontal activity!) are a factor in swimming. But, as in Judo, size is only an added advantage if you already have perfect technique.

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  14. Carol says:

    TI Swimming always looks so beautiful! I’ve been trying to help a tri athlete to reduce his stroke count from 32 strokes per length (25 yard pool) to many less per length. He is big and strong and I’m small and scrawny. I use the TI method and can swim much faster than my Tri athlete friend with 16 or 17 strokes per length. Any ideas on how to help him? Nothing I say or drills I show him make any difference. If you’re going to swim 2.4 miles, bike 110 miles and run 26.2 miles saving energy with swimming makes a big difference.

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  15. Joy northam says:

    I had a back fusion 2003. I heard swimming was good for recovery. I almost drowned in my teens,deathly afraid of water. I purchased your dvd’s, practiced balance, gliding, learned water will hold you up. Lost my fear of the water. I am now 65 and try to swim every day in my endless pool.

    I want to thank you for changing my life.

    Joy

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  16. Carolyn
    What drills did you ask him to do? What other changes or focal points did you give him. What happened when he tried your suggestions? Do you believe he is highly motivated to swim differently–or only moderately and inconsistently?
    Is there a TI coach nearby to whom you could refer him?

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  17. Wojtek says:

    Terry,
    So encouraging to read about Paul Lurie’s struggle with the Heart Rate and that he managed to take control on this and then made so amazing progress. I am suffering from Myocarditis. and am banned from any sport activity for 6 months to avoid HR going up. I used to swim the TI way 3 times a week but have caught myself in the trap of chasing speed and milage, so to speak (these smart watches make you mad about results!). Your post made me finally realise and remember that I should be looking for and focusing on relaxation. I had had periods of slow relaxed swimming and felt so fantastic after those sessions in the pool. Why had I forgotten about it all?! All I dream about now is to be able to get back into the pool and have that hollistic slow swim with my eyes closed – to become relaxed in the whole my life, to live better, to live well. Thank you, Terry.

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  18. Wojtek — I’m so pleased that Paul Lurie’s example has given you reason to look forward to swimming again–and an uplifting purpose to pursue when you do.

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  19. Wojtek says:

    Thank you, Terry – would it be fair to say that an idicator of your level of relaxation is how much your HR goes up during the swim? I will definately be looking for keeping it as low as possible and watch if I can keep it as such over several lengths, exactly like Paul did – though I’m “only” 37 now… But if I learn it now, it will hopefully be a benefit in the old age :) Thank you.

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  20. Wojtek I’m sure it’s fair to say that, but I’ve never tried to track my HR while swimming. HR monitors are notoriously inaccurate in the water. I rely heavily on RPE — Rate of Perceived Exertion, which is a much more inclusive measure.

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