Swimming Principle #1 is Always focus on saving energy before spending it. This is because a primal instinct for self-preservation transforms us into Energy Wasting Machines in the water.
This was confirmed by a DARPA study in 2005 in which experienced lap swimmers wasted 97 percent of energy. Why should long-time swimmers convert only three percent of energy into forward motion? First, because our initial swimming experience is usually a ‘near-death experience;’ and second, because formal swim lessons and widespread ideas about training reinforce our instinctive reactions to the vulnerability and exhaustion we feel as beginners.
Our story begins about 6,000 years ago.
The oldest visual record of human swimming are wall drawings from Assyria, clay plates from Egypt, and bas-reliefs from Babylon, created between 2000 and 4000 B.C.. All show human figures swimming with head high and arms paddling, as in the bas-relief below.
These ancient depictions are remarkably similar to a photograph of John Lennon from the 1970s.
And Lennon’s form exactly matches the earliest visual record of my swimming—a brief home movie clip of me taken in a small bungalow-colony pool around 1961. It also matches the style of countless beginners you have likely seen over the years . . . and most likely your very own first lap!
A style that has persisted from the dawn of civilization to today and is universal is obviously embedded in our DNA. Its two common characteristics are:
• Head high to avoid choking.
• All four limbs churning to avoid sinking.
I call this terrestrial technique, because it’s so similar to how dogs, deer, and other terrestrial mammals swim, after millions of years of adapting to life on land.
Because we feel that our very survival is at stake, our first attempts at swimming leave an imprint so deep in our psyches that it remains with us for life: Survival depends on churning your arms and legs.
For a fortunate few–after many exhausting, uncomfortable laps–staying alive concerns gradually give way to swimming farther ambitions. But the actions you perceive as having kept you alive—pulling and kicking—have taken hold in your brain as ‘essential swimming actions.’ And the fact that this style leaves you so exhausted inclines you to believe that great fitness is the key to progress.
If you observe experienced swimmers working out, seek guidance from a magazine or website, take lessons, or join a workout group, everything you see or hear seems to confirm your existing instincts about technique and training.
In psychology, this is known as the Bandwagon Effect–the tendency to do (or believe) things because you observe many others doing so.
How Swim Instruction Evolved
Besides the fact that terrestrial swimming is instinctive, the Red Cross and similar bodies around the world that have become the most-common source for swim instruction originated as safety organizations, focused on drowning prevention. They accomplish this by teaching terrestrial technique—how to pull and kick.
Since most drownings occur within a few meters of safety their instruction never emphasized efficiency. Teaching swimmers to be water-safe . . . not graceful, efficient and tireless . . . remained their priority.
Consequently those of us who have had traditional swim instruction come away from it inclined to focus on pulling and kicking and (unless you learned about Total Immersion) and lacking even basic awareness of the importance of Balance and Streamlining.
How Swim Training Evolved
Because swimming was so tiring–far more exhausting for a novice than running–it was natural to think of it as an endurance activity. When coach-directed swim training emerged in the 1920s, it emulated mileage-oriented approaches common in running. Training sessions prescribed swimming as far as time allowed and as hard as energy allowed. [Acccording to Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, prior to the 1960s, emphasis on technique as a critical part of training was considerably greater than it is today.]
With each decade times improved, seeming to confirm the efficacy of endurance-building approaches. In the 1960s, sports science became a recognized field. Physiologists conducted studies measuring how the muscles and cardiovascular system responded to work. This research was conducted on running treadmills and cycling ergometers–but not in pools, where data collection was difficult.
In the 1970s, swimming coaches, seeking more sophisticated training methods, began to adopt the conditioning formulas that resulted. More demanding and systematic training caused swimming records to fall at a faster pace. Books such as Doc Counsilman’s The Science of Swimming and Ernie Maglischo’s Swimming Faster became bibles of the swim coaching community. These books devoted hundreds of pages to explaining how the muscles metabolize energy. [They also examined technique, focusing almost exclusively on how to pull and kick.]
But while the results of the research on which these theories were based correlated somewhat with performances in running, cycling, and cross-country skiing, this was never true for swimming: The world record holder quite often had middling physiology, while middling swimmers had world-class physiology. Even so, in the pattern typical where instinct meets the Bandwagon effect a belief that training based primarily on how far and how hard is the path to faster times became universally embraced and seldom questioned.
Do Traditional Approaches Work?
Though most people have had poor experiences and outcomes from traditional approaches, when they don’t work for us, we tend to assume something’s wrong with us, rather than with the instruction or training we were given. Yet in looking at swimming through a wider lens, it seems clear that these methods have significant flaws.
• For beginning swimmers—both children and adults–a good outcome of traditional lessons is that while your drowning risk is diminished, your prospects of swimming a mile effortlessly seem hopelessly far off. And it’s rare to develop great enthusiasm—much less passion—for swimming.
• In competitive swimming, while rare exceptions like Katie Ledecky and Ryan Lochte have thrived on the hard work, the majority of young swimmers fall victim to injury and burnout. Few of those who swam competitively in their youth can conceive of swimming as pleasurable or rewarding later in life.
• Lap and fitness swimmers continue for years without making any improvement in form or efficiency. Indeed it never occurs to most that they could be swimming much better.
• On triathlon forums, the two most frequent questions about swimming are: “How do I deal with the boredom?” and “How can I get faster?”
Follow the Principles
The combination of our primal instincts to swim in ways that lead to massive energy waste and the likelihood that most of what you see and hear will reinforce those tendencies in unhelpful ways is why we say it’s critical to be deeply discerning about what you see or hear about about swimming. If something’s not working, look for a different way. And most important, make sure your “mental map” for swimming is based on sound and well-substantiated evidence.
Our downloadable Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Self-Coaching Toolkit teaches a principle-based learning method. The drills and skills are illustrated in 15 short videos. Guidance on how to learn and practice each drill effectively is provided in the companion Workbook.