Tag Archives: Total Immersion

Total Immersion in marathon swimming

I mentioned T.I. in an email to a well-known record-setting swimmer and we thought I might write a post on it. When someone who has set a new record thinks it’s a good subject, you write!

Many of you will be aware that Total Immersion, (T.I.) is a method of teaching swimming developed by Terry Laughlin, which focuses on long strokes and gliding through the water. Swim like a fish, is the motto of T.I..

When I’ve occasionally helped swimmers, especially triathletes, I’ve used some drills that apparently have come from T.I.. T.I. is particularly popular amongst triathletes worldwide, because of its focus on energy efficiency and gliding, so triathletes can use T.I. to finish the swim leg having expended as little energy as possible to be more ready for the cycling leg (triathlons are rarely won or lost on the swimming leg). (T.I. got some extra attention last year in a TED video by Tim Ferriss.)

With triathletes especially it’s best to reduce the flailing, to try to get them conscious of gliding through the water and of relaxing, rather than fighting the water. Pretty much what all swimmers learn, but in a more compressed time.

But one consequence of T.I. is a reduced stroke count, which is imparted, it seems to me, as the most desired result, at least this is how those people I’ve met who have learned T.I. impart it to me. Having read some of Terry’s many thoughts on T.I. and this subject, it seems that he himself is not as rigid as many of the people who go through T.I. training here seem to be, when he himself advocates having a quiver of responses ready for varying open water conditions, something I’ve said myself previously about for example, breathing patterns.

It should be remembered as very important that many or most triathlons (all here in Ireland and the UK) require the triathletes to wear a wetsuit. Indeed Alan Smith, Waterford local multiple Ironman triathlete and Channel Aspirant told how just a couple of weeks before his Channel attempt he was forced to take the black and wear a wetsuit for a paltry short swim of about 1k because the rules required them.

Some months back I discovered (too late) that one EC Aspirant, whom I was occasionally advising through email, was actually using T.I., as the athlete had come from a triathlon background. With very little time left I had to stress they dump the T.I. approach immediately.

Why? Simply, it would not keep them warm in the Channel. Let me give an example, again I think I this mentioned it before.

Guillamene steps from the rocks below

Some months ago I was walking down the steps at the Guillamene, when I saw someone coming in from the Pier, rare enough. And I immediately noticed they had a very low stroke count, so low that I stopped to count (which I’ve never done before). I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was in the 40s. I was concerned for whomever it was, because a stroke rate that low, unless they were a large person with lots of experience, was looking at getting cold very quickly. And it turned out to be a friend, whom had been advised to reduce their stroke count to extend the glide on the extension. Someone experienced who never previously got cold, got really cold that day and it was a warmish summer day (by Irish standards). it was incorrect advice from someone who didn’t know, whose open water experience came from a book. It wasn’t exactly T.I. but quite similar.

At the weekend, indeed I was talking to the swimmer who had given that advice, who was wearing a wetsuit, and in winter pool training was focusing exclusively, as I expected, on stroke count reduction by increasing distance per stroke.

Oh, I just remembered, Penny Palfrey, probably the best (non-FINA) marathon swimmer in the world right now, apparently has a stroke rate of 80.

Triathletes using T.I. have a wetsuit to cushion this effect of slower stroke rate to keep them warm. Removing a wetsuit and keeping a low stroke count is a recipe for hypothermia in cold water. More than anything else in cold water you must be able to maintain a steady consistent stroke rate. A 10% variation in a marathon swimmer is a big variation. Most of us won’t vary by more than about 5%. I’ll use again the example of my E.C. I was 70 strokes per minute almost every measurement , never dropped below 68, never went higher than 74. An old S.I. article on Doc Counsilman’s EC solo in 1979 (from Evan) mentioned his metronomic pace of about 64 (same for example as Ned). Gábor stayed at 68 if I remember correctly, after he settled down after the first two hours (he was up toward 80 at the start, excitement and the effects of tapering priming him for a nervous muscular explosive start).

I don’t actually have a problem with T.I., it has its uses, I like what I’ve seen of the drills and some of its ideas, and when I read it, I also like Terry Laughlin’s own blog and his thoughts on the mindfulness of swimming, something I think any distance swimmer can appreciate. I like his meditative frame of mind and consideration of swimming, after all many times myself I’ve compared the purity of night swimming in particular to meditation or how we operate mentally on long swims, something I have a post planned on again.

After years of open water, I know my stroke is 70 +- 4 spm. Anytime I check it in the water, it’s 68 to 72, unlikely to outside that unless I am increasing speed or slowing down. I can just feel the rate by now. This is a vital skill and very different from pool swimming. I know people who have come from a competitive pool background and never once thought about stroke rate. Your SPM might be 58 or 64 or whatever, it’s your stroke rate, the one that works for you as a consequence of your fitness and size and training and background. I’ve noticed bigger people tend toward lower stroke rates but I don’t think that’s a rule or anything.

T.I. might teach you to monitor your stroke rate very closely, but it won’t teach you to increase it to keep your internal heat production high enough. Maybe it’s fine in warm water, but at any water temperature lower than about 28 degrees, you are losing heat. You must combat this by internal thermogenesis.

By the way, in winter pool training, (oh, I’m later going back to it this year than ever before, I’m still in the sea), I do actually work on DPS, distance per stroke.

I’m personally wary of any absolutes when those absolutes are just opinions, like one particular swimming style. That’ll come as no surprise to long-term readers here.

Separate from the heat retention aspects, what I find myself is that there are consequences to my stroke that come from open water swimming. If you watch most OW swimmers, you will see that they have a high hand recovery, quite different to pool swimmers, which comes about as a consequence having to lift the hand higher to avoid it crashing into chop. It’s a rare day in the sea that you can have a high elbow recovery. This is sure to also reduce your rotation, which in turn increases your stroke rate. Then there is the effect of sighting, where you have to lift your head, like you never would in the pool, which again, will change your body position and therefore stroke mechanics. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Maybe it’s different in warm water, (apparently there are places in the world with warm water, it’s been reported), where you don’t have to worry about cold. But remember, at any temperature below about 24° Celsius, eventually, you will become hypothermic. For those  of us for whom 24° C is much warmer than we ever get, we tend to forget this.

But in cold water you must swim to keep yourself warm, because you are literally swimming for your life.