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.


14 thoughts on “Total Immersion in marathon swimming

  1. I read about total immersion and swim smooth and originally wanted to go T.I. initially, and incorporated drills from T.I. in my routine, including catch-up drill, and stroke count ladder (try to decrease, then increase again).

    However, unfortunately the university triathlon swim squad I am joining is a swim smooth squad, and the coach tells me to dump the practice of reducing stroke count. The squad is known to produce channel swimmers. The coach then tried to increase my stroke rate to the extent I am overheating seriously in a warm pool (but sustainable in cool or even cold water).


    • Those T.I drills like catch-up weren’t invented by T.I. T.I. was just good at presenting drills. You can find most of them in the old Ruben drill bnook, which has beeen around for decades. My stroke rate is lower in the pool, but is higher is the sea.


  2. Hey thanks for the great discussion here. As a disclaimer, I’m currently a TI “Master Coach” meaning that I train new Total Immersion Coaches. We spend a lot of time helping new coaches understand the relationship between rate and length. As you say, a low stroke rate does not equal “efficiency”. Efficiency is a physiologic measure that has been used incorrectly in the past and I’ve tried to update and educate our coaches on that term.

    But at any rate, say your open water rate of 72-74, if you can get a little “more” out of each stroke, you’ll be a little faster, right? That’s really all it comes down to…when you eliminate your crossover as you posted you’ve been working on, you gain a few millimeters or a centimeter each stroke. That converts to more forward movement and THAT usually is a little more efficient.

    It’s a good discussion, and sadly one that many self taught TI advocates or students with a limited (1 time or 1 weekend) exposure to coaching don’t get a chance to see. We spend most of our time with most of our swimmers “unchurning” their arms so they can actually get purchase in the water. However we see the opposite as well…folks, even coaches, who have spent so much time trying to reduce stroke count that the stroke becomes inefficient, meaning that the trade off of effort vs forward locomotion is actually decreasing, despite stroke length increasing.

    We spend time during our coach training working on teaching a variety of “gears” in the water, and within each of those “gears” a variable amount of pressure can be applied to the water. This really creates quite a range of potential swim “strokes” to choose from…none of which mean a departure from TI. We of course then expect that our coaches will pass that information along to swimmers, but if a swimmer has a limited exposure to a coach we work on those most fundamental technique issues first.

    I hope that helps clarify some things, or if not I welcome personal correspondence from you (or at my website or on the forums).


  3. I have just completed some TI training (x3 3 hour sessions). I can say that the coaches never once mentioned gliding or focused on reducing stroke rate. In fact, they specifically said there is no ‘one size fits all approach’ and you should find your own rhythm. Last night, many of our drills were about deliberately increasing SR. The real theme of the method, as it seems to me so far, is on swimming effortlessly.

    As a note, prior to this TI course, I had spent some time reading all the Swimsmooth material (I really wish they would run a clinic in my town sometime – I have emailed Paul N a couple times about this already). I bring this up about Swimsmooth as I came to the TI course with some scepticism already based on some of Swimsmooth’s thoughts, and indeed your own writing, Donal and Evan.


  4. Pingback: Triathlon Swim-meister IV: Watch Out Luv « The 5k Runner

  5. I was sold on TI and tried the drills…until I saw Janet Evans’ 1988 800m gold race. Then I realized it is about efficiency no matter what your stroke looks like. I branched out from TI and went to Swim Smooth, and I must say that once I started to swim the Swim Smooth way, my stroke rate increased and my 100m time decreased.
    That is absolutely separate from the case of maintaining body core temperature. BUT, I must say that my Dart 10K (in 15C water) felt much more comfortable using my SS increased stroke rate than my Danish 2K (also in 15C water) felt using TI.


    • “…it is about efficiency no matter what your stroke looks like.” Another way of saying this would be: There’s not just one way to swim efficiently. This is why I find Swim Smooth to be a superior approach – because they specifically incorporate two different models of efficient swimming. The “smooth” (in some ways, TI-like) model and the “swinger” (higher tempo) model. The swinger model works well for a lot of people in open water, and this is a weakness in TI for people trying to apply its concepts to OW settings.

      I love the example of Janet Evans. The fact that the greatest distance swimmer of all-time (male or female) does almost everything wrong from a TI perspective would seem to present an uncomfortable problem for them. TI doesn’t know what to do with Janet Evans. You can’t really argue that she was inefficient because, almost by definition (WRs that nobody touched for an entire generation) she was astoundingly efficient.


  6. Another reason I don’t buy the argument that TI is agnostic about stroke rate: Terry Laughlin himself repeatedly defines “swim efficiency” as stroke length alone, with no mention of stroke rate. See this post about Sun Yang’s world record 1500m swim. Terry argues that Sun was more “efficient” than Grant Hackett (whose record he broke) simply because he averaged fewer strokes per length. This is a fallacious argument.

    TI alumni think that TI is about low stroke rates because that’s what Terry Laughlin himself says all the time.


  7. TI is about getting the most out of every stroke… no matter the stroke rate. It is up to every swimmer to impose the most effective SR for the task at hand. Someone with a low SR should know if it will be effective in colder water before jumping in at Shakespeare… if not, don’t blame TI… its just poor preparation.


    • Hey Dave,


      I’m beginning to wonder if (and I have no real idea) some of the people who are going through T.I. are concentrating on the wrong thing or are remembering the wrong aspect of what they should be learning?

      My experience with it is from what others have told me and how they’ve reported it and what I’ve seen, since I’m not T.I. qualified.

      What I mean is, have I been unlucky or are some of the T.I. “alumni” doing T.I. a dis-service in explaining what T.I. really is? I have this perception, which I’m quite happy to admit is probably wrong, that comes third hand, about what T.I. is. And I know from talking to others that it’s a pretty widespread perception over here. We all hear: T.I. is about reduced stroke count, from triathletes who have done T.I. training. Could it be because the T.I. coaching they receive is short? That’s not a T.I. criticism, what I mena is, because they are only exposed to proper coaching for a weekends or days here and there? At least over here. Do you see what I’m getting at? Once again I feel I might have insulted you without meaning to. I have a real unwelcome talent for that.

      What you say, and what I read from Terry, is exactly what I’d expect of experienced swimmers, to be efficient and able to adapt. Half of either of you have more experience than all of me.

      Also I’m sure I’d benefit enormously from a coaching session with yourself or Terry, I’ve certainly never claimed to be a great or stylish swimmer myself.

      Maybe I need to change the post title. I really suck at post titles.



    • When TI is defined as “getting the most out of every stroke, no matter the stroke rate,” it becomes so broad that I’m not sure what it means anymore. Doesn’t any swimmer strive to get more out of each stroke at a given stroke rate (or get more stroke rate out of a given stroke)? What other way is there to get faster? I don’t see how that’s specific to TI.

      The problems (or confusions) seem to arise with the *specific technique prescriptions* for doing so. This is where TI seems to differ from other approaches, such as Swim Smooth – or, for that matter, almost any elite program I’ve had any experience with.

      The “models” that are always cited in TI writings – Shinji, Terry himself, and Sun Yang – seem to have a very particular style of swimming. Long and smooth, with relatively high DPS and low SR. The message seems to be: this is the best way to swim.

      Is it, though? Could you make Penny Palfrey a better swimmer by having her swim more like Terry? I wouldn’t bet on it.


  8. Good article, Donal. I recently had the opportunity to track the core body temperature of a swimmer using TI in the pool and then in open water. In pool water (temp = 82 degF), the swimmer could maintain a core temperature at or above 98.6 at 56 strokes/min. In open water (temp = 59 degF), the swimmer’s core dropped to 94.6 deg (mild hypothermia) at 56 strokes/min over 90 minutes of swimming. By departing from TI and increasing stroke rate to 75 s/min, the swimmer was able to raise his core temp to 99.3 deg in 60 minutes. Dropping stroke rate to 66 s/min caused his core temp to settle at a sustainable 96.6 degF.


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