Any guy who has ever sat down to watch a men’s Olympic swim race has felt just a tad uncomfortable. It’s not because the swimmers are wearing only a few square inches of Lycra – it’s because they look way better in it than most of us. Who doesn’t aspire to have a “swimmer’s body”? Which is why every day during my summer vacation I’d walk down to the beach by our rented lake house and crank out a couple hundred yards of freestyle, back and forth along the shore. By the time I staggered back up onto the beach, I would feel very virtuous and very, very worked.
Then one day, as I thrashed and splashed along, I overheard my girlfriend on the beach saying something like, “…not exactly Mark Spitz, is he?” She wasn’t commenting on my physique. Rather, she was critiquing my miserably poor form.
A month later I found out exactly what she’d meant when I went for a swim in a pool equipped with an underwater video camera. The waterproof digicam’s pitiless eye revealed the truth about my swimming: It was not at all Spitz-like, but more closely resembled a drowning Cirque du Soleil clown. As my arms thrashed at the water’s surface, my lower body sank so far down that my toes almost brushed the bottom of the pool. I looked as if I were trying to claw my way up a staircase, drunk. The reason swimming always felt like such a “good workout,” I realized, was because I was wasting a lot of energy.
Luckily I’d come to the right place. This warm and rather moist “swim studio,” tucked behind a strip mall in upstate New York, is the world headquarters for the Total Immersion Swimming movement, which has revolutionized the way adults learn the sport. Founder Terry Laughlin was a mediocre college swimmer who turned coach and realized that the fastest swimmers weren’t always the fittest; they had simply figured out how to move through water most efficiently.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, especially after a lifetime of standard-issue, summer-camp freestyle technique, which TI devotees call “kick and pull” swimming because it emphasizes pushing (or pulling) water backward in order to create propulsion.
Total Immersion Swimming takes a whole different approach. Rather than claw and fight the water, I’d need to learn to move with it. My instructor, Greg Sautner, started by having me just float on my left side in the pool, my head relaxed and my left arm hanging down at about four o’clock, as if I were sleeping on my side, underwater. After 15 minutes of mastering this position, which Laughlin calls “Skating” because it serves as the glide phase of the freestyle stroke, I could roll onto my right side and do the same thing, kicking easily. After another hour, I could start to use my arms, bringing them forward in an almost sluggish stroke.
As Sautner explained it, he was rebuilding my stroke from the ground up, starting with a long, streamlined body position that offered as little water resistance as possible. Just as a golfer’s swing engages his shoulders and trunk more than his arms, the real energy in my stroke should come from my body’s rotation, which helped to pull me forward. My hands served as anchors in the water, not paddles. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to master: It took half a day just to begin to undo a lifetime of bad swimming habits. But when I got back to my own health club, I found that I was more relaxed in the water: quieter, faster, and more comfortable. Not to mention a lot less tired.
“Swimming is one of the few sports where you can get better as you get older,” Laughlin told me later; now in his 50s, he’s swimming faster than he ever has in his life, with multiple Masters open-water championship titles to prove it. “You can improve almost indefinitely by honing your instinct for working with the water.”
Laughlin suggests trying four exercises, or “focal points,” the next time you hit the pool. Pick one and swim a lap or two easily, focusing on that one thing. Then rest a moment and try it again. To measure your efficiency, count the number of strokes you need to swim 25 yards at the beginning of your workout, and again at the end.
Four Steps to Better Swimming
1. “Hang” Your Head
- Why: Head-spine alignment is essential to comfortable, efficient swimming.
- How: Relax your neck muscles and release your head’s weight to find its natural position. Don’t hold it up. Aim to create and keep a straight line between your head and spine.
2. Lengthen Your Body
- Why: A longer body line reduces drag, letting you swim faster and more smoothly.
- How: Focus on extending your arms to lengthen your body line, rather than pushing water back. When using a freestyle stroke, slip your hand and forearm into the water as if sliding them into a mail slot.
3. Move like Water
- Why: Water rewards fluent movement and penalizes rough or rushed actions.
- How: Pierce the water by moving your body through the smallest possible “space” in it. Swim as quietly as you can to minimize bubbles, waves, and splashing.
4. Get the Air You Need
- Why: Without enough air, you’ll be too distracted to think about your stroke.
- How: Breathe by rolling to the air, not by turning your head. Keep your head and spine aligned and follow your shoulder back with your chin. Exhale actively – and steadily. Inhaling should be relatively passive.
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