Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too

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Is it possible to get good at swimming late in life? Yes. (Photo: Shutterhack)

Swimming has always scared the hell out of me.

Despite national titles in other sports, I’ve always fought to keep afloat. This inability to swim well has always been one of my greatest insecurities and embarrassments.

I’ve tried to learn to swim almost a dozen times, and each time, my heart jumps to 180+ beats-per-minute after one or two pool lengths. It’s indescribably exhausting and unpleasant.

No more.

In the span of less than 10 days, I’ve gone from a 2-length (2 x 20 yards/18.39 meters) maximum to swimming more than 40 lengths per workout in sets of 2 and 4. Here’s how I did it after everything else failed, and how you can do the same…

At the end of January, a kiwi friend issued a New Year’s resolution challenge: he would go all of 2008 without coffee or stimulants if I trained and finished an open-water 1-kilometer race in 2008. I agreed.

He had grown up a competitive swimmer and convinced me that — unlike my other self-destructive habits masquerading as exercise (no-gi BJJ, etc.) — it was a life skill and a pleasure I needed to share with my future children. In other words: of all the potential skills you could learn, swimming was one of the most fundamental.

So why is this post only coming out now, eight months later? Because I tried everything, read the “best” books, and still failed.

Kick boards? Tried them. I barely moved at all and — as someone who is usually good at most sports — felt humiliated and left.

Hand paddles? Tried them. My shoulders will never forgive me. Isn’t swimming supposed to be low-impact? Strike two.

It continued for months until I was prepared to concede defeat. Then I met Chris Sacca, formerly of Google fame and now an investor and triathlete in training, at a BBQ and told him of my plight. Before I had a chance to finish, he cut me off:

“I have the answer to your prayers. It revolutionized how I swim.”

That got my attention.

The Method

He introduced me to Total Immersion (TI), a method usually associated with coach Terry Laughlin, and I immediately ordered the book and freestyle DVD.

In the first workout — I’ve never had a coach or supervision — I cut my drag and water resistance at least 50%, swimming more laps than ever before in my life. By the fourth workout, I had gone from 25+ strokes per 20-yard length to an average of 11 strokes per 20-yard length. Unbelievable.

In other words, I was covering more than twice the distance with the same number of strokes, with less than 1/2 the effort, and with no panic or stress. In fact, I felt better after leaving the pool than before getting in. I couldn’t — and still can’t — believe it.

Here are my notes from the Total Immersion book, which I would recommend reading after watching the Freestyle Made Easy DVD, as the drills are near-impossible to understand otherwise. I was actually unable to do the exercises from pages 110 – 150 (I cannot float horizontally and have a weak kick) and became frustrated until the DVD enabled me to attempt technique with propulsion. The theories and explanation after the DVD, however, will change how you view all of it:

Total Immersion Freestyle notes

Total Immersion freestyle notes (click to enlarge)

My Top 8 Tips for Novices

Here are the principles that made the biggest difference for me:

1) To propel yourself forward with the least effort, focus on shoulder roll and keeping your body horizontal (least resistance), not pulling with your arms or kicking with your legs. This is counter-intuitive but important, as kicking harder is the most universal suggestion for fixing swimming issues.

2) Keep yourself horizontal by keeping your head in line with your spine — you should be looking straight down. Use the same head position as while walking and drive your arm underwater vs. swimming on the surface. See Shinj Takeuchi’s underwater shots at :49 seconds at and Natalie Coughlin’s explanation at :26 seconds. Notice how little Shinji uses his legs; the small flick serves only to help him turn his hips and drive his next arm forward. This is the technique that allows me to conserve so much energy.


A good demonstration of a TI crawl.

3. In line with the above video of Shinji, think of swimming freestyle as swimming on alternating sides, not on your stomach. From the TI Wikipedia page:

“Actively streamline” the body throughout the stroke cycle through a focus on rhythmically alternating “streamlined right side” and “streamlined left side” positions and consciously keeping the bodyline longer and sleeker than is typical for human swimmers.

For those who have rock climbed or done bouldering, it’s just like moving your hip closer to a wall to get more extension. To test this: stand chest to a wall and reach as high as you can with your right arm. Then turn your right hip so it’s touching the wall and reach again with your right arm: you’ll gain 3-6″. Lengthen your vessel and you travel further on each stroke. It adds up fast.

4. Penetrate the water with your fingers angled down and fully extend your arm well beneath your head. Extend it lower and further than you think you should. This downward water pressure on the arms will bring your legs up and decrease drag. It will almost feel like you’re swimming downhill. I highly recommend watching the “Hand Position and Your Balance” video at the top of this page here.

5. Focus on increasing stroke length (SL) instead of stroke rate (SR). Attempt to glide further on each downstroke and decrease the number of strokes per lap.

6. Forget about workouts and focus on “practice.” You are training your nervous system to perform counter-intuitive movements well, not training your aerobic system. If you feel strained, you’re not using the proper technique. Stop and review rather than persist through the pain and develop bad habits.

7. Stretch your extended arm and turn your body (not just head) to breathe. Some triathletes will even turn almost to their backs and face skyward to avoid short gasps and oxygen debt (tip from Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman world champion).

8. Experiment with hand swapping as a drill:

It’s difficult to remember all of the mechanical details while swimming. I short-circuited trying to follow half a dozen rules at once. The single drill that forced me to do most other things correctly is described on pg. 91-92 of the TI book: hand swapping. Coach Laughlin’s observations of the Russian Olympic team practice were a revelation to me.

This is the visualization I found most useful: focus on keeping your lead arm fully extended until your other arm comes over and penetrates the water around the extended arm’s forearm. This encourages you to swim on your sides, extends your stroke length, and forces you to engage in what is referred to as “front quadrant” swimming. All good things. This one exercise cut an additional 3-4 strokes off each lap of freestyle.

Gear and Getting Started

Ready to give it a shot? If you have a phobia of swimming or just want to feel the difference a few counter-intuitive techniques make, here are some starter tips:

1. Gents, don’t swim in board shorts. I tried this in Brazil and didn’t realize it’s like swimming with a parachute behind you. Terrible. Get some Euro-style Speedos and streamline. Be cool on the beach and opt for efficiency in the water.

2. Get good goggles. I am now using Speedo Vanquisher goggles, which I find effective if you use a latex swim cap to keep the straps in place. I need to tighten the nose bridge straps every 100-125 meters or so to prevent chlorinated water from blinding me, and leakage with all three goggles I tested seem to be due to eye pieces spread too far apart. I’ll be experimenting with the much-acclaimed Aqua Sphere Kaiman swim goggles, which are simple to adjust and tighten without removing them from your head.

3. Start practicing in a pool that is short and shallow. Use a lane in the shallow end (4 ft. or less) and opt for a pool that is no longer than 20 yards. I’ve since progressed to 25 yards but found focusing on technique easier with shorter pools. Since I’ve adapted to 25 yards, I plan to move to an Olympic-sized 50-meter pool once I can do 10 x 100 yards with 30-45 seconds of rest between sets.

To Finish Up…

I never ever thought I’d say this but: I love swimming.

This is RIDICULOUS, as I have always HATED swimming and avoided it. Now — after one book and DVD — I make time whenever possible to do laps like moving meditation.

I’ll swim for two hours and sneak out to get in an extra session a few hours later. I still can’t believe it.

I encourage all of you — whether you want to overcome your fears or win the Ironman — to give TI training a test drive. It’s the first instruction that’s made sense to me and is 100% responsible for the fastest transformative experience I’ve ever had in the world of sports. Just incredible.

Now, if I can just get from 100-yard sets to 1 kilometer :)

[Postscript: The creator of TI himself, Terry Laughlin, has left additional tips and observations in the comments.]

Posted on: August 13, 2008.

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396 comments on “Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too

  1. Definitely some interesting ideas I’ll have to check out. I’m quite a water rat when it comes to the ocean, but I never put much consideration to improving the efficiency of my swimming. Thanks for the great info!

    Like

  2. That’s great news Tim! When I was younger, I swam all of the time. But it’s been over a decade since I’ve really swam seriously, due to unfortunate circumstances. Every time I jump in the water, I feel like I’ve forgotten the basics. Thanks for the tips, I’ll definitely be picking up a book and the DVD. I’m going through a big lifestyle change right now, so swimming could be the next tool that aids me in getting shape and ultimately helping me achieve some personal goals.

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  3. Hi Tim,

    I noticed that you mentioned wanting to increase your distance with swimming. I used to have a similar problem and don’t anymore; now I can crawl about half a mile nonstop, and it was not something I had to train for or work up to. I just realized that in the water you can push as hard or as easy as you want to, and you’ll still stay afloat and keep the same form. Of course, you’ll slow down. But if you’re interested in swimming a certain distance or time without stopping (which is where the serious meditation comes in) losing some speed shouldn’t matter.

    Anyway, that’s my advice. Try relaxing the amount of strength you apply to your stroke more. The water doesn’t care how hard you push on it :) I’m not sure how this jives with TI but I’d assume it would be the same…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. @Neesh,

    Partly, for sure. I never thought swimming fast was possible for me, and now I find myself imagining my times in the 200-meter medley. It makes the Olympic swimming much more fun to watch, not to mention Phelps and his insane freestyle.

    I am enjoying the Games, even though I’ve had trouble finding the judo broadcasts.

    Tim

    Like

    • (I’m sending this because I just heard your swiming Ted talk and you asked for ideas for schools and education)

      The current Education system is chaos.

      Reading W. Edwards Deming you can tell that the system is in chaos when you rely on heros to get anything done and nothing is repeatable. This is clearly true of the current US education system and probably most of the worlds education systems. We rely on the “Super Teacher” and great parents to get anything done. The model works in some neighborhoods but not others.

      The real question that needs to be asked is not “How do we create more Super Teachers?” because we have all the Super Teachers we are going to get. Deming shows that rewards and punishments do not create heros. The question we should be asking is “How do we create an education system that allows mediocre teachers to teach students at a high level?” Clearly not by doing what we are doing today.

      The other heros we rely on are parents. Is it fair that some kids are born with incompetent parents? We need to teach kids parenting and life skills in high risk neighborhoods in order to break the cycle of poverty. Collage and higher education does not break the cycle of poverty but good parenting could.

      I could go on for another 2000 – 3000 words but I’ll wait to see if your interested in more.

      Like

  5. Hi Tim,

    I used to be a competitive swimmer turned semi-pro triathlete. Injuries have sidelined me, but TI helped me transition from an inefficient sprinter into an efficient distance swimmer.

    To correct your goggle eye cup problem, I recommend using Swedish Original Monterbara Goggles by Malmsten (they’re $4, I buy them at a local shop, but also found them here http://www.swimoutlet.com/ProductBrand.asp?Brand=1141&gclid=CN2Uv8DEjJUCFQOjFQodY3KbfQ). You tie the nose strap to the size you want, and it stays in place.

    I’ve used these for countless 20 hour swim weeks in pool and in massive group starts for triathlons and have found them to be the most functional goggle around.

    Best of luck in the pool,
    Evan

    Like

    • Totally agree with Evan
      The Swedish are by far the most reliable comfortable
      goggles you can get, I use the TYR’s and never had a
      problem with them.
      Keep up the good work
      Roberto

      Like

    • for googles I suggest that you look at the Sable googles, absolutely the best and clearest vision, comfortable with various nose bridge sizes provided and they dont leak or fog up!
      enjoy
      t

      Like

  6. Tim – great suggestions! I think you’re reading my mind tonight. I’m sitting here watching the swimming events and thinking about how to get more swimming into my life and – blam – you drop some fantastic references.

    I’ve experimented with a few other lifestyle-change suggestions on your site with good results, so I’ll be sure to pick up the Total Immersion stuff too.

    Thanks!

    -Jason

    Like

  7. Tim, I love your one page notes all the time, it’s a time saver, gonna these stuff, try today. I didn’t use goggles, not sure why, but try to get one for myself. Thanks!

    David

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  8. I was 10 years old and had a secret crush on a boy at a summer camp. We would often go to the pool and I was one of the kids, who didn’t know how to swim and always had my kick board with me. One day we were all going into the water, he saw me with the kick board and said: “what? you can’t swim?”

    I couldn’t but I said “of course I can, look” and went into the pool, without my kick board, put all the energy and will power and YES, magically started swimming…

    I find swimming as one of the most fun work-outs (next to dancing) and my tip to swim long distance would be: try to relax every single muscle of your body and make consistent movements, avoid jerk movements.

    Oh Tim, did you really recommend Speedos? Ay… I find board short extremely sexy on guys, I know it may be hard to swim in them though…

    Like

  9. Hey Tim,

    This is the same method (in principle) used in ChiRunning. The ChiRunning folks and Total Immersion folks are good friends and occasionally partner up on workshops too. So for those of you with the same fear of running that want a solution similar to Tim’s swimming, check out ChiRunning.

    http://www.chirunning.com

    I can’t imagine you afraid of swimming, but I’ll go with it … :-)

    -Don Makoviney

    Like

  10. Hey Tim,
    Great to see you overcame your aversion to swimming, it is one of life’s great joys.

    I was a competitive swimmer in my early teens, my career ended by illness.

    I had the pleasure of being coached by a former Olympic gold medalist and the right instruction makes all the difference. Although I don’t swim anywhere near the 6 times a week I once did (I’m now 22 and ended competition aged 13), when i do jump in the I get right back into a great stroke and swim 1500meters to 3kilometers no trouble.

    Are you mastering the other strokes? Freestyle is great, but the incridble workout of Butterfly for your shoulders is hard to beat, or the satisfaction of mastering BreastStroke – arguably the most difficult and of course the different sensation of backstroke. And then there is the dive and tumble turns to master – then your on track to take on Phelps.

    Finding the right goggles is difficult. What suits one person will not suit you, buy a bunch and find what works. It depends on the shape of your face basically. Also some goggles are designed specifically for sprinting competition – you want a training goggle that will keep its seal. An anti-fog solution can be helpful too.

    Have a great day and happy swimming,
    Bill

    Like

  11. So happy to see these tips … my foot or calves always seem to start cramping at about 1600yds … so i stop swimming :( can’t wait to try these techniques and hopefully break that 1600 cramp!! thanks for sharing!!!!!!!!

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  12. Tim,

    what a weird coincidence. I’ve been trying to get into shape for a few months now and have been having pretty good success with weights and running (though a foot injury have put me off for the last week or so), but recently I decided to set a bigger goal for myself and attempt a triathlon. Of course, I’m not putting some silly time limit on myself and planning to do it in X months or anything, but it’s something I really want to do for myself.

    The one big issue is that I’m a horrible swimmer — I never learned properly. Earlier tonight my wife and I were at the bookstore and I started looking through books on triathlons to get a sense of what I’m in for. On the way home I was describing the whole thing to my wife and we began talking about my biggest weakness — the swimming part. Imagine my surprise to discover your post on exactly this issue. Thanks for the pointers. I’ve already requested Terry’s book from our local library and, if it’s helpful, will buy a copy of it and the DVD.

    Now, I’ve got to go up to the nearby rec center tomorrow and see if I can get in to use their pool! ;~)

    Thanks again for all the wonderfully useful info!

    Like

  13. Wow, just in time. I was struggling to understand what I was doing wrong and why I get so frustrated trying to stay afloat and eventually move forward. I’ll try these tips tomorrow :)

    Like

  14. My mom says I could swim before I could walk. I didn’t have an opportunity to swim competitively since my school didn’t have a pool, but I did lifeguard for a few summers during high school. It’s strictly recreational for me, and I actually have more fun with diving boards than just swimming. Have you learned to dive, Tim? I’m sure you’d like it – you might find similarities to some of the martial arts and b-boy stuff you do since it’s largely a matter of understanding how your own body moves through space.

    I just tried to teach a friend how to swim a few weeks back. Since I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to swim, it was pretty difficult. I’ll definitely point her in this direction.

    Like

  15. Hey Tim.

    Another thing to look forward to: If you keep this up, as the swimming becomes easier you’ll find you get into The Zone after about 500 m. You’ll forget everything around you. It’s mobile meditation. Brilliant.

    Have fun,
    A.

    Like

  16. Hi,

    Thanks for your article. I was especially hitted by your last paragraph when you said that you hated swimming and now likes it. Those are the words that convince me to give your method a try. Nevertheless, is the DVD suitable for someone who does not know how to swim crawl but only breaststroke ? If so, I’m gonna order them and follow your advices. Otherwise I may consider a few lessons with a teacher before.

    By the way, this is my first comment here since I discovered your work and your blog a few weeks ago. It’s a pleasure to read it and it already began to influences some part of my life.

    If you ever come to Switzerland, I would be pleased to help you,

    Cheers,

    Xavier

    Like

  17. When I was a boy, I nearly drowned twice. Swimming lessons didn’t help me learn to swim either. So, in my mid-teens I decided I had to learn to swim and would teach myself how to do it and I did it by watching people swim, reading about swimming technique, and practicing in the shallow end of the local Y.M.C.A. pool. Once I understood that the key for me to learn to swim-I’m speaking of the crawl stroke here-was learning how to breathe and coordinate the breath, well, I was good to go. Later, I became a life guard and then a water safety instructor. Saved five lives in the water.

    One other thing, when I taught swimming to both children and adults, I asked all of my students to draw me a picture of themselves swimming and to bring it back to me for the second lesson. I wanted to fix in their minds and emotions the idea that they could swim and could picture themselves doing so. Just a tip for those who teach swimming.

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    • Hi Tim. I’ve found the hints amazing.
      I’m an almost short distance triathlete (hobby for a while) and i’m planning to complete the Iron Man in 2017. I can swim for 3kilometers without stopping but I fell i’m wasting energy with wrong techniques(because of this I hate swim sometimes like you haha). I fell tired and I fell i’m not slicing properly. I’ll try to do this drills at the open sea.

      Thank u a lot

      Like