Swimming Laps and Going Nowhere
It's no mystery why people have trouble swimming as fast or as far or as smoothly as they'd like - most of them are doing it backward. "Don't worry if your form's not perfect," coaches and instructors have always assured us. "Just get those laps in. Eventually, you'll be fit enough to develop a smoother, stronger stroke." It really works the other way around, but that's not how it's been taught.
Until now. Let me tell you how I came to discover what good swimming is really all about, and what this means to anyone who would rather spend his or her time growing faster and smoother instead of just growing tired - and who wants to do it all as quickly as possible.
But first, a confession. I'm addicted to the sport of swimming. I leave my house at 6:00 most mornings to keep my daily swimming "appointment," I compete in meets whenever I can, and, last but not least, I earn my living teaching other adults how to become addicted too.
Hard to imagine it any other way because, in my opinion, swimming is more fun than anything else you can do with your clothes on. It feels great and, no matter how hard the workout, you're left so refreshed, so energized, that for the rest of the day no challenge seems too great.
Name one other workout that can do that. After running, I ache all day long and often into the next. Cycling is fun and is certainly fine exercise, but only as long as the sun's up and it's not cold or wet out. Weight training is excellent, but by the time I'm done, it's all I can do to carry my gym bag back to the car.
Swimming's different. I always feel better after my workout than I did before. That's what makes it so easy to leave a comfortable bed even before sunup on a frosty morning, or on a sultry summer predawn, to get to the pool on time.
Perhaps calling swimming "the ideal exercise" is a little strong, but it would be hard to find a better contender for the title. It makes your heart and lungs work more efficiently, enhances muscle strength and endurance, improves flexibility, and helps reduce stress. Yet swimming is easier on the joints than anything else that gets your heart rate up. Unless you count cross-country skiing, swimming uses more muscles than all other exercises. And it's the only one that can legitimately make you feel weightless and free.
Tired of the battle scars of other aerobic sports? Swimming is about as injury-free as they come. Gone are the bone-jarring shocks of land sports, so gone too are the joint and back injuries that plague so many joggers and cyclists. The water is also kinder to your muscles. Its massaging effect and the steady, even resistance it provides eliminate much of the postworkout muscle soreness so common in land sports.
Overheating is also nearly impossible in swimming. Water conducts heat from the body 20 times better than air does, so you can train at much higher intensities - in summer particularly - without the dehydration and potential heat exhaustion common "ashore."
And swimming is an equal-opportunity sport. Even if your weight, a physical handicap, or an injury would normally keep you out of action on land, you can probably swim. In fact, many land athletes use swimming to regain strength and fitness after an injury, far sooner than they could by returning to their main sport.
Joints growing stiffer with time? One of the most important reasons for an adult to swim is to increase flexibility, because this sport promotes joint mobility better than any other aerobic exercise. And while swimming's no fountain of cardiological youth, a 1988 study by cardiologists and exercise physiologists at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Dallas showed that inactive adults improved their heart function significantly within just three months of beginning a swim-training program. Their hearts beat more slowly and powerfully and circulated blood more effectively. Regular swimmers have also been shown to have lower blood pressures, slower pulse rates, and much greater exercise tolerance than other people their age. On top of all this, the aerobic benefits of swimming one mile are equal to those of running four miles.
None of this mattered - since little of it was known anyway - when I swam in college. Swim training was simple then: You stepped up and took your medicine. Take enough of it as often as possible, and you'd win the race you were training for. It was supposed to hurt, or you had no business calling yourself a competitive swimmer. And who could ask questions when your heart was always pounding and your muscles never stopped aching?
But the time for questions was coming, and it finally started during a 20-year coaching stint after college. At last, I could watch other swimmers from the pool deck as only a coach can. What an eye-opener! I finally realized that somehow, for some reason, a gifted few were able to swim extremely well without even breathing hard. It turned out to be no illusion. During some personal coaching, I was astounded to find they could, in fact, swim that well with comparatively little effort. And apparently it was that efficiency, not any unusual capacity for grueling work, that kept them consistently ahead of their competitors.
Was this an inbred gift or could it be taught, I wondered. Too soon to know for sure, but the signs were already there. Time after time, average swimmers would suddenly start improving when I stopped them from doing nothing but beating themselves up with hard training and started them on drills and exercises that let them use their existing power better.
Truth to tell, I enjoyed "cheating the system." By teaching my athletes to be more efficient than their rivals, I gave them an edge they could use to outperform swimmers who trained for many more hours - all of which saved me a lot of time on deck. Let's be honest: Even a dedicated swim coach doesn't relish countless hours watching people grind out endless laps. And as I became a "stroke teacher" more than a workout monitor, I no longer had to.
Then, in 1988, everything began to fall into place and the real secrets of successful swimming became more obvious. That was the fateful year I met Bill Boomer and subsequently left college coaching to work exclusively with adults. Boomer, whom I refer to so often in my workshops that some campers probably think they've met him, was swimming coach at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. Though relatively unknown in the wider world of American swimming, Boomer had a cult following among other college coaches in the region, coaches whose teams regularly faced his - and not often successfully. His ideas about swimming were considered radical, even revolutionary, and obviously worth listening to.
One memorable day, Boomer addressed a coaches' clinic I happened to be attending. Speaker after speaker had gone on and on about how they trained their swimmers by "building the engine and fuel tank," so to speak - throwing enough hard work at them that their bodies had no choice but to build endurance.
Then Boomer took the podium and dropped his bomb. He posed an obvious question, but one I'd never heard in two decades of attending such meetings: "How can we teach people to swim, at any given speed, with less effort?" His answer was just as disarming, and just as radical: "By reshaping the vessel." After all, swimmers had a lot in common with boats, and like a naval architect Boomer knew there were ways to improve the efficiency of their "hull designs."
Detroit had been doing it with cars since the price of fuel shot out of sight in the early 1970s, but no one, until Boomer, had thought of visualizing swimming the same way. Apparently he simply had the advantage of fresh eyes and an open mind, since he hadn't even been a swimmer himself, studying movement science in school and coaching soccer and track. So Boomer came to swimming minus the usual baggage of how things "ought" to be done and with a deep understanding of the way the human body moves. That enabled him to see things the rest of us had missed.
Boomer didn't have to tell me twice. I knew right away that he was onto something, and working exclusively with adults gave me the unique opportunity to test it, develop it, and refine it. My Total Immersion workshops began concentrating on something no other swim coach in America had ever done: teaching swimming technique instead of giving workouts. In a sense, I was becoming more like a golf or tennis pro than a workout planner.
And the adult swimmers I was already specializing in were the ideal athletes to develop this with. As my training program grew far more sophisticated than just "more laps, more laps" and essentially became a program of precise technique, I had to make advanced skills easy to practice for older swimmers, most of whom had little experience in the sport and little understanding of what really made them move in the pool. None of us would get anywhere unless I figured out a way to distill relatively complex and advanced ideas into a series of simple, logical practice exercises that anyone could do. And since I had to travel to pools all over the U.S. each week, teaching a new group of students every time in just a few short days, the program had to be easily understood, quickly absorbed, and simple to practice after I was gone.
That was thousands of swimmers ago. Over the last few years my students have also been my partners in a long-running laboratory, making clear which instructions were too hard to understand or produced negligible results, helping me refine the ones that showed the most promise, and always being part of the search for a better, simpler, more direct route to better swimming.
Along the way, I learned that the usual "swim-your-laps" advice was not only ineffective; it could actually be harmful. If your form is making swimming difficult for you and you practice that form over and over, "following the black line," it's going to become more than bad form. It will become a bad habit. A hard-to-break one too, when you finally decide to.
Today, there's no question that swimming cannot be thoroughly understood nor effectively taught unless it's seen for what it is: primarily a skill sport like golf, tennis, or even skiing, rather than a power or endurance sport like running or cycling. And harder yet for people to accept is the fact that your skill is far more powerfully influenced by how you position and move your torso, or core, than by what you do with your arms and legs. Fanciful theory? Not at all. As you'll see later on in this book, the world's top swimming scientists have only lately discovered this to be true as they studied how world-record-holders swim.
A beautifully efficient stroke and the effortless swimming it makes possible are not prizes reserved for the lucky few who got them as gifts of nature or spent most of their waking adolescent hours grooming them. They can be taught. Contrary to much of the swimming advice you still hear, great technique is not an asset that carries a staggering price.
Lou Fiorina, an exceptional teacher who often coaches with me at Total Immersion workshops, knows that now. But he didn't always. Fiorina remembers that when he watched Rowdy Gaines and Tracy Caulkins, both legends of American swimming, putting on a demonstration at a children's clinic several years ago, he thought, "They're so fluid and graceful moving up and down the pool. You must have to be amazingly gifted to swim like that." Some months later, he went to another clinic. This time Bill Boomer was teaching a group of average college swimmers, and Fiorina was astounded by what was going on. "As I watched, I could see their strokes begin to show a lot of the same grace and elegance [as those of Gaines and Caulkins], and I suddenly realized that this stuff was teachable, that ordinary swimmers could learn to swim like elite athletes, and they could learn it fairly quickly."
Today they are doing just that, at Total Immersion swim camps using the exact principles you'll learn in this book, principles that are easily mastered by swimmers of any age. I've seen athletes in their 70s and 80s use these principles to improve their swim times and their fitness, and get the best possible workout in the bargain - doubling the payback from their pool time. The techniques are captured in a set of simple-to-learn skill drills, sequenced into a self-taught system different from anything you'll find anyplace else. Even athletes proficient in other sports but inexperienced as swimmers have learned to swim with an amazing degree of efficiency and beauty. This program can make any swimmer his or her own best coach.
Every minute of Total Immersion pool time is devoted to building proper technique, not by grinding out more and harder laps but by concentrating on fewer, easier, and more purposeful laps - stopping time-wasting "workouts" and focusing on efficient and effective "practice." Today, most swimmers who come to a Total Immersion workshop have been swimming for months or even years without seeing any progress. I hope I don't sound like a carnival barker when I tell you that when they learn the Total Immersion method, they begin to feel better and see improvement in their swimming almost immediately. You can too.
Where do the workouts go? Oh, you'll eventually do some speed and stamina training, but in the beginning at least, your fitness is an automatic dividend of skill-building. If you want to improve your tennis game, do you spend 40 minutes running back and forth between the baselines, getting in shape to chase shots? Not likely. You improve your tennis game by practicing your stroke for 40 or 45 minutes and, as you improve your game, you build the fitness you need to play tennis. We do the same thing in the pool, which is why I always open Total Immersion workshops with what I hope is welcome news to time-starved swimmers: "Here, fitness is something that happens to you while you practice good technique."
That's not just good news, it's good science. We now know that while conditioning matters, it doesn't matter nearly as much as we've been told. In fact, the world's top researchers estimate that champion swimmers owe about 70 percent of their great performance to perfect stroke mechanics and only around 30 percent to their fitness - a statistic you'll meet again and again in this book as we develop your new Total Immersion coaching strategy. For the rest of us "non-champs," stroke efficiency is even more crucial, controlling perhaps 90 percent of our performance. Think about it. A new swimmer who does a quarter-mile in ten minutes might shave five or ten seconds by whipping himself into better shape. But he could lop off a healthy 50 to 55 seconds simply by learning how to move more efficiently through the water.
Make no mistake: A good, efficient swimming stroke is one of life's more complicated skills, far more difficult to perfect than the ideal golf swing or the picture-perfect tennis serve. You can't come close without some expert instruction.