Many triathletes come from a strong running or cycling background. Very few come from a pure swimming background with little running or cycling experience. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many find swimming to be their weakest discipline. I come from a strong running background, added to an absolute passion for all things cycling, and my swimming is bound to be my weaker discipline.
When I started out in triathlons, my club mates showed me how to swim more efficiently, but as with all things, over time bad habits creep in and I realised that in the end I only learnt how to struggle efficiently. In saying that, I could manage the 1.9km swim at Ironman 70.3 and eventually the 3.8km swim at Ironman SA, but at both races I was never confident or as efficient as I should have been in the water. So when Georgie Thomas, owner of Total Immersion South Africa, invited me to a two-day swimming course in July, I jumped at the chance. I have heard so much about the Total Immersion way of swimming and was eager to see whether all the great testimonials on their website were true. Would I really be able to swim like a fish after the course?
THE TOTAL IMMERSION WAY
The workshops are spread over two days and done in a gym pool, with the first day usually covering about five hours in the afternoon and the second day another five hours in the morning. Be prepared to feel tired at the end of the weekend, but also know that you are setting yourself up for huge gains in years to come.
Before you attend the course, it is great to first familiarise yourself with the Total Immersion way of thinking. Total Immersion is famed for teaching a special relation with the water. Terry Laughlin, the founder of TI swimming, developed the ‘Rule of Two Percent’ after 17 years of coaching. It says that about one person in fifty has the natural ability to swim efficiently; the other 98% follow their instincts and struggle unnecessarily.
Total Immersion believes that the key to faster swimming is understanding that each time we enter the water, we bring with us all our human traits, habits and instincts. These serve us well on land, but in the water they lead to inefficient and exhausting movements. This is called Human Swimming. Fishlike Swimming, by contrast, is fast, effortless and smart. This is the kind of swimmer you want to be. But in order to swim like a fish, you need to shed your human instincts and learn to do some things that will feel counter-intuitive at first, but, with practice, will become quite natural and will make you as relaxed and at home in the water as a fish. And you’ll be swimming faster, too, with much less effort.
Armed with a bit of research and a whole lot of heart, I packed my bag and was off to my first day of training, which started off with some theory behind the Total Immersion way of thinking. Groups are no bigger than eight students, which means great individual attention. Our group consisted of athletes of very different abilities and goals: Some wanted to tackle their first triathlon, two of us wanted to improve our Ironman swimming time, while others just wanted to become more efficient swimmers.
Before we knew it, we were sent to the pool and asked to each swim two lengths while we were videotaped. Then the drills started. At first they seemed strange and I wasn’t sure how they would eventually help us, but I quickly realised that all these drill sequences helped to build to full stroke. (Expect that by the end of the course, drills called Spiderman, Gliding and Spearing will be part of your vocabulary!)
During the drills, we learnt important technique such as how to master balance, how to pierce the water, how to reduce drag and how to use the effortless power of our body’s core rotation. And don’t worry that at any stage you are going to be left behind or won’t master certain drills. The drills are all basic and easily mastered, but what a difference they make!
I can honestly say that in a matter of two hours I already felt more relaxed, comfortable and balanced in the water. Suddenly my legs weren’t sinking as easily as in the past, and my head was lower in the water, which made me more balanced. I actually started feeling like a swimmer! In the past, I would try to swim faster but get nowhere; now, suddenly, my new swimming economy made me swim faster without even trying.
My biggest problem in swimming had always been my breathing. No matter how hard I tried, I used to breathe on every second stroke, which as we all know is not always the best, especially when swimming in an unpredictable sea! I was therefore curious to find out whether this course was going to help me with bilateral breathing. To my surprise, I managed this by the time we got to full stroke. It took some time getting used to it, but as with all things, one can’t expect miracles overnight.
The course ended with another video being taken of each student, and the results were remarkable! We all watched our ‘Before’ and ‘After’ videos together and it was amazing to see how every one of us improved in just two days. This is how I improved:
• Less noise and splash in my stroke, which saves energy.
• My head position improved enormously, which has lead to a significant improvement in balance and general position in the water.
• I am also now using rotation of my body as the main means of propulsion through the water, which saves energy.
• In my ‘Before’ video I took 33 strokes in one lap, while in my ‘After’ video I only took 20 strokes. My improvement is close to 34% which means great energy-saving that will significantly impact on my bike and run times.
After the course you are sent away with your ‘Before’ and ‘After’ video, a great Total Immersion manual and some training programmes. However, don’t expect to get into the water the day after the course and swim like Michael Phelps! It takes getting used to and you have to go back and put the work in. Most importantly, you have to be patient and practice your drills. I’ve been back in the pool since the course and apart from some funny looks I got when practising my Superman and Gliding, I have a renewed sense of joy and passion for swimming. I feel that I have been given the right set of tools to become an efficient swimmer and improve on my triathlon swimming times.