Some people wonder if you can "practice Total Immersion (TI)" in a workout run by a non-TI coach. I believe you can. Total Immersion isn't a set of drills. In competitive swimming terms, it's a practice philosophy in which it's non-negotiable that every set should have a clear purpose—a purpose that relates directly to the skills and habits that win races. If you adopt the following as practice habits, you can "practice TI" in any workout.
1. Always be aware of your stroke count. Work on maintaining the most efficient stroke possible at slower speeds, and ensure that an increase in strokes is a result of making a choice to go faster—not an accident of fatigue or loss of concentration.
2. Realize that it's better to control your effort and maintain proper form than to compromise technique by going all out to make an interval. Understand that conditioning is something that happens to you, while you work on race-winning skills.
3. Constantly seek ways to minimize drag. In the equation: Velocity = Stroke Length x Stroke Rate, our natural instinct is to increase Stroke Rate to go faster. But the fastest swimmers in the world are those who get the most out of each stroke they take. While I've seen and experienced the limits one can physically exert themselves in the water, I have yet to see a limit on how much a person can improve their efficiency.
4. If need be, go last in the lane if it's the best position in which to practice effective swimming. While swimming at Army, I split 43.1 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle, yet I sometimes preferred to go last in my lane so I could practice great technique without distraction. For a year and a half I trained in Irvine, California, sharing a lane with Jason Lezak, the all-time fastest American in the 100-meter free. While he was unquestionably the fastest swimmer in the pool, he usually went last in our lane and I could count on one hand the number of times he led the lane.
5. Strive to be the quietest swimmer in the pool. Working against the water is an exhausting and frustrating process. The same habits that allow us to be silent and smooth make us efficient in the water.
6. Focus on looking easier—at all speeds—than anyone else in the pool. The greatest athletes in all sports—Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, Alexander Popov—consistently outperform the competition while appearing to be going at half speed.
7. Pull away at the end of races, as well as on turns and underwater. While all swimmers have this as a goal, a conventional swimmer does it by trying to out-train you ("The fitter I am, the more I'll have left in the tank at the end."). Total Immersion teaches you to swim more economically at any speed...by seeking small edges in stroke efficiency...by developing acute pace awareness...by mastering "swimming gears" for the most advantageous strategy for each stage of the race...by "winning every turn" (in practice too)...and by blending mind and muscles seamlessly toward that goal.
And here's the fundamental difference: The conventional swimmer is focused on getting in shape at workouts; the TI Swimmer is focused every minute on mastering the skills that win races. It's not what you do at practice—it's how.
Joe Novak, the West Point record holder in the 50-yard freestyle, 100 freestyle, and 100 butterfly, lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife Karin, and is the head coach of the Cheyenne Mountain Aquatics Swim Team. You can reach Joe at JosephBNovak@aol.com.
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