Total Immersion's Terry Laughlin responds to Sheila Taormina's propulsion article

Terry Laughlin, director of the Total Immersion Adult Swim Camps, wrote this article in response to an article written by Olympic triathlete Sheila Taormina, in which Taormina questioned TI's ability to teach swim propulsion. Note: The story originally was published on

Several readers have asked me to address Sheila Taorminas comments about TI and the issue of swimming propulsion.

Im always delighted to for the opportunity to illuminate the swimming-improvement puzzle for triathletes. Ill emphasize at the beginning that I have the greatest regard for Sheilas perspective on what has worked well for her as a swimmer. Shes worked at it diligently and thoughtfully for years and with demonstrated success.

On the other hand, Ive worked diligently and thoughtfully for 30 years on the challenge of teaching and coaching swimmers to maximize their ability. Thats an entirely different skill set than the one required to swim fast and has produced a different set of insights about what matters in swimming and why.

Not insights that are necessarily in conflict with Sheilas. Its more a matter of differing priorities. Sheilas insights and emphases have worked extremely well for her. Ours have worked extremely well for us and for tens of thousands of our students. So lets examine them.

Sheilas principal claims about TI were:

1. TI does not teach about propulsion.

2. TIs shortcoming is in the adherents inability to use TI techniques to greatly improve speed.

Lets examine each.

Does Total Immersion teach propulsion?

At each of our workshops, we give a lecture, using video to illustrate, in which we talk about the two paths to improved stroke efficiency. These concepts are then applied through the drills we teach.

One path is minimizing drag, and we explain that you minimize drag by mastering three Eliminating Skills. These skills are:

1. Swimming downhill, i.e. mastering balance.

2. Swimming taller: Sheila characterizes this as gliding, but we do not teach anyone to glide. We teach them to use the hand to fully extend the body line before they use it to anchor or hold water, as Sheila describes it.

3. Pierce the water, i.e. consciously slip your body through the smallest possible hole.

In the second half of this lecture, we describe the other half of the equation how to maximize propulsion by mastering three Creating Skills. These skills are:

1. Use your core-body as your engine.

2. Use your hands to hold onto your place in the water.

3. Swim faster with your body, not with your arms and legs.

Human vs. fishlike swimming

So how did the perception arise that TI doesnt teach propulsion? Simply because the emphasis on the pull in swimming, from time immemorial, was so overwhelming.

For coaches and swimmers, the armstroke WAS technique. Sheilas article is a classic exposition of the thought process in what we call Human Swimming an intensive focus on how to use the hand to push water toward the feet. As I said earlier, if that focus has worked well for her, mores the power.

Indeed, I practiced "human swimming" as a college swimmer 30 years ago and coached that way from 1972 to 1988. I became very good at teaching swimmers how to push water toward their feet. But the organizing principle that makes TI different and has had a transforming effect on thousands of swimmers and triathletes, has been our emphasis on fishlike swimming.

The reason weve chosen this path is simple. When I began teaching TI workshops in 1989, I divided my time between teaching people how to push water back and (because of the influence of Bill Boomer) how to "pierce the water."

I soon noticed that when I succeeded at helping people improve at pushing water back, Id see modest improvement in their stroke efficiency. When I succeeded in helping them become more slippery, their stroke efficiency improved DRAMATICALLY.

The path of least resistance

That was all the convincing I needed to prioritize drag reduction. And because workshops last only two days, we make rigorous decisions about what we will devote precious minutes to. Not solely because the time we have to transform our students is limited, but because we want them to go home with perfect clarity on what they should practice not overwhelmed with a dozen different things to work on. We teach only as much as we feel they can effectively absorb and integrate.

In making those judgments, we say very clearly if you want to get the most value from your limited pool time, give most of your attention to cleverly and mindfully avoiding drag. Dont ignore the propelling side (we even give every workshop student a pair of Fistgloves, specifically to help them learn to anchor the hand better), but make sure you master eliminating skills first.

And if you are a developing swimmer as the overwhelming majority of triathletes and TI students are then its even more critical to learn to swim with a long, sleek, balanced bodyline and to prioritize propelling skills only when the eliminating skills have begun to consolidate.

Why? Quite simply because the eliminating skills make the biggest immediate difference in their swimming and the encouraging effect of immediate improvement is critical to maintaining high motivation for learning.

And theres more. We also prioritize eliminating skills because theyre simply easier to learn, as theyre based on whole-body, gross-motor skills, which are easier for the less-skilled swimmer to learn and develop heightened sensitivity and self-awareness for.

Propelling skills are based far more on fine-motor skills, with their highly nuanced upper-arm rotation, hand pitches etc.: Much harder to master, much harder to know when youve finally got it right ... and rather more dependent on sheer talent. Besides which, its virtually impossible to get creating skills right if youre not balanced!

Does TI make you faster?

I have no doubt that Sheila has spoken to some TI adherents whove gotten more efficient at swimming, but are not appreciably faster. I hear from people experiencing such frustrations regularly. And inevitably, the problem isnt with the technique or approach we are teaching as in their application which may indeed be due to our failing to make some aspect fully clear to them. When we clarify how they should be using the methods, most of them quickly improve their speed.

But its also important to keep the quest for speed in perspective. Here are several reasons:

1. We tell triathletes: Our goal is to teach you to swim with more ease, not to teach you to swim faster; more speed should be a byproduct of saved energy, not from trying to go faster. It has become quite clear to us that the largest benefit to a triathletes final time comes from finishing the swim with a low heart rate. If you can swim a half-mile in 10 minutes with a 130 heart rate, or in 9 minutes with a heart rate of 160, youll make up many minutes in the bike and run by going slower and saving heartbeats.

2. Experienced swimmers like Sheila, who have spent millions of yards learning to accommodate to the demands of swimming with a high heart rate and high stroke rate without blowing up can afford to swim aggressively. But novice swimmers i.e. more than 90 percent of age-group triathletes benefit the most from swimming at a relaxed, controlled, sustainable pace. We give them a structure for practicing easy swimming purposefully.

3. Swimming fast should be viewed as the sports-skill equivalent of a black belt in karate. It takes a lot of practice to learn to swim efficiently at a high heart rate. Until youve acquired that skill, youre demonstrably better off learning to swim efficiently at a low stroke rate and heart rate.

Less drag equals more speed

Its also indisputable that with understanding, application and patience, swimmers are much faster with TI training than they had been before. And why not? Whats not to like about less drag and less wasted energy? Here are some specific examples:

  • From 1996 to '99, I coached the sprint group at USMA West Point, specifically to address criticism in the competitive swimming community at that time, that TI worked well only for low-skilled swimmers and those who didnt need to swim fast. In three years of Division I NCAA competition teaching the cadets during the week exactly what I taught to triathletes on weekends the sprinters rewrote the Army and Patriot League record book in short events and all swam far faster than they ever had before.

  • Several years ago, we were invited to conduct a three-day TI clinic for Auburn University by their head coach, Olympic Coach David Marsh. We claim no credit for their successes, but learning and practicing TI techniques does not seem to have impaired their speed as both their mens and womens teams have won NCAA titles recently.

  • One month ago, Roland Schoeman of the University of Arizona won the NCAA championship and broke the U.S. Open record for the shortest, fastest event, the 50-yard freestyle, swimming it in 19.06 seconds. Roland has embraced the TI approach for six years, since he was a high school swimmer in South Africa.

  • Two months ago, Adrienne Binder, a 16-year-old swimmer at Santa Barbara Swim Club, swam 1,650 yards in 15:48, the second-fastest time ever for a swimmer her age. Last month she won the 400 IM at the U.S. Swimming National Championships. Her coach calls her the best distance swimmer on the least yardage in history. Adrienne has practiced TI techniques since the age of 10.

  • And finally, theres Susie Stark, a rookie on the World Cup triathlon circuit. Susie swam breaststroke in college, but attended a TI clinic when she began training for triathlon and has since been passionately committed to practicing TI methods. Susie, who says she was a mediocre freestyler before TI, reports that shes swimming much faster on 15,000 yards per week of slow, purposeful TI practice, than she did on 60,000 yards of hard, fast training per week in college. Fast enough indeed that last November, at the Cancun World Cup race, Susie hit the beach ahead of Sheila and Barb Lindquist. Two weeks ago at the Guatemala International Triathlon, Susie splashed ashore with Sheila and Joanna Zeiger, with no other women within shouting distance of that trio. TI seems to have done right by Susies ability to swim fast when it counts.

    If readers are interested, Ill be happy to write a separate article detailing exactly what we do teach about propulsion, but for now Ill just say thanks to Sheila and Slowtwitch for giving me this occasion to enhance understanding of what we teach. And should Sheila be curious about why Susie Stark is suddenly nipping at her heels, Id welcome her as my guest at a TI workshop.

    Happy laps!
    Terry Laughlin

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