Re-learning How to Swim with "Total Immersion"

I have learned some hard lessons in my triathlon training –  specifically when it comes to the swim.

The road to bad technique: I loved the water as a child and have boasted some pretty strong swimming skills over the years. From Vanderbilt swim classes at age 7 (when I very proudly excelled beyond older students) to Water Safety Instruction (WSI) certification at UNC, I spent as much time in a pool or ocean as time would allow, at least until I left the South and its warm water at age 30. Doing something well, however, gave me the false illusion that my technique was proper. Until I got injured and second guessed my skills. Sound familiar?

A new PT: As I was grinding my way through pool workouts this past winter, developing a very achy shoulder in the process, a friend suggested that my technique might be the culprit of my swimming woes. So when the Boston Marathon was behind me, I signed up for a workshop to improve my freestyle stroke. The technique taught at Flow Aquatics in Boise, is adapted from Terry’s Laughlin’s Total Immersion, Swimming Made Easy and Triathlon Swimming Made Easy. By streamlining your body in the water and increasing your stroke length, your speed will increase at a lower output of energy.

Within one hour of the workshop, I was amazed at how much I had been doing wrong for so many years, or at least inefficiently. Here are a few of them:

1. Breathe out through your mouth underwater. Well, that’s what I’d been doing for 40 years, until my instructor told me to breathe through my nose.

2. Blow out as hard and fast as you can when under water. Did you know that if your lungs are filled with more air, you’re better able to float atop the water? That was news to me. And given my low level of body fat, I especially need the extra “air” to keep me buoyant.

3. Always breathe in on your more natural side. Actually, it’s better to alternate on every third stroke.

4. Kick from the knee. Wrong again. You are supposed to kick from your hips. By putting on a pair of flippers, it’s easy to feel the proper kicking motion.

5. Lie flat on your belly while stroking. Rather than swimming flat, you should roll your body from one side to the other. Why? You slip through the water much more easily on your side as your body elongates and glides.

6. Pull like hell with your arms. Yet another thing I was doing wrong (and probably the culprit of my tendinitis). You reach forward with a “weightless arm,” leading with your elbow, not your hand. Then plunge the hand into the water. Again, length and glide trump muscle.

7. Extend your arms directly out in front of you, on top of the water, before you pull back. Though everyone’s point of balance is unique, my instructor suggested we stab the hand into the water at the 3 or 4 o’clock position, as pictured here. The rationale is that the hips won’t sink beneath the water, and the body remains more buoyant.

Just do it (correctly): Though my list of wrongdoings are in no way meant to be a substitute for a workshop or video or book, I hope it enlightens you to a few things you may or may not be doing right. If you plan to incorporate swimming into your cardio routine – either out of sheer desire, to train for a tri or as a means of rehab from other injuries – learning proper technique is well worth the investment. After all, there are many benefits to swimming. So you may as well be doing it right!

Melinda Hinson