Total Immersion Swimming


How to swim like a fish

It’s amazing to me that it took thousands of years before we humans really began to understand how best to swim, and how best to teach swimming. Terry Laughlin is perhaps the nation’s best swimming coach. Over his lifetime in pools he has figured out the best ways for teaching all kinds of people how to swim. His teaching is all about lowering your resistance in the water, rather than increasing your strength or force. He teaches every kind of swimmer, from beginners to Olympic athletes, how to be more like fish and less like the humans we are. The advent of underwater viewing and particularly video taping and slow motion helped Terry make breakthroughs in understanding the basis of efficient swimming. Terry’s methods still suffer the slings and arrows that any breakthrough idea that dares to challenge conventional thinking endures, but the truth and usefulness of his ideas are winning out.

I love when a book or DVD can teach me physical things. (I’ve also experienced this with kayaking, particularly learning to roll, but that’s another story.) I had a mortifying experience in my first triathlon. I can run and bike pretty well and thought I could swim. But out there in the ocean I exhibited the grace of a wounded wildebeest. I had to flop over on my back and gasp the whole way, arms flailing. I was close to panic from it all. I swore I’d either give up this nonsense or learn how to swim well. When I found Laughlin’s DVDs and books, I felt they had been created just for me. Through him I discovered for myself the benefit of lining up my head and using my core body to move. There’s no pulling at the water and hardly any kicking. I could try to describe it more fully but Terry does it so much better in his DVDs and books.

— Steve Leveen

I’d start by watching the DVD and then go on to the book for supporting details.

— KK

Easy Freestyle: 21st Century Techniques for Beginners to Advanced Swimmers
Available from Total Immersion

Total Immersion
Terry Laughlin, John Delves
2004, 320 pages
Available from Amazon

In 1988 I had the good fortune to meet Bill Boomer, who planted the intriguing idea that the "shape of the vessel" might have just as much influence as the "size of the engine" on a swimmer's performance. I had been teaching balance in an instinctive way - and with exciting results - to butterfliers and breaststrokers since 1978. Also in 1978, while watching my swimmers from an underwater window, I had realized that swimmers moved fastest while just gliding in streamline after pushoff. Once they began kicking and stroking, far more of their energy seemed to go into making bubbles than into effective propulsion.

Throughout most of the animal kingdom, the really fast creatures - race horses, greyhounds, cheetahs - use about the same stride rate at all galloping speeds. So do most really fast humans, such as Marion Jones and Michael Johnson. They run faster by taking longer strides, not by taking them faster. It's only when humans get into the water that we suffer a form of momentary biomechanical derangement, resorting to churning our arms madly when we want more speed.

The reason stroke length (SL) doesn't have a lot to do with arm length, or with how far you reach forward and push back, is because SL is how far your body travels each time you take a stroke. So it's mostly your body position - not your height or strength or the length of your arms - that affects the distance you will travel on each stroke. The best way to measure your SL is simply to make a habit of counting strokes - at all speeds, and on virtually every length you swim.


Stroke length can be improved in two ways. The easiest way is to minimize drag, and you do this by simply repositioning you body in the water to make yourself more slippery. The effect is that your body goes farther, with more ease and less deceleration, on a given amount of propulsion. The other way to improve SL is to maximize propulsion, and you do this by focusing on doing a better job of moving your body forward.

Kick For Efficiency, Not for Speed

Kicking can add only a modest amount of propulsion to an efficient stroke, while it can add a significant amount of drag and enormously increase the energy cost of whole-stroke swimming, if overemphasized. Therefore swimmers should do all they can to maximize the benefit of their kicking while minimizing the work they put into it.

"Fine," you say. "If all kicking does is burn energy and cause drag, why bother to kick at all?" Well, because that's not all kicking does. An efficient kick will improve your stroke and, in fact, is essential for the kinetic chain to produce anything like the power it's capable of producing for you.

09/19/05 --