Although I’ve always been pretty good at breaststroke swimming, the crawl, or freestyle has always eluded me. Up until few years ago swimming 2 or 3 lengths freestyle was a major challenge. Attempting to fix this by employing a private coach was even more depressing as he ended-up effectively telling me to go away and come back when I was able to swim 10 lengths. Hopeless! That is until I came across a method called ‘Total Immersion (TI)’, which in the words of snake oil advertisements ‘changed my life’. In this case though it is true!
The TI method was founded by Terry Laughlin, an accomplished American coach. It is a ‘fishlike’ style of swimming that emphasises ‘slippery’ body lines instead of muscling the water with arms and legs. The most important characteristic is balance in the water so that almost no leg movement is needed, no kicking to stay afloat. Propulsion is achieved by ‘twisting’ the body core through the water. Strength from twisting the body core, rather from muscles of the arms and legs, is also a key martial arts principle. Another characteristic of the TI approach is to keep the body as a ‘boat’ as long as possible, which is how naval architects design boats to go faster, the longer a boat the faster it will be able to go for the same power output.
To learn the TI method you start out on your back, then go through a series of practice steps to train the body balance and muscle memory until you are achieving effortless front crawl (freestyle stroke). Having mastered that I found myself quickly able swim almost indefinitely, or at least being able cover several kilometres non stop, particularly once the breathing becomes comfortable.
It is an incredibly relaxed style of swimming, moving through the water elegantly with hardly a ripple, particularly as reducing turbulence reduces the amount of energy needed for propulsion. The legs do what’s called a ‘flutter kick’, which is just a couple of kicks for each twist of the body. None of the mad, energy sapping kicking that we learnt at school.
The TI method was based on a careful analysis of why some of the fastest swimmers in the world actually use less strokes per distance. For me though it isn’t about speed at all. In fact I’m quite a slow swimmer, but is more about sustained, relaxed exercise. Wonderful for open water swimming, non stop for an hour listening to music from a waterproof ipod!