Total Immersion Online Magazine: Triathlon's Endless Swim

I am not a swimmer. I should be, considering that my husband James invented the Endless Pool, and I've spent hours swimming in our basement. I swam for fitness back in college, and every summer I swam across the lake at our vacation house. But whatever the body of water, I had always suspected I was swimming badly. Then, when I started triathlon two years ago and began swimming with a Masters group, my suspicions were confirmed: I was swimming badly. Those folks in the next lane were so fast, and you couldn't even see their gills. I left each Masters session feeling just as uneasy as I did in my basement pool, knowing that I was flailing away in the slow lane, simply ingraining bad habits.

Then I discovered Total Immersion. TI appealed to me immensely — both as a triathlete and as a rational person. Unlike Masters swimming, which emphasized conditioning, TI focused on my great weakness: technique. I practiced my TI drills diligently and attended a weekend workshop. I made great progress but wasn't feeling fish-like. Moreover, even with the Endless Pool's mirror I couldn't really appraise myself. How could I get better if I didn't even know what I was doing wrong?

So, four months ago I hired TI coach Erin Smeltzer to help me polish my stroke. I kick myself for not doing this the day I began triathlon. It is inexplicable to me that anyone willing to spend thousands of dollars on a bike and hundreds of precious hours training (including interminable pool laps) could fail to invest in a few hours of effective swim instruction. Because that's all it took. For $300 and five half-hour sessions, Erin taught me how to swim like a fish. More than that, as an Endless Pool owner himself, he taught me how to use my pool – another significant investment for most triathletes — to maximum advantage. I now swim five to six hours a week, and the difference in my ability, speed and sheer enjoyment is indescribable. Total Immersion plus an Endless Pool plus Mindfulness is the reason why.

About that last ingredient: The most challenging part of my initial training turned out to be achieving and sustaining the degree of focus that TI coaches emphasize. I rarely focus — seriously, all-other-stimuli-blanked-out focus — for more than 10 seconds, on anything. I think about stuff a lot, obviously, but the habit of mindfulness that is the foundation of Total Immersion was a struggle for me at first. I'd sometimes end practice early because my brain was so fried.

But as always, hard work pays off, and I've gotten much better at concentrating, in part because Erin has been so consistent in giving me focal points. Now I find TI's habit of mindfulness helping my run and bike training, as I focus on one movement for several minutes working to ingrain it.

My typical practice begins with five minutes in the Skating position, refining my kick and body position. An angled mirror at the front of the pool allows me to monitor my body alignment and to control my feet and body line. Next I turn up the current a bit and swim for ten minutes with Fistgloves, working through a series of focal points: hand entry, hip rotation, controlled kick, reaching, catching effectively. Here again the mirror proves invaluable. As a visual learner, I can see my mistakes and monitor my corrections. This has allowed me to make many subtle adjustments in my stroke and to know instantly whether they're helpful. That's an incredibly empowering experience for a swimmer!

Following my Fistglove set, I dial up the current a bit more and swim with open hands for five minutes. The contrast between fists and my new paddle-sized hands provides a flood of new feedback on the focus points I had already worked on. Most of all I gain a dramatically increased sense of how to control the water. How slowly and easily can I stroke and still hold my position? This kind of refinement practice is unique to both TI and the Endless Pool.

Finally I work on speed development. I raise the current to my desired 1500-meter pace and swim for 100 strokes. Since I'm not trying to reach the wall or beat the clock, I simply try to swim as smoothly and evenly as I can. After 100 strokes, I stand up, take ten deep breaths (the "yoga breaths" Terry describes in Triathlon Swimming Made Easy) and begin again, for a total of 10 rounds. If I do watch my time, I try to increase my splits for 100 strokes. That may seem counter-intuitive, but it means I'm taking longer strokes at the same speed. After completing my rounds of 100 strokes, I crank up the current again and swim five to ten rounds of 50 strokes with a rest interval of five breaths. Finally, I turn up the current one more time and swim rounds of 25 strokes. This "sprint set" represents my top swimming speed. I keep my focus on absolute, smooth control. Any time I find myself flailing or losing focus, I stand up, recover my breath and concentration, and begin again.

The great joy of my practice is turning the current back down to my mile-distance race pace and swimming steadily for ten minutes. After that high-powered speed workout, my mile pace feels almost leisurely. I never dreamed I could swim so well, so effortlessly, at triathlon race pace. As I stroke, I recall past races and my stroke immediately becomes stronger and cleaner. I finish by doing more Skating practice, or perhaps breaststroke with the current back at its original setting. I start out aiming to swim for an hour, but I'm often so caught up in the experience that I keep going for another 15 or 20 minutes.

After four months of solo Endless Pool practices, I trained last week with my local Masters group. Training competitively — pushing myself to keep pace with other swimmers — was invaluable rehearsal for upcoming races. But it was also terribly distracting. In trying to keep up with the group, I couldn't maintain my mindful focus on my stroke (though several people did comment on how nice my stroke looked). Worse yet, every 25 yards I had to turn around! I felt I was slipping back into bad habits, sacrificing form and the promise of future speed to the tyranny of a pace line.

I'll return to Masters every week or two to track my split times and practice drafting, but I'm happier training at home. Erin still comes by about once a month to monitor my progress and give me a new set of focal points, for these are what make swim training so motivating. My husband the pool inventor asks if I ever get bored swimming alone in the basement. Are you kidding? At the end of every session I have a long list of all the great things I'll be able to do the next time I hit the water.

When not nursing one of her myriad injuries or chauffeuring her children, Catherine Murdock relishes competing in sprint- and Olympic-distance triathlons. An Ironman will come -- someday. But for now, "I just like making it home by lunchtime." She's looking forward to improved swim splits after her months in the basement.

Training, Swimming
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