April 17, 2014
Click to hear Terry Laughlin discuss the ins and outs of triathlon swimming the Total Immersion way. [Click To Tweet]
Swimming faster is something all of us triathletes aim for. In this show Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion talks about the mechanics to becoming a better swimmer. Terry’s primary focus is to teach swimmers to move through the water efficiently. By conserving energy and focusing on balance and streamlining in the water, any energy used for propulsion becomes much more effective. Basic principles of teaching include sustainability of effort, drag reduction, vessel shaping and full body swimming.
0:00 – Terry Laughlin and Triathlon Research Radio
1:40 – Terry’s Travels
5:05 – Three Questions For Triathletes 1. Are you swimming fast enough? 2. Are you good enough for the type of racing? 3. Are you getting the right advice?
7:43 – Speed is complicated
10:39 – The Skills You Need To Acquire More Speed
15:40 – Counting Your Strokes
21:05 – Becoming More Self-Aware
23:50 – The “Green Zone”
30:27 – Testing Your Limits And Developing Consistency 1. Test your ability to swim farther and/or 2. Swim farther with less variation
33:21 – Mental and Aerobic Endurance
40:11 – Tempo and Pacing
45:21 – Swim Mechanics
53:00 – Staying Motivated and Always Improving
Suzanne: Hello, my name is Suzanne Atkinson and today I’m interviewing Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion Swimming. Hi Terry how are you today?
Terry: Hi Suzanne I’m not bad today and hello to everyone.
Suzanne: Thanks for joining me today. Terry you have just done a worldwide sort of whirl wind tour in England and the United States at several different triathlon shows. What shows were you at and what were they like?
Terry: In England I went to the Tri show in Sandown near London on March 1st and 2nd and then I went to the Bike and Tri show in Manchester on March 8th and 9th. Back in the US two weeks later to Tri mania in Maryland, Tri Mania, D.C on March 22nd and a week later March 29th at Tri Mania again but this time the Boston edition at MIT.
Suzanne: So that was four different tri shows in two different countries within a month, is that correct?
Suzanne: That sounds like a lot of fun and a lot of work.
Terry: It was a lot of work, a lot of travel, a lot of getting to talk to triathletes, which I find most valuable.
Suzanne: Can you estimate how many triathletes were in attendance at each show or is that something you weren’t really aware of?
Terry: I’m not a very good estimator but certainly the number was in the hundreds, possibly over 1000 probably at the two shows in England because they were two days each and in quite large venues. I would say safely into the hundreds at the two Tri Mania shows.
Suzanne: Sounds like some multiple hundreds. I read some really good reviews of it online and people were really excited to have the opportunity go to those Tri Mania shows and meet with and interact with people like yourself and several of the other well-known names in triathlon.
Terry: Yeah I enjoyed it too especially because I got to do a panel with at the Tri Mania in D.C with Shane Eversfield another TI coach in direct cycling and my good friend Danny Dreyer from Chi Running.
Suzanne: Great. Did you have ample time during those shows for triathletes to perch you individually and introduce themselves and have conversations or was it more a group presentation?
Terry: In England we had booths and the booths were manned by multiple coaches from the UK, one group in London and another group in Manchester. When I was not either speaking or teaching at the pools there I mostly was at the booth so I got to do that quite a bit. At Tri Mania we ran five to six clinics, I guess five clinics a day of two types, each for over an hour. So I was pretty busy both days just teaching at the pool. So I didn’t get to have a lot of individual conversations there.
Suzanne: Okay but it sounds like you had a good opportunity to interact with triathletes in the water, is that correct? Terry: In D.C. and Boston yes. So in the England shows you had an endless pool on site and then in the D.C. and Boston shows you had an actual swimming pool.
Terry: An actual pool, yes.
Suzanne: Great. So there are some themes among the triathletes that showed up that you described to me. In your experience at these two recent shows what is it that the triathletes were looking for who signed up for the clinics?
Terry: Well I think at a basic level they all want to swim faster. I think there’s certainly a feeling that they need to swim faster and probably a certain level of insecurity about that about whether they are swimming fast, whether they understand it, whether they are swimming is good enough for the kind of triathlon race they’d like to have. So it’s really a common concern.
Suzanne: Okay. And within that common concern you mention a couple of things there, people are number one am I fast enough, number two am I good enough for the type of racing I want to do? So it sounds like this goes a little beyond just completing the distance and.
Terry: And third that insecurity I talked about which is you hear an awful lot. There’s sort of a lot of noise in the world of drumbeat you might say of being told you need to swim faster, you need to swim harder. And I think a lot of people are trying and not necessarily seeing much in the way of encouraging results from that. So they wonder can they do it and do they understand how to do it.
Suzanne: So you have a lot of people who are looking for ways to get faster and I understand that was your most popular clinic at the two recent Tri Mania expos was the Smart Speed clinic.
Terry: No I wouldn’t say it was the most popular.
Terry: We actually had more people which I was very pleased about, more people signing up for a basic skills clinic which we called Effortless Endurance. But there was certainly was a strong draw as well as for what we call Smart Speed which was really about skills but approached a different way through stroke count and tempo. In the Effortless Endurance we were approaching it through teaching vocal points and not counting, not timing, just feeling things.
Suzanne: Do you find that in both of these presentations, the Effortless Endurance and the Smart Speed, it sounds to me like in both cases you are teaching similar things. In other words the Effortless Endurance group may be getting faster anyway and the Smart Speed group may be learning some whole stroke focal points that is going to assist their skill.
Terry: Yeah what is thematically the same between them is the idea that learning to swim easier is going to give you the best foundation for improving your speed. And if you can swim faster and easier at the same time so much the better.
Suzanne: So Terry you made a comment not too long ago and I may be paraphrasing but speed is complicated. Would you agree or disagree with that?
Terry: Speed is very complicated and there’s really nothing intuitive about it. Almost all of our instincts about going faster actually make it harder to go faster. They just really make us tired faster.
Suzanne: So why is it that? You’ve never talked about this before and I’ve experienced it personally, what is it that makes trying to swim faster for most people make swimming more difficult instead?
Terry: I think our basic instincts, our innate instincts as terrestrial mammals trying to do an aquatic activity where we start out in swimming with just needing to get to the other end of the pool and not sink. And we do that by turning the arms and legs and that makes an imprint that’s a lot hard to root out. And you are already stroking fast just to survive.
Suzanne: Right, just to stay on top of the water in some cases.
Terry: Just to stay on top of the water. So then when you hear whether you have to stroke fast to swim fast you wonder well how do I do that. I’m already doing that. So there’s that innate problem that I think is universal among all of us. And then when you get into triathlon and you are in an environment where there’s a lot of advice, there’s a lot of voices telling you how to do. So then you are being exposed to a lot of the orthodoxy about swimming, which is that you’ve got to get in better shape, you’ve got to do more yards; you’ve got to raise your heart rate. All of that and sort of with the understanding that if you do these things that if you swim more yards and turn your arms a little bit faster and raise your heart rate somehow the outcome will be you’ll swim faster. And I think most people experience that is not the case.
Suzanne: Now is there a group of triathletes, I guess this is kind of a leading question and maybe I’ll rephrase it—when I came to total immersion for my first workshop obviously my stole wasn’t perfect and there’s still a lot of room for improvement. But I felt that I had a decent foundation. I felt like my efficiency was pretty good and training under my own guidance using some training plans I got a little bit faster but not the level that I thought that I was capable of. So for that type of triathlete I was not just defaulting towards stroking faster but I just didn’t know how my faster efforts in the water, they didn’t translate to faster speed. So what’s the spectrum that a triathlete needs to go through to start to acquire these skills of speed? How do you break down these different skills in a way that someone can acquire them on their own?
Terry: The first thing is you have to become an efficient swimmer. If you don’t become efficient first then whatever efforts you do exert or expand will be mostly wasted since our base efficiency is so low. As little as 3% energy efficient for I’d say a lot of entry level triathletes and less than 10% efficient even for an elite swimmer. So you have to become more efficient first.
Suzanne: Okay, so suppose that I’ve taken my efficiency from a modest 4% to maybe a 6% there’s still some room for growth but I’m getting a little bit impatient and I sign up for the Smart Speed clinic. What kinds of things are you discussing in that clinic? You talk about pace clock and some self awareness techniques as well.
Terry: Yeah. We actually didn’t use the pace clock at all in the Smart Speed clinic. We only used two metrics.
Suzanne: Tell me more about that the sort of banishing the pace clock from the poolside for a little while.
Terry: It’s where everybody starts and I think everybody becomes over-reliant on it so swim training is generally intensively pace-clock oriented. So my guess is that if once you’ve been in triathlon for more than a few months and once you’ve gotten over your basic being comfortable in the water concerns that you just from the influence of seeing what everyone else is doing, start being very oriented to timing your repeats so that sort of becomes your whole world. So what I try to do with people is get them to be conscious of other ways of thinking about and measuring their swimming without the pace clock. You can go back to the pace clock but I think you can use the pace clock a lot more effectively if you are aware of the other measures that are available. The first of those measures is self-awareness, what sensations do you have while you swim and do they represent greater efficiency or lesser efficiency? And can you use sensation and intention thinking this thought as compared to that thought. So for instance with your arm you have a choice between thinking about grabbing a handful of water and pushing it back or a choice to think about extending your body line and holding your place. So those are two thought choices you have. So what I want people to do is recognize the many thought options they have, the many thought choices they have and to become curious about them. To start exploring them and find out when I choose for instance to extend my body line with my arm rather than grab a handful of water and push back does that affect my stroke count? Does that affect my rate of perceived exertion? Does that affect what time comes up on the pace clock? So the starting point that I encourage people to is toward that area of enhanced and structured self-awareness. Almost like setting up a menu of things to check out and seeing what information you get, what understanding and intelligence you get about your swimming by doing that.
Suzanne: So can I just ask you a question before we go on to the next part because I find this really interesting. Total Immersion has a lot of emphasis on counting your strokes not necessarily a specific stroke count. But do you think that it is important for someone to have practiced counting and targeting certain stroke numbers before moving to this level of increasing their self-perception and awareness or can they happen simultaneously or do they go hand in hand?
Terry: They can kind of go hand in hand and they can complement each other but I do expect as was true for me when I started paying attention in this way, I had swum for 25 years mainly focused on the pace clock. And then at about age 40 was the first time I was really exposed to the idea of swimming with a focus on what my perceptions and sensations were. And I found when I began doing that that I didn’t really have the bandwidth to do two things at once. That I had to devote some time to a sensation in my case the first one was of having a neutral head as opposed to holding my head up. I had enough muscle memory, 25 years of holding my head up that it took all of my bandwidth to just be aware of and keep holding my head in a neutral position. And then when I did count my strokes as a cross reference I was encouraged to find out that that did reduce my stroke count. So with more practice I’ve gotten to the point where I can easily do both. Initially it was hard. Did you have a similar experience?
Suzanne: Yeah. I think that’s really important because you had been swimming and coaching. Coaching for 20 some years, swimming for even longer and it wasn’t until you were in your 40s or 40 years old that you started to try and layer some of these things on top of each other. So if someone is trying this for the first time on their own at the pool it’s very easy to get discouraged.
Terry: Well the big thing for me is that I became aware of what I subsequently call black holes in my awareness which is I wasn’t aware of what I wasn’t aware of. And what I was aware of or what I thought was mistaken so I’d swum for 25 years thinking that I had heavy legs and that I needed to work a lot on kicking and do countless miles of kickboard training and still never feel like my legs ever really worked well or got light. And then I did a balance drill for the first time at age 38 or 39. As I said I’d been swimming 25 years at that point and in 10 minutes I realized oh my legs aren’t heavy, there is a possibility I can. And then I started thinking about what else am I not aware of or don’t I understand after 25 years of swimming. And that’s the black hole thing which is I didn’t know what I didn’t know yet about swimming.
Suzanne: So how can someone go about starting to explore these things? You’ve mentioned one or two specific things. If someone doesn’t have a coach at the poolside how could I go to the pool and start becoming aware of my black holes. What kind of other feedback can people be looking for?
Terry: Definitely you’d want to know what to structure you’d want to know how to check it. Certainly you could buy our DVD of perpetual motion free styling 10 lessons which every single one of those 10 lessons has probably not less than four or five critical focal points for each lesson, for each skill. And it gives you a structure for where do I start and how do I proceed. That would be one way. Another way that I recommend to people is to do a body scan nose to tail. So think about your hands first. I mean you could just observe, you could just notice things you haven’t noticed before. If I really think about my hands what do I notice and what does that mean. If I then move my attention to my arms and if I move attention to my head, to my torso, to my hips, to my legs that would be the nose to tail method, what do I notice that I haven’t noticed before simply because I’m paying attention?
Suzanne: Right. It reminds me a little bit of the relaxation exercise before sleep where you go from one body part to the next and think of it as being very heavy and sort of sinking into the mattress to help relax muscles. You are just drawing awareness to the different body parts. And I think a big difference is that most people have never tried this while they swim because they are too busy thinking about other things.
Terry: Yeah well I don’t do it before I sleep, I read. But I’ve done it countless times before yoga class.
Suzanne: Sure okay. Sorry can you still hear me Terry?
Terry: I can hear you well.
Suzanne: Okay good, you faded out there for a second. So step number one then in a triathletes pursuit of speed is to become more self aware. Part of that is sort of involved becoming a more efficient swimming and developing some self-awareness and we’ve talked about several strategies for that. What comes next?
Terry: I just want to point out quickly that at Tri Mania one of the things I did tell people is before we started teaching focal points was that self-perception is something that a lead athlete has to a breathtaking degree that most of us even can’t conceive of the things they are aware of and the level of really subtle discrimination. They can make and understand what those mean on an intuitive level. So it’s one thing you can do that can close the “talent gap” between you and a lead athlete is hone your own self-perception.
Suzanne: Do you think that someone that may not necessarily have the genetic gift of elite performance do you think that they can develop the self-perceptive capacity that is shared by elite athletes?
Terry: Yeah there’s actually a tremendous amount of research that has shown that these perceptual skills are not innate in elite athletes. That they are developed and where they come from is that maybe something that is innate to them is that they have this really strong tendency to always be on task. And never let their mind wonder from what they are doing whereas average athletes tend far more to disassociate thinking about other things. So when you really pay attention on what you are doing you just naturally have a higher level of perception.
Suzanne: I remember reading recently somewhere about how Michael Phelps has this whole pre-race visualization routine that he does. But it wasn’t something that he started right before his first Olympics. It was something that he started at the age of eight years old when hi coach Bob Own gave him and his mother very simple things for him to do at home. So it started with practicing basic self awareness at a very young age for him and been practiced and refined over years.
Terry: And that’s an illustration of what made Bob and makes Bob an extraordinarily good swimming coach. Not a lot of people do that and especially with eight year olds, right?
Suzanne: Yeah exactly. It’s hard to get eight year olds to focus most of the time for more than a few seconds. Self perception efficiency, improving the capacity to be aware of different body parts at different times. What’s next in this flow of becoming a faster triathlon swimmer?
Terry: Stroke count.
Suzanne: Tell me more about that.
Terry: What we know because there’s plenty of data to support it is that elite swimmers travel about 60% or more up to in Sun Yang’s case, 73% of their wing span or height each time they take a stroke. What does that mean? It means that if you are in that range that when your hand goes in the water and you stroke your hand will come out of the water pretty close to where it went in. if you are much below that then you are basically spinning your wheels or in other words diverting your precious energy into moving water molecules back instead of moving yourself forward.
Suzanne: So moving water molecules back is essentially the same thing as creating turbulence.
Terry: It’s one form of turbulence, yes, scattering water molecules, yeah.
Suzanne: And is there a way for an individual to sort of get a hand on what their stroke count can be or should be or what guidance do you have for that in your Smart Speed clinic?
Terry: We used a chart we’ve developed called The Green Zone of Stroke Count that chose from any height and any course. If you are 5, 4 and swimming in a 25-yard course or if you are 175 centimeters and swimming in a 25 meter course or any height swimming in a 50 meter course. The chart tells you what range of stroke counts has you between let’s say, we actually put the base level at 55% so that it would be more achievable for an average swimmer and you wouldn’t feel like you had to be just like an elite right from the word go. And so it’s a range of about four stroke counts for freestyle.
Suzanne: You are using the term green zone. To me that suggests like the zone on a Prius for example when you are driving in a fuel-efficient.
Terry: Yeah, exactly. On Prius or on a motor scooter there will be on the speedometer there will be a green zone that shows where you most have fuel-efficient. So that’s why we called it green zone, you are most energy efficient when you’re in the stroke count range or pretty close to it.
Suzanne: Did you do that sort of work with the swimmers at these clinics in the pool at Tri Mania?
Terry: We did. We used that as cross-reference before we started. We had them check out and become familiar with what range of stroke counts they should be in, in order to assure themselves that they were swimming with a reasonable level of efficiency.
Suzanne: I’m just curious. Out of the swimmers that did sign up for the Smart Speed when you have this chart and you are not necessarily telling someone you must swim with 16 strokes but you are looking at their height and their wing span and there’s a range based on the percentage.
Suzanne: How many of the triathletes that were signed up for that are already within that range?
Terry: The large majority were above that range.
Suzanne: Were above the range so they are strokes were shorter than—
Terry: In other words they are spinning their wheels. They are moving water molecules instead of themselves when they stroke.
Suzanne: So with that being an indicator they are sort of out of that green zone would it be safe to say that you’d recommend going back to the perception and self-perception and self-awareness as one of their first step? Do you think in that particular case?
Terry: Yes definitely so because one of the things that wouldn’t be instinctive to you when you became aware of it, you thought okay I should not be taking more than 18 strokes and I’m taking 21 to 22 so you think how do I get to 18. So how do you think the average person would solve that question?
Suzanne: Are you asking me to pose my answer?
Terry: I am. Put yourself in the shoes of the average person.
Suzanne: The average person, well I can think of two ways or maybe three ways. I could kick hard; I could try and pull harder to get more distance. Or I could try—
Terry: Or how about pushing further back.
Suzanne: Pushing further back, right.
Terry: As you get further back and you do not get urged or do you not hear people urging so often to push further back, so yeah. What you are most likely to think in order to travel further down the pool is one of those. Or you might think I need a longer stroke and when they hear the phrase longer stroke they are mostly thinking about how far forward and how far back. Whereas what we understand longer stroke to mean is how far you travel from the time your right hand enters until it re-enters the water.
Suzanne: So the idea of travelling forward while all of this is happening, just sort of creating momentum or creating effort I guess.
Terry: Yes. So when I do take people back to that menu of perceptions or focal points what they virtually always discover is that if they do things they would never have thought to do like have their head be weightless like have their legs draft behind the upper body, actually relax the legs and kick less. Like swim with less noise and splash, like watch for bubbles in your stroke and eliminate bubbles. There are all these things that are going to be far more likely to help you get down into your green zone to reduce your stroke count and increase your stroke length than the things you would be likely to think of or the things that you often get urged to do.
Suzanne: Okay, so let’s suppose that we’ve gotten our self into the green zone. I’m swimming within this 55 to 70% range and I can make a choice as to where in that range I want to be. When someone has reached that level of skill and ability and self-awareness what’s the next step in getting faster? That seems to be the theme triathletes want to get faster and you’ve mentioned some things to be aware of. So I’ve reached that point and what happens next?
Terry: Once you are in the green zone you’ve got two options. You can test your ability to swim further in that green zone and or to swim further with less variation in your stroke count.
Suzanne: That second one is really interesting to me. I bring that up because I see that often in some of the people I coach. They get comfortable counting strokes and they get comfortable with that mental task of recording and reporting, maybe not quite sure what to do about it. And if they get along set of C stroke counts all over the place, tell me more about being consistent with your stroke count.
Terry: Well here again I have to go back to perception and focus because what I find in my own swimming is that when my attention wanders a little bit. Let’s say I’ve been intending to hold a stroke count of 14 strokes per length and on a particular lap it goes to 15. Now that’s not a lot of variation but my variation tends to be quite small but it gets my attention because I’m paying attention, I’m counting. And what has caused me to go up it’s almost always that my attention wandered for a moment. So it’s again going back to the idea of learning to stay focused in a particular way that is I know what I’m meaning to think about and that I can continue doing that for longer for four laps rather than one, for eight laps rather than four and so on. What we think of is endurance has to start with mental endurance, the ability to stay on task.
Suzanne: Sure. I think that any triathlete training especially for a long course would agree with that the mental endurance is huge. If a triathlete is able to maintain a green zone for an extended period of time as a coach and with some background in physiology my assumption is they’ve acquired not only the mental endurance but also some aerobic endurance in order to sustain that. In other words, maybe I can do it for 200 but can I do it for 1000 or for 2.4 miles. Do you recommend that people try to develop that endurance to sustain for the race distance before they worry about getting faster for that race distance, or is that the wrong question to ask you?
Terry: No. What you are talking about aerobic and metabolic endurance. As I develop the mental endurance to maintain my stroke count within a preset range that it won’t vary by more than plus two strokes if I swim even as far as 1500 meters short course. That while I’m swimming that 1500 meter short course and propelling my body over a consistent distance which places a certain demand on the body, a power demand and an energy production demand that I’m training myself for the metabolic requirement of doing it. So as I swim with more skill and I can maintain a more consistent stroke count that at the same time I am just naturally automatically developing the fitness that goes along with that level of task. And that level of task is the level of which I’m capable of on a neurological or coordination basis at this moment. And it’s also the level of task at which I’m capable in terms of the focus it takes me to do it. So it all goes hand in hand. I don’t think you can separate them.
Suzanne: It reminds me a lot of the way that coaches and athletes will train with a power meter is an athlete may have a target power zone, let’s just say 180 to 200 watts for X number of minutes. But along with that there is frequently also a target cadence for example can you sustain 180 watts for an hour with a cadence of 85 to 90. And I think triathletes, many triathletes are used to thinking in those terms. And there’s a direct, I see a direct translation to what you are describing. You are talking about swimming at a certain stroke count by being able to have developed the awareness, the focus, the endure and mental focus and then drawing that to longer and longer periods of time. On a bicycle when you start to get fatigued typically the cadence will start to fall. Or you have a tendency to shift into an easier gear to make the cadence go higher and make all these adjustments. And on a bicycle it’s not a big deal because those changes that you make translate pretty much 25% effort into forward speed. So you can shift into an easier gear and not lose a lot of speed as long as you are still putting out the same power. But the same thing is true for swimming in a much narrower way. In other words when you start to get t fatigues and the stroke starts to shorten all of a sudden your efficiency may go from 6 or 7% down to 3 or 4% and that’s a huge change.
Terry: Well I think of a direct corollary of being able to make an informed and effective adjustment in order to hold. I did a practice a little over a week ago in a 50 meter pool that I posted on the Total Immersion forum and which you have since given to your own masters group or a variation on it. One of the things that I noted in that is that it was kind of a long set. It was a 4000-meter set. And in the middle of the set I just found myself getting a little fatigued and struggling to hold the stroke count that I had intended to hold at the start of the set. So the reason that I was getting fatigued is pretty self evident. I’ve only been swimming 2500 yards a week for about four months. So here on this day I was swimming 4000 meters so it was natural that I began to feel some physical fatigue. However I made a shift in my focus to holding. I was able to go through my menu of focal points and choose one that turned out to work. So I decided I would put all of my focus on putting, once I extended my hand forward that I would use it to hold my place to be very focused on not pulling back. And that as soon as I shifted my focus to holding my place I was able to hold the count with more ease, with less metabolic demand and therefore control the fatigue that was starting to encroach.
Suzanne: Okay. I hear a couple of different themes here. The first one is that you are certainly you invite opportunities to swim beyond your current fitness levels.
Terry: Definitely I don’t mind seeing where my failure point is.
Suzanne: And when you reach that failure point you’ve got some alarms, some early alarms that start to go off. Maybe your first one is sort of intuitively being aware that your stroke count is going up.
Terry: Yeah, well I have to be counting. If I’m not counting I don’t know that. So I need to have that piece of information and that I also have an option. I think without the option I had to run through my menu of possible changes of focus what would I be left with? Stop and take a rest and recover. But instead I was able to carry on and reduce the effort level and reduce the fatigue level by switching my focus.
Suzanne: So you have kind of an inline option going on where you can stop and rest if you want but you want to keep swimming so you are going through a mental checklist that you’ve developed.
Terry: Yeah, yeah. And the race application for that is obvious because so frequently during a race I will be pretty close to my limit and start to feel that encroachment of fatigue and be far enough from the end of the race that start to think well how do I keep my pace and have enough in the tank to reach the end of the race. And if I have in practice experimented with different focal points and found those that work when I have that information that I can go to the same place in the race.
Suzanne: I want to wrap up here in a few minutes but in my summary of what we’ve talked about so far. We’ve only covered two of three of the steps to speed and there’s still a really important one left and that has to do with tempo or pace. There are a couple of ways to think about it. When I gave the set that you just described which is on the Total Immersion forum that anyone can read when I gave that set to my group of master swimmers the other night we didn’t do 4000 meters. We did about 1800. But what was really fun is that I gave the same 1800 yard total set to three different swimmers of three different speeds. They all did the same distance but we were able to modify for example for the 400 repeat one swimmer did a 400 continuous, one did 4 by 100 and another did 8 by 50. And each person had a combination of a stroke count target and also a pace that I gave them so I learned this initially from you during the coach training. If you combine pacing, the traditional pace clock which people are very familiar with, with the stroke counting then you can come up with some really creative performance based sets. I know you usually use the tempo trainer or frequently do, but can you talk a little bit about the way you can use one or the other to create a performance-oriented set. Because I don’t want people to come away thinking all I have to do to get faster is swim 18 strokes per length for 2 miles and I’ll be fast, because that’s too simplistic.
Terry: If you know your stroke count you can combine that with either tempo or the time on the pace clock. And as long as you have two metrics you have a lot more understanding of what’s going on. I guess a simple example would be can I swim 3 100’s and can I finish each in the same stroke count? That would be really basic. So let’s say that stroke count is 15 on the first lap, 16 on the next two laps and 17 on the third. That’s not an easy task for a lot of people to swim all 3 100’s and complete them in that count. And then at the second level, on the first level I’m just counting my strokes and seeing if I can do that. On the second level I look at the pace clock and I see what that converts to, what that translates to. And is my time consistent or do I get slower? If I’m getting slower then I’m maintaining the same stroke or length but somewhere in there I’m losing tempo. So on the second level of difficulty would be to do those 3 100’s all at the same stroke and do them all at the same time which means I’ve kept my stroke count and my tempo consistent for 3 100’s. You have to do it for 3 100’s before you can do it for 5 or 15. So it’s why I encourage people to do short sets designed as tests that give you information about where your weak points are before you do longer sets. And then the third level would be can I do that same set and actually eke out a little bit more speed on each successive without changing the count which, is a very, very high level even I would say rare level of skill which is the ability to increase stroke rate and keep your stroke length the same. That would be a very basic example of how you would start to add other metrics to stroke count.
Suzanne: You and I have talked before about tempo training so I think I’ll just set that aside for now. It’s sort of implicit in the equation for the speed of swimming. And I think if people want to hear more about that they can go watch one of our previous webinars and I think you’ve got several free YouTube talks online as well. But I would like to just address one other thing with you if you wouldn’t mind addressing it. When I’ve done in particular open water swim clinics with you, you do spend a bit of time talking with the advanced groups about some of the swim mechanics of swimming faster of holding your place. Would you mind talking about a couple of those visualizations? Because I know that a lot of people are really interested in that even though they may not be quite ready for it, they want to know what the next step is.
Terry: I’m going to have to ask you to refresh my memory.
Suzanne: Okay, there’s a nice segment from one of the open water Hawaii swim camps where you are talking about the draping the arm over the Swiss ball, defining the shaping of that ball. And in particular I really like the analogy of holding this ball of water molecules still while your body moves past it. Is that a visualization that you use or that you teach a lot or is that just something that crossed your mind one day?
Terry: I do use it and I teach it a lot. What you are really getting at to again goes back to this relationship between stroke count and tempo and time. In open water you can’t count your strokes so what you are left with is the feeling of an efficient stroke and the ability to distinguish between when you are swimming efficiently and when you are starting to lose efficiency. And efficiency, the easiest way to think about it is that I’m moving water but I’m not moving myself. That my energy is going in to moving water molecules and that’s not a good use of your energy. So you kind of without the ability to count strokes what you are left with in open water is you need to cultivate a really clear sense of what feelings or sensations can give you assurance that you are staying efficient and at the same time along with that is what thoughts or intentions can help that. So the idea of holding a ball or draping your arm over a balance ball is—but that’s getting at stroke mechanics which is in order to move forward you need to have at least your hand facing back. And optimally some of your forearm also as a surface to hold water also almost as if that space between your fingertips and the inside of your elbow was a paddle. So the visualization of draping your arm over a balance ball is to ensure that your palm is facing in the direction when you apply pressure to the water that the resulting force will move you forward and you could spend a lot of time in open water just getting used to holding that thought and sort of hardwiring that thought and the action that results into your brain so that it’s more likely to resist breakdown when you are in a race.
Suzanne: And I think that you can practice that same thing in a pool when you’ve got the cross-check of stroke count as well a space to remind you and let you know that what you are practicing is going to translate.
Terry: Right. Again going back to the other matrix so if I’m swimming with tempo ad let’s say I’ve got the tempo set at 1.1 and I’m trying to hold 14 strokes per length and I’m trying to swim further while holding 14 strokes per length which really means I’m maintaining the same pace. If I held the same stroke count at the same tempo and go farther I’m swimming the same pace at a longer distance that I do at a shorter distance. And countless times when in the middle of such a swim as I started to feel fatigue encroach and I thought in the 100 or the next 200 will I still be able to hold this stroke count, in other words hold the same pace as the beep stays unchanged, that a counter-intuitive thought has allowed me to do it. I guess you would be most inclined to think well I better push harder to travel that same distance. And I found that when I applied lighter pressure it was easier to travel that same distance not pressing harder but lighter pressure. And why was that because with lighter pressure I was not scattering water molecules. So it’s just a way of learning how your most instinctive thoughts are often not going to be the most effective ones. And that you actually have to try these things while having these matrix to let you know what’s really happening.
Suzanne: Sure. Terry do you think that the folks that came to the Tri Mania shows and attended these Smart Speed clinics do you think that they left with a good roadmap on how to progress?
Terry: They definitely had experiences that I think opened their eyes and gave them insight and clarity that they had lacked before. The most important thing that the people in the Effortless Endurance clinics I think came away with was the importance of how you think while swimming, the importance of having a clear and constant focus. In the smart speed what they came away with was recognition that when they got faster they didn’t get faster by trying to swim faster or by trying harder. That when they did so they got there through a focus on maintaining a certain stroke count. If they were swimming at 15 strokes a lap and they started to become familiar with the feel of holding 15 strokes a lap. And if they just tried to focus on maintaining that feel while let’s say increasing tempo by very, very small increments 1/100th of a second or 2/100ths of a second at a time that they could hold 15 strokes and maybe increase tempo by 6/100ths of a second or 8/100ths of a second or maybe even 1/10th of a second. And if they were holding 15 strokes then they did it at a tenth of a second faster, they swim that lap a second and a half faster which is between 90 seconds and 2 minutes faster when extended over a mile. And they were pretty stunned that they could increase improve their mile pace without trying to swim faster. And in fact what they told us was that while doing that they were mostly focused on staying relaxed and staying at ease and that really inverted their concept of how you swim faster. That I could actually do it through more ease not more effort.
Suzanne: That sounds like a really great experience.
Terry: Mind-blowing and eye-opening for sure.
Suzanne: I had someone ask me last week. I had explained to her frequently when I come back from a coaching weekend or a training weekend or even just spending a little bit of time with other TI coaches or like-minded swimmers that I feel this sense of more motivation, more enthusiasm, immediate improvement that sticks with me for a while. And she asked me, she said how do you get that kind of improvement to stay with you? And my response to her was that if you have not experienced a true change in the way that you are approaching what you are currently doing then the improvements aren’t going to stick. You really need to change the way you approach if what you’ve been thinking about hasn’t been working. And one of the things that I think has really helped me do that is you freely post a lot of your practices on the TI forums. There is a wealth of information in there. And I also just want to point out for people because I’ll brag on you a little bit that you do have a swim academy that’s got interaction inside the academy and access to a lot of the things that you’ve talked about if people are interested in looking for more information about this sort of stuff.
Terry: Thank you. I do really want to be fully transparent with and let people sort of look over my shoulder, so to speak, as I train and see what I really do and then take from it whatever they may whether it’s inside or to try a set.
Suzanne: And I think that’s one of the nice things, is that by being able to peak over your shoulder. When I first got my coaching certification you and I had some email back and forth and I was so impressed. You sent me two entire summers worth of your practices and I though this is golden. I couldn’t believe that you sent this to me for free. I printed it out and I looked over all the different practices and I get ideas from that kind of stuff all the time. And then seeing what other swimmers, Allen from the forum for example, he’ll take a set that you did but do it in his own way and write about it. So there’s just idea after idea.
Terry: Allen Perez, a guy would I’d love to see become a triathlon coach because he’s already thinking like one. In your case Suzanne what I was responding to was your really evident hunger to understand more, learn more, improve more in your swimming and your coaching. So I’m always happy to encourage that and help that.
Suzanne: Well thank you very much and I hope that the person listening to this podcast has some takeaways and has a roadmap for where to go next.
Terry: Well I’ve enjoyed it. I can’t wait to listen to it myself.
Suzanne: Excellent. You can subscribe to it on iTunes, The Triathlon Research Podcast.
Suzanne: Thanks a lot Terry, have a great day.
Terry: My pleasure Suzanne, you too.
Suzanne: Bye bye.