Minimum Amount Of Practice Part 3

Rotate sport emphasis (if you have multiple sports to train for).

Here is an idea multi-sport athletes might work with. Instead of always trying to give an equal 1/3 of your resources to each sport, you may emphasize one sport for a period of time while giving a minimal amount of maintenance to the others. For a few weeks or a couple months you may give emphasis (in time and intensity) to one of the sports and reduce the emphasis on the others – just do enough to maintain a level of ability in those sports.

There is some cross-over of fitness between the tri-sports and you can rely on that to some extent. Devote X weeks to more intense focus on one sport, building up to a new level (granted you’ve build a base in that sport), while doing just enough in the other two sports to maintain your level there. Then you may switch to a new sport emphasis.

For example:

  • Month 1 – Swimming emphasis, minimal on Running, Cycling
  • Month 2 – Running emphasis, minimal on Cycling, Swimming
  • Month 3 – Cycling emphasis, minimal on Swimming, Running

Of course, you may want to keep this in tune with the seasons. Say, for instance, you have the opportunity to travel to the Med (with me!) to work on swimming when the water and weather are awesome, so you can back off the less convenient sport of cycling. Then there may be an ideal distance cycling season in your region. And there may a season of more ideal running weather (I prefer harder run training in winter!) when swimming distance outside is not practical. I’ve done it this way with swimming and running some years. When the summer heat comes it makes makes running hard, while the water is still cool enough to swim with intensity. I would spend the winter building a running base so I could maintain over summer with much less running until it cools off again in the fall. Then in late spring I started emphasizing swimming distance to build my base for a fall long-distance swim project. I switched from mostly running in winter to mostly swimming in summer.

Minimum Amount Of Practice Part 2

Devote part of the pre-season to building a big base.

Part of getting your body and mind ready for improvement in your achievement season each year is putting in the long and low-intensity distance that gradually stimulates the body tissues to build up and prepare for more intense efforts in the main season. It’s what endurance athletes do in pre-season to prepare their bodies for more difficult training.

There are prescriptions for each sport (and for each event in each sport) for how much distance one should aim for, but just know that getting a lot of easy, mindful, injury-free meters/miles racked up really, really helps. Basically, it’s giving months of rhythmic repetition and stimulation to the body that the necessary systems in the brain and body get built up to a high level in support of the activity. The brain says, “Hey, this gal is super-serious. This is looking like a lifestyle. We’d better set up the whole system to get ready to live this way!” And it does.

But when the person engages in the activity only occasionally, the body may respond more like, “Oh, she’s trying that again? Let’s just resist her a bit and see if she won’t give up and stop it. We don’t want to go to all that effort retooling the whole system if she isn’t serious!” And, so over this pre-season of work unseen but important things develop inside the body to allow an athlete with a big base to perform in season at a much higher level than one without such a base.

I know the benefits of this base well from my early years of swimming and triathlon (when I had to do it in three sports!), and I still work this principle in my Flow State distance swimming and running training now.

Minimum Amount Of Practice Part 1

I want to bring up a complicated topic without delving into that complexity.

There is so much that could be said about how to train enough on limited time, and there are a lot of experienced people out there on the topics we can draw from. Yet I would like to provide some of my ideas for how to make the most of your very precious training time each week to keep you encouraged.

Minimum of 3 Days Practice Per Week

We do need rest built into our schedule, but allow too much rest and we lose ground in our capabilities. With too much down time we lose momentum on strength, we lose fine tuning in technique and we lose psychological eagerness to work. Think how important it is for a musician to stay tuned for the big concert – swimming is also a fine-motor control activity, with intense physical effort on top!

I imagine all of you would like more practice time, and the fact is, there are a lot of circumstances that come up to obstruct our frequency, and sometimes we can work through the inconveniences and sometimes not. But we need to acknowledge that there are significant benefits that are only experienced when our practice is frequent enough. Too little practice and we simply cannot enjoy a higher level of performance. And, for those of you who are triathletes, it is even more challenging to fit training for three sports into weekly life!

So, as a starting point for planning I suggest that we aim for a 3 day practice days per week minimum. And small practices done frequently are generally better for the body and mind than big practices done infrequently.

There are different systems that need to be trained – metabolic, muscular, motor, and mental – and they each have some particular requirements in order to be pulled up to a new level (and trained in unison with each other) – often this requires a more intense period of training. Then, they might be maintained at that new level with less work than you imagine.

It wouldn’t go well to generalize what each of you need in each of those areas – that is quite personal – but I simply want to encourage you that your practice quality and frequency needs to match your expectations for progress. With frequent, quality practice your systems will receive enough stimulation to rise to a new level, but too little and they won’t develop well.

Train In Your Imagination

Some time ago, in the book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley I read about this idea that is being put into practice in therapy and in some sports and arts training programs – to train for an action by simply imagining yourself doing it.

I have been gradually introducing this idea to my live students. In our context with swimming, the idea is to simply imagine going through the motion of the stroke, or just some part of the stroke, and to do this with full concentration and attention to each detail.

To summarize, in my layman understanding, what happens is that there are (at least) two parts of the brain that make a motion happen – the pre-motor control section and the motor control section. The first one plans the action and the second one makes it happen. What the text explained was that those (like artists or athletes) who practice just carefully imagining the motions they are going to make actually prepare their bodies to take those actions.

To that pre-motor control sections of the brain it is as if they were actually doing the motions – the same kind of neural stimulation was happening – and this part of the brain reinforced the circuits to prepare for that action like it normally does the micro-seconds before one does real actions.

Of course, this ‘training in your imagination’ would not likely allow one to perfect every aspect and detail of a complex movement but it can do a lot to make it better – and more importantly, it can be done anywhere a person can quiet down and concentrate inside their own imagination – at home, in a chair, in bed, in the shower!

~ ~ ~

A couple years ago I had a workshop student who had experienced a major skiing accident a few months before which also broke up his shoulder in addition to other parts of his body. Although healed up enough to resume swimming, in our Swing-Switch drills he could not move his arm up past his shoulder on the recovery.

When I had him fully release his arm into my care so I could gently test it through the full range of motion we found that his shoulder could, in fact, work through that range without pain or obstruction. I suspected then that what may have happened is that his subconscious brain was still so protective of the shoulder that it would not allow him to willfully move his arm past a certain point. (I have experienced this myself after my knee injury and subsequent surgery which removed the problem – but my brain has never fully trusted my knee since then). I wanted him to try this risk-free technique to retrain his brain to accept the full range of shoulder motion now that the injury was gone and there was no need for the brain to protect the shoulder this way. By imagining the full motion he may be able to convince the brain that the full range of motion was now possible and OK and could begin strengthening that circuit again.

My instructions were that he would simply lie down on his bed in something close to the skate position and simply and only imagine himself moving the arm – starting with very slow and careful imaginary motions – swinging his arm on the recovery path through the full range of motion.

Since he would be on business travel, and away from a pool for a week, I prescribed that he do this for 3 rounds, 20 times on each arm, each evening before sleep. Then next time he got in the pool he would get into Swing-Skate drill and carefully test his ability to willfully move his arm through the full range of motion in the recovery swing.

Alas, this student never tried my experiment that I know of! I am sorry to disappoint you, and I was disappointed also. But I am telling you the story because I want you to see how I was inspired to apply it. I am hoping some of you will pick up the experiment for one of your own areas of skill that you feel stuck in and test how this can work for you.

Then I want to know about your results!  You may notice that  I actually prescribe this as a pre-swim rehearsal, doing this before getting in the water to try the actual motions. You may consider using it either as a pre-swim warm-up, or an at-home training exercise.

Here are some skill areas that I think this technique could be used upon:

  • Recovery Arm shape and flow
  • Catch shape and path
  • 2-Beat Kick shape and rhythm
  • Head position and timing in breathing
  • Removing fear about swimming into deeper water
  • Swimming at a faster tempos

Can you come up with more?

Think for a moment. Now that you have an idea of how this may work, what are some parts of your stroke, some aspect of control, or some part of your emotional experience might you use this technique upon?

When could you set aside 10 minutes of quiet ‘imaginary practice time’ to do this each day for a whole week? How could you put yourself very close to the swimming position (horizontal) or in good sitting posture so that your body will be aligned and stable (and comfortable) while doing the meditation?

This is very fascinating and potentially powerful brain and body insights we are learning these days. It seems science is just scratching the surface yet. Especially with such safe activities like this to experiment with, I think it is in our interest to test these ideas. There is a lot more for us to learn about how this brain and body work and a lot more we can do to train ourselves. We can help each other a lot by sharing these insights, experimenting and sharing the lessons we learn from it.

Going Beyond Basics – Part 3

What should your improvement expectation be for each Step in the skill progression?

Stage 1 – It Gets Easier

Generally, the benefits of Step 1 – Stroke Control skills – will be that you are able to swim a lot easier at your normal distances.

Why? With fundamental TI skills in place the energy demands and strain in the body will decrease a lot compared to your old land-mammal-style swimming.

This may not immediately translate into swimming farther or faster. Some people with such poor body shape and movement patterns may see a dramatic increase in speed because they were moving so slow before and totally exhausted by it. Those who were moving at a decent speed but under a great deal of effort, will more likely discover how to relax and produce that same speed with a lot less effort (this was what I experienced at first with TI). Meanwhile, there may be some basic fitness conditioning that needs to develop to support this new kind of body control before it can handle much longer distances. Enough power is available, but the swimmer can’t deliver it very well yet.

Stage 2 – Go Farther

The benefits of working in Step 2 and 3 – Stroke Length and Tempo skills – will be that you are eagerly able to swim farther with the same effort. Ability hold good shape and get consistent distance out of each stroke, and make those strokes on a consistent tempo will save energy and make it physically and mentally attractive to go farther. But this may not immediately translate into a major increase in speed either.

Stage 3 – Go Faster

The benefits of working in Step 4, 5 and 6 is that you will be able to swim faster under control.

The previous steps in the sequence (1,2,3) showed you how to quit wasting energy, how to save it and distribute it better to get more distance.

The reality of these advanced steps for speed (4,5,6) is that you are going to now have to put in more physical effort to match your mental concentration. Your strength is going to be challenged to grow parallel to your technique. The physics of human swimming dictates that we can get up to a certain speed in the early stages of TI training simply by reducing energy waste through superior body control – we might call this the Easy Speed Threshold. After that magical point we can only get faster by increasing power.

The critical thing to understand is this – and this a central point in TI training – that increased power can be applied effectively or applied wastefully, depending on the quality of your technique and how deeply it is imprinted. That instinct for quality is what Steps 1, 2 and 3 are meant to burn into your neuro-muscular system and into your training value system before you get to the pressure of increased power demands in Steps 4,5 and 6.

If there is a weakness in the TI training resources I think it would be found here – that the books and videos and most of the live training is focused on Step 1 and Step 2 skills – of course, this is what 80% of the swimmers of the world need right now. Yet people read, watch, or attend a training event and assume they have learned all they need to know about TI – or perhaps the instructor gave the impression that this is all they need to know. Not even close – this is just the beginning. This gap of understanding is what our online coaching service is trying to fill.

So my final question for you, my swimming friend…

What step do you feel you are at, and what should improvement for you looks like at this step?

Going Beyond Basics – Part 2

Here is a question for you…

If you faithfully follow the TI freestyle drill sequence, use focal points well, mix it in with your whole stroke swimming, and take your time to master every piece – will you eventually turn into a faster swimmer?

Or, in terms of our organized sequence of Level 1 and Level 2 skills, if you work a long time at Level 1 until you feel like you can perform every body position and stroke control detail well, will you automatically become a faster swimmer? (I suspect this disappointed swimmer practiced a lot at Level 1 and yet expected a Level 2 result.)

Short answer: No. You won’t necessarily get faster. Because Step 1 is about learning how to form and control the stroke. In this step you are just discovering how to align the body and adjust the stroke using all the various control points. Step 2 and 3 are showing you what to do with that stroke control to set up the conditions for increased speed – basic stroke length and tempo skills. Steps 4, 5 and 6 are where you learn to produce speed upon that foundation.

150128 image 2 600x

Learning how to pull on levers, push buttons and turn dials on the dashboard of an race car will not qualify you to race that car, no matter how many months you sit there and tinker with the dashboard. You’ve got to take that car onto the track and learn how to make the vehicle do things (faster!) with those levers, buttons and dials. You need to drive the car on a real track, under real conditions.


This chart shows how we break down the skill progression. The swimmer only get to the results of Step 5 and 6 by first going through Steps 1 to 4.

So too, with your own stroke in Step 1, you’ve been learning how to notice and adjust little details in your body position and stroke control. This is just the beginning. You are going to need to take that skill and put it to practice on gradually increasing challenges using the variables of Stroke Length and Tempo and Distance to create that increase in challenge. By doing this, your fitness (ability to generate power) will develop in parallel with your technique (ability to apply power with precision, where it is needed).

Those two – fitness and technique – are inseparable in training because all movement patterns are training the neuro-muscular system –teaching the body where and how to deliver power while you generate it. So, if you are going to do any movement to build power for swimming, you need to train the precision of movement to go with it at the same time. That is a core principle in TI training.

Going Beyond Basics – Part 1

I received a comment on the latest blog post ‘Improve Swimming Speed Part 1‘, and it grieved me a bit. This swimmer wrote:

“I learned crawl by myself with the TI method over 10 years ago. I quickly managed to swim 1500m and more. But that’s really my only accomplishment. I’m still slow as I was 10 years ago, despite swimming and training 2-3 times a week. I have read all the TI books and looked TI-DVD’s, read the TI forum for years. I have joined a couple of the TI camps, and also taken one personal TI lesson from a TI coach. You say “Trust the process”, but I mistrust this process.”

I wrote a personal email back to him with the offer to examine his experience of the process to find out where short-comings in the Total Immersion services may be, or find a gap in his understanding that we might fill and send him on his way to better results. He has not replied yet. His comment made me consider what gaps there may be in your understanding of TI – both in your mind, and in the bridge I am trying to build for you in our training events and in the Online Coaching Program.

~ ~ ~

One of Terry’s highest values that led to the Total Immersion system was this declaration early in his coaching career, “The problem is not the swimmer, the problem is the method.”

If the swimmer is failing to progress, then the method needs to be examined. And this remains one of our guiding values today. That is what makes TI unique among all other programs that have great success with swimmers – they may have success with some (usually more gifted) swimmers, but how many are they not able to help? TI is expecting success with all kinds of swimmers, especially the most troubled ones that other programs can’t help.

We warmly welcome those who have failed in the other systems, and if our current box of tools won’t help, we are eager to invent new ones rather than send them away. This continually puts the TI method and the TI Coach under the test. It forces us to refine things more and more. But it does not remove the responsibility of the student. And that is why we need to examine all parts of the equation to find out where the obstacle to any swimmer’s progress may be.

We might say there are four parts to the success equation with Total Immersion:

  1. The completeness of the TI Method to meet all needs.
  2. The competence of the teaching (whether from a coach or a book/video).
  3. The understanding of the swimmer.
  4. The quality of practice (time, attention) given by the swimmer.

Because I know you somewhat, and you have been a part of the  Online Coaching Program, I have no doubts in your dedication to improve with TI. I have no doubts in the TI Method – I am not claiming it to be perfect, because all human programs are adaptations and a work-in-progress – but I spent so many years testing it myself and seeing results with so many others (especially those who are not natural at swimming), that I am confident it is better than most.

But where I am constantly questioning myself is in how well I am teaching you. How can I do better at giving you just what you need, right when you need it? Then, how can I do better at teaching you how to do this for yourself when I am not there to do it for you? And I am looking for the gaps in your understanding of the method.

The whole point of the Self-Coaching Program is to save time and error by passing on to you what worked so well for me and countless others. (Maybe one day you will turn around and pass it on to another swimmer also!) It is an experimental project to develop this online coaching tool to help you succeed at home, on your own.

So, inspired by the comment from this swimmer I want to clarify your understanding of the TI method, if it is needed. I want to help you set your expectations to match how this works.

Look for the continuation of this essay in Part 2…

Correcting Your Stroke By Yourself

Have you experienced some sore spots, strange sensations, or actual pain while swimming recently?

Even I have. My body is not ‘old’ but I can feel my vulnerabilities as well as any one can.

Once while spending some weeks back in the local pool for my practices instead of in the sea I started to get some shoulder aches.

Over the years, if I switch back to a pool, or back to open-water, it takes a couple weeks to adjust my mind and body to the different training environment. Swimming in the sea and swimming in the pool are similar only in the fact that both are done in water, but most of the similarities stop there. (That’s why you should practice in the open-water as much as possible, if you intend to race there!).

Upon getting in the pool for the first time this year (to swim, not to teach) the front part of my shoulders started to ache a little bit, especially the right shoulder. This rarely happens when I swim in the sea. I knew immediately that something about being in the pool must be making me change the way force is going through my shoulders.

So, right away, while I was swimming, I did some evaluation to find out where the problematic changes may be. This what I found:

1. First Underwater Stroke (pull)

After pushing off the wall and gliding to my break-out point, when I make the first underwater stroke, I always start with the right arm. I noticed that instead of setting the Catch and ‘press the ball straight toward my toes’ my tendency on only this first underwater stroke is to push out to the side at the beginning of the Catch, rather than press straight back. I was using the push of my Catch hand to rotate my body somehow (rather than the core), and this was putting a strange load on my shoulder. This is exactly what I saw in one of your videos a few weeks ago – one of you who was complaining of shoulder pain – and once you corrected that and a few other details the pain went away.

2. Open Turn

Since I am training for open-water swimming, not pool competition, I often choose to do open-turns rather than flip turns. (Good flip-turns are slightly faster than good open-turns, but they put you in oxygen-debt because you have to hold breath much longer). When I came to the wall, I would reach with my lead arm to touch and hold, add a little force to pull my body close to the wall, then push away from the wall, all with that same arm. This put a strange load on my shoulder – something I definitely do not do when in open-water – and in the pool I would do this more than a hundred times! That adds up.

3. Glide From The Wall

After the turn, once I get into streamlined body position, and push off the wall, I place left hand on top of the right hand (to create the arrow-head in front of my body), hook the thumb of my left hand over the edge of the right hand to hold the arms together, and then (I noticed) I pull each arm against the other with the thumb-hook preventing them from pulling apart. This was creating tension on the front side of the shoulders also.

So, I found 3 places where I was changing the load (the force) I sent into the shoulders, all because I was swimming in a new environment. I practiced these self-coaching skills:

  • I was mindful. I was always paying attention to the signals (the pleasure and the pain) my body was sending.
  • I was careful – I gave serious attention to those signals and was more loyal to responding to them than to completing a workout plan.
  • I immediately scanned my body, movements, and stroke pattern for more details, more specific information.
  • I evaluated my environment to see what were the differences between sea and pool to find what could cause me to swim differently.
  • I found 3 possible problem spots, and studied each one to find out what specific moment in the movement could be causing problems.
  • I chose a correction for each one, and started testing those solutions to see if they would work.

I am pleased to report that with those three corrections I was able to remove the soreness in my shoulders. It may not have been just one of them alone, but all three adding up to my shoulder soreness. Though I have found the solutions, I still have to keep those three corrections as focal points during my pool swims in order to prevent the old habit from creeping back in and causing my shoulders to ache.

Each of these focal points come at just one moment in the swim, at the wall and right after. So the rest of the swimming time, away from the wall, I can direct my mind back to normal whole stroke focal points. If you experience any strange or painful sensations, you can practice the same process for finding and correcting it.

Laminated Practice Cards

This is what I did after discovering the TI method in 2001. I scoured the book and any other TI resources to extract all the written practice sets I could find. I wrote them down (in TI code language) on small colored index cards and then laminated them so I could use them poolside.

You have permission to copy the course content for your personal use! Take advantage of this!

I suggest you take some of your favorite practice sets in the three or four practice types many of the Dojo courses utilize. Organize them into some categories of purpose, write them on colored index cards (one color for each category, several cards in each practice type).

Laminate those cards. Keep them in your swim bag. If you don’t know what else to do when you come to the pool, pull out your cards, scan through them and take the one that grabs your interest for the day. You can feel more secure that any of the color-coded practice cards are designed to carry you in the right direction.

Organic Training Plan Part 4

Follow Critical Path For Skill Development

It is easy now for me to have all this stuff in mind because I think and teach on it just about every day. But I am hoping you too will come to have this memorized by interacting with the concepts more often.

Hence, this is why I invited you into the Mediterra Swim Dojo, and why I continue to write to you about these things. It is essential to the organic practice plan to keep the critical path of skills in your mind – the more you have internalized the principles the less you need to live by rules. The more you integrate understanding and wisdom internally, the less you need external authority to push you to do what you need to do to reach your goal.

Level 1 Skills First

Advanced stroke skills are dependent on the strength of your fundamental skills. The more you’ve practiced and automated fundamental skills the easier it will be to improve advanced skills. Here is the order of stroke skills to master: Balance, Stability, Shape, Rotation Angle, Patient Arm, Recovery, Entry Path, Rhythmic Breathing, Catch, 2 Beat Kick, Synchronization

Level 2 Skills Second

Likewise, the advanced speed skills are best developed in order too:

  • Achieve Optimal Stroke Length
  • Achieve Consistent Stroke Length
  • Increase distance with SL control
  • Achieve Optimal Tempo (while protecting SL)
  • Achieve Consistent Tempo
  • Increase distance with Pace control (SL x Tempo)

You can mix/match, or blend these a bit if you like – it can be made as complex and interesting as you could ever want it to be. But this order is about as simple as we know how to make it for the way humans are physiologically and neurologically designed, within the boundaries physics imposes on anything moving through water.

Organic Training Plan Part 3

Structure Supports Spontaneity

It has worked well for me to moderate spontaneity with structure. I find that making a principled, organized plan does not restrict my freedom so much as it focuses my creativity.

Because I have an organized plan, I know what it may cost or gain if I deviate from it once in a while.

Within that thoughtful plan I feel more free to experiment and to follow my daily organic intuition within the context of pursuing the main goal. The better I plan the more I feel open to being spontaneous, because I have a sense of what I can afford to experiment with and what to ignore when it doesn’t have a productive purpose. I unleash my curiosity and creativity within the bounds of what I am trying to accomplish.

Having a plan also (perhaps counter-intuitively) allows me to be at peace more when I have an illness or threat of injury interrupting my normal training routine. Slowing down because of illness, exhaustion or injury has a cost on my schedule but I have a longer term vision (life-long, injury-free swimming!) that helps me push aside the pressure to achieve something this year by a certain deadline at an unacceptable cost.  When I get behind on my schedule, I have a more objective view of what skills are still lacking rather than a vague anxiety over being behind on a dogmatic training schedule.

I keep my eye on the final goal, and set up a progression of sub-goals that need to be achieved to keep me on track to that final goal. Then I set some weekly tasks that keep me, as evenly as possible, developing all the areas of skill and fitness I need to help me achieve the sub-goal. This sets up my ‘practice menu’ for the week – and a menu implies choices, not rigid commands. By this I see that I have options for how I spend today’s time in the water – and those options are all in service of my final goal. I am free to follow my intuition to pick from the those options what I want to do today.

Organic Training Plan Part 2

Low Level Structure

A goal will, at least, have a specific skill definition to it.

Example: One day I am going to swim 3km, from this point on the beach to that point on the beach way down there. This is simply a distance achievement objective – no racing. You can keep it like that, with no deadline and no speed requirement. Set the skill goal with no deadline to allow you to go at the most life-flexible pace. You will know that you simply have to develop a certain set of skills in a certain order, no matter how long it takes.

Setting a simple skill goal allows your training to stay within the lowest level of productive structure. That is quite ok – simple, peaceful, open-ended. You may add a deadline: I am going to do this by the end of September. Set a deadline to help you determine the pace you must go for developing those skills. You may need advanced skills to reach that goal but you won’t be able to work on advanced skills until you’ve spent the time up front mastering the fundamental skills.

Because of the deadline you’ve got only so much time to imprint the full set, so this will give you motivation to stay productive early on in your training season. Your deadline will hold you even more accountable to justify how you spend your limited time each week.

High Level Goal

And you may add a speed goal: I am going to swim it in less than 80 minutes or less.

Set a speed goal to help you identify exactly what those stroke skills have to be capable of producing in terms of Stroke Length x Tempo. This now adds an element of quantitative accountability.This is a high level goal.

The stroke cannot simply be smooth and easy and adequate, it must be strong and productive also. Each subsequent detail in the goal adds more parameters that you have to design your training path by.

’Skill Goal + Speed Goal + Deadline’ puts your training into the highest level of productive structure. But the choice of what level of structure to use is totally up to you and your desired athletic lifestyle.