Once you come into the TI training world, you realize that stroke count (stroke length) is an important indicator your improvement in efficiency (but not the only).
You may wonder what stroke count you should be using.
You may wonder how to make your stroke count lower.
You may wonder why this is so important!
I’ve added this article to the library to give you an argument for working on A Longer Stronger Stroke.
If this raises any questions for you, I would be glad to answer those for you or point you to the articles or posts we already have on that topic.
For someone who is brand new at swimming doing various drills, and drills with a few strokes may be more than enough challenge on the body and attention.
But for some who’ve already been swimming, or perhaps in the middle of the tri or swim season, and have been making big adjustments you don’t feel you can afford to ‘slow down and just do drills’. Actually, we really don’t want you to ‘just do drills’ – you are encouraged to pull one of your focal points into your lap swimming and work on both a quantity of swimming (the yards or meters) and a quality (your focal point) at the same time.
For this you can swim laps, or do perhaps some portion of your normal training, just using focal points. Even at advanced stages of skill and competence you would want to do all your normal training with at least one focal point in mind anyway. We never take mindless, careless strokes – but we insist on this attention to quality no matter the distance or intensity of our training.
You may get some guidance for how to use focal points while swimming laps in Focal Point Swimming.
Here is an article in our library that breaks down the basic steps to planning your own practice, when working on the fundamental stroke skills.
Plan Your First Self-Guided Practice
One of the main objectives of the Mediterra Swim Dojo is to pass on to you the principles and understanding of how to practice on your own in a TI way. Following one of the training plans exposes you to this.
And, if you really want to study how to do it directly, you may consider taking the Self Coaching 101 course offered here in the Dojo.
You’ve likely noticed in our Dojo courses that you’ve got to study a bit to get acquainted with this way of practicing. Any intelligent practice plan has to be customized to fit you and your needs. It also needs to adapt organically to the changes you experience and the fluctuations you experience from day to day, week to week. To make it customized to fit you, you need to understand the principles and then make certain decisions for yourself in each practice. The library has been set up, with certain links to articles in each course, to train you how to do that. That means you have to put in a bit more time and thought into your practice planning, at least on your first time through.
We realize this is not a quick-simple-easy approach to training. This is why this is not a popular way to practice, nor a popular way sell swim training books. Intelligent training requires too much attention from the swimmer, just as martial arts training requires full attention and commitment (hence, we call this the “Dojo”!). But this is a far more effective way to train, and will greatly benefit those who are willing to put in that time and thought to learn how to do it.
However, we keep striving to explain things in more simple ways, more bite-size pieces. And, the Dojo library is filled with articles demonstrating our attempt to do that for you.
There is a basic training principle you need to keep in mind:
The better your warm up, the better your swim will be – a practice, a race, or a long recreational cruise.
It does not fail – when I am disciplined to swim gently and quietly for a certain number of minutes, so much of my tension and tightness drops away and I feel free to work with more attention, more freedom, more energy, more intensity than when I don’t.
For me there is one critical marker – I need about 12 minutes of gentle, ‘silent swimming’ to get the systems of my body and my mind online and in tune to the first necessary degree. My next marker seems to be at around 25 miunutes. My warm ups are always longer than 25 minutes for this reason.
And, at about 45 minutes, I can feel my best strength and attention emerge, ready to work much longer.
With mindful experience you get to learn how your body responds to exercise. It may vary a bit for different people, but the basic principle of warm up applies to all humans. The longer you’ve been a consistent active athlete, it may be possible to have a shorter warm up than others, but considering my 30 year record of training, I suspect you may need at least as much warm up as I do to really step into your best working state.
I realize that many people have such a short time for practice and 25 minutes might consume most of that. But consider that for longevity sake, it is better to perform small portions of high quality activity and do it more frequently, than trying to fit more volume or intensity into a short and infrequent practice. The less frequently you practice, the less your body is prepared for that activity and the more you need that warm up.
If nothing else, aim for Silent Swimming – even in a variety of stroke styles if you like – for your first 15 minutes and let your body pull you into more intensity when it feels ready for it.
~ ~ ~
I should address this concern I have heard from several lately when working on breathing skills…
You start investing your practice time on breathing skills and you notice other skills (like kick, recovery, and catch) that still require your focus seem to degrade. You know you can’t focus on everything at once, but it is frustrating to watch those other things fall apart while you turn your attention this way. So how do you work on breathing but not lose ground in those other areas?
First, fixing breathing is priority because poor breathing causes so many problems with energy waste, stress, and takes up mental/emotional space. If you have problematic breathing, it is lowering your ability to work on any other area. Get this breathing puzzle solved (or at least greatly improved) and you free up so many more resources to use when you go back to work on the other skills.
Second, easier breathing is totally dependent on your most fundamental freestyle skills – you must pay attention and work on the most important features of your body position and movement patterns in order to make breathing better – all those fundamental skills we work on in Superman, Skate and Recovery drills. So, the most essential pieces of your body control are going to be protected and improved when you do thorough work on breathing.
This then puts those ‘other’ skills that you are worried about into a different category – other skills like kick, recovery, and catch are advanced skills that are also dependent on that same foundation. You may not be able to focus on the kick or the catch while working on breathing, and you may feel that those suffer because of it. But you are keeping the foundation for everything tuned, and likely any improvements on the foundation which benefit breathing will also directly benefit the other advanced skills as well. It’s a win-win.
Bottom line – you’ve felt motivated to work on breathing right now by some high price you’ve paid for having inferior breathing. There is a good reason you are focusing on this right now and not something else. You’ve just got to focus on this at this moment and set aside concern for any other advanced skills – you can work on those next, once you acquire improvement in this breathing section first. And that work on other advanced skills will be easier because you can breathe easier.
First things first.
One thing at a time, in sequence of priority.
~ ~ ~
I have challenged some of you about swimming longer distance already. And some of you are challenging yourself without my prompting.
I encourage you to set up a longer test swim that you will do at least once a month, up to once a week, if you like. You’ll find that you are more capable than you realize, and then after several swims, you feel quite capable at this distance.
I have been doing this in various forms for as long as I have been training myself in swimming (and running, and cycling back in those triathlete days long ago). I didn’t do this when I first started swimming, but it became a habit later on. When I was in high school (on a state championship swim team, but I was not one of the champions) all of us who were less-gifted in swimming dreaded the 500 yard race. We prayed the coach would not assign us to it – it seemed so far. To those of us with inferior technique the 200 yard sprints were quite hard enough, so 500 yards seemed like a survival event, not a race.
After 3 years away from swimming (severely injured in my shoulders by that poor technique) in college I was drawn to Olympic Distance triathlon and so I had to get comfortable with 1500m, and ready to do it in open-water (but with a wetsuit). I had other teammates making some good peer pressure so, in addition to my normal workouts, I started swimming that full distance once a week to just ‘get in shape’ for it, physically and mentally. I wanted to remove the intimidation of the distance and make it a normal thing.
But I didn’t stop there. The Ironman race was the greatest triathlete test at the time and there were IM athletes on our triathlon team who inspired us all. I removed the intimidation of the 3800m (4200y) swim by swimming it once a month – an ‘hour of flip turns’ in a 25 yard pool can make you dizzy! But by doing this regularly I could feel confident I could handle that distance when I needed to. And this was all before I found Total Immersion!
When I did find TI several years later, I was still doing a 1500m swim about once a week. So, I immediately started applying my new TI skills to see how they worked on my test swim. And that is how I got sold on TI – it got so much easier, so much smoother, that distance was no longer something I was proud to endure, it became something easy to enjoy. (Being tough lost it’s glamor when suddenly I could swim smart!). Several years later from that, when I moved to Antalya Turkey and began swimming in the sea more and more, I started seeing the profound advantages TI gave me for swimming in open-water and for swimming longer distances. I quickly started challenging my perceived distance limits and pushed them back farther and farther. A 45 minute continuous swim turned into 1 hour. 1 hour swims became 1.5, which became 2 hours, which turned into even a couple 3-hour swims just because I was so curious how far TI could take me on one tank of fuel. 10k suddenly became a pleasant (though long) swim, not an epic endurance event.
Now I am confident that I could handle great distances as long as I have fuel and can stay warm enough. (And that is why I do cool water winter training now – to remove that perceived barrier also!) I did these longer swims with no pressure to accomplish them at any speed – I just started gently and went along to see what would happen, and learn new things. And though I had a distance goal in mind for each swim, I set my course so I could get out any time I needed to, at any sign of trouble in body or mind. That gave me great peace about pushing those perceived distance limits. And they fell away so easily.
Vary the intensity, physically and mentally.
Vary the intensity over the year. Vary the intensity over the race season. Vary the intensity over the week. Vary the intensity during each practice. Keep in mind you have different systems in training:
- Metabolic system (processing fuel)
- Muscular system (generating power)
- Motor Control system (directing that power with precision)
- Mental system (including attention, attitude, and emotions)
You can raise or lower intensity in practice for any of these systems.
You can provide an abundance of clean fuel and water, or work under a fuel-stressed system.
You can keep the muscle load within comfortable limits or work around your limits.
You can keep focus just enough to maintain your normal level of ease in the activity, or apply super-laser-focus to provoke higher precision than you’ve achieved before.
For example, you can have low-physical intensity and high mental intensity – like your first TI workshop! Or you can have a high-physical intensity, with moderate mental intensity – like going for a longer-than-normal swim with a few ease-inducing focal points in mind.
There are also different kinds of rest. There is passive rest and there is active rest. A day-off is a form of passive rest. A slow swim, a low-intensity drill or a walk is a form of active rest. Low-intensity practice can be a form of rest also. You can still practice without exhausting your body. One does not need to go hard on all three, four, five, six days a week, and that is not advised either.
Switching from one focal point to another gives one part of the brain rest while another is working. Switching from one activity to another gives rest to some sport-specific systems or parts of the body, while others are working. You can be resting in one way while remain productive for some part of your sport in another.
It is not just my bias as a swim coach, but swimming is your best way to take active rest from your other sports. Its gentle for the body, helps flush the systems, and soothes the brain. A short day in the pool without an agenda or intensity – just move gently and enjoyably – is a great way to take a wet rest-day in the middle of your normal weekly practice routine.
You may notice how all our practice plans in the Dojo follow this principle of variety as rest It is just one way you can build variety of activity and intensity into your week. It is a way you can create a relatively balanced training diet, balanced in skills, fitness and intensity levels, with lots of room for customization.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?