25 Years of

Terry Laughlin,
founder of TI, cuts the cake.

Heiko Stribl
TI Coach, Germany

Heiko Stribl
& Terry Laughlin

TI Instructor
Training, America

Improve Your Technique to Professional Levels

The fact that only a third of American adults can complete a single pool length tells us that even the most basic skills of swimming are exceedingly difficult to learn. Total Immersion has had more success in teaching these skills than anyone else because, from the start, our core purpose has been to make learning-not just swimming--easier.

In fact, we believe the difficulty of learning to swim well is a gift. In overcoming these challenges, you not only master a health-giving skill, you can also improve at analyzing and solving problems. Many TI students have told us that learning to swim well gave them the confidence to pursue other goals they'd previously thought out of reach.

Feedback like that helps us say with confidence that Total Immersion uses swimming as a vehicle for teaching people how to learn. Here are the learning principles and habits we teach. Could you apply them to other problems you've faced?

Deconstruct the Problem
As the TI Technique page explains our central problem is that we waste so much energy (97 percent) fighting gravity and churning the water into a froth that almost none is left for locomotion. Common sense suggests we focus first on saving energy. The sleek and fluent form of aquatic mammals and elite humans gives us further clues.

Apply the 80/20 Rule
The Pareto Principle states that in many systems, 80% of improvement will result from just 20% of causes. Identifying those causes let you allocate resources efficiently. E.G. Microsoft found that fixing the 20% of most-reported bugs reduced software crashes by 80%. In swimming, we cure 80% of our core problem-energy waste-by solving the problems of sinking and uncontrolled movement. Fortunately the fixes for those-Balance, Stability, and Body Alignment--are also the simplest skills. By applying the 80/20 Rule, we can swim much better within just a few hours.

Get a Small Win early
In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that, to overcome the change-resistance of old habits, it's critical to experience 'small wins' early. 'Struggling habits' in swimming are deeply ingrained because they're emotional, not just physical. But even a small hint of encouragement can provide 'emotional fuel' for the long haul. We start TI learning sequences with simple gliding exercises that show you how easily you can achieve weightlessness. While that feeling will eventually infuse every stroke, experiencing it for just a few seconds at the very start of their TI journey provides a ray of hope for long-time strugglers.

Avoid common pitfalls
A corollary of securing small wins early in the game is knowing the most likely failure points to avoid. For newer swimmers, it's kicking and breathing that leave them feeling defeated. We introduce breathing only when you've developed a foundation of body control and confidence. And because propulsion skills-the pull and kick--are more complex and prone to error, we introduce them only when foundation skills have become familiar and consistent. Learn via Mini-Skills. Swimming is the Rubik's Cube of movement skill-- highly complex with many interdependent parts. We've organized the critical building blocks of efficiency into a series of mini-skills that you can learn and internalize with far more speed and ease. And because certain mini-skills are subtler than others, we've divided those even more finely into micro-skills. Naturally all skill sequences follow the 80/20 rule.

Errors are essential
Many students fear error-or beat themselves up for 'mistakes.' But mistakes are not only inevitable-especially in an 'alien' activity like swimming. They're also invaluable as a guide to course correction. You rarely notice when you do something right. Doing something wrong gets your attention!

At times, it's even helpful to create challenges explicitly to cause 'failure.' Or rather, to reveal weak points in skill makeup. The only mistake is failing to learn from mistakes.

Cultivate Curiosity
A corollary to the principle that mistakes are valuable is that every experience in a learning process is information that may be useful. Kids learn spontaneously because most experiences are still new and thus potentially interesting. Adults are far more focused on getting it right-and feel they've failed when they don't. Throughout your learning process, you'll be fortunate if 10 percent of your 'skill experiments' are successful. Everything else has the potential to increase your depth of understanding and experience. Upon encountering any difficulty, react with curiosity rather than frustration.

Focus is the keystone skill
A TI catchphrase is: Never leave the pool wall without a plan. I.E. Which mini-skill will you try to perform better than you ever have? The key to achieving this is focus-the 'mental blueprint' with which you start the lap, and the sensations you'll use to assess it.

For every mini skill, there are several possible Focal Points. Each can aid learning in a distinct and complementary way. The ability to maintain focus on just one-and dismiss distractions that inevitably occur-is every bit as challenging as any of the physical skills. Thus it's critical-especially in the early stages-to assess quality of attention as rigorously as movement quality. The stronger your focus, the farther you'll go as a swimmer.

Total Immersion Training

Total Immersion Training: Smart, Effective, Precise
Total Immersion founding coach, Terry Laughlin, has experience matched by few others in training to improve endurance and speed. He has trained for distance swimming for 50 years, and coached others with great success for over 40 years-including many national champions at all strokes and distances in the pool, and in open water.

In his own swimming, Terry has proven the possibility of lifetime improvement. From his teens to early 20s, Terry worked "as hard as humanly possible" but was deeply disappointed by his results.

But, between age 55 and 60, by following innovative approaches developed for TI swimmers, Terry won six national open water championships, at distances from one mile to 10 kilometers, and broke national records for the 1- and 2-mile cable swims. He also completed 12 open water marathons after age 50.

The Total Immersion Method
Total Immersion training methods have been decades in the making. They draw on the laws of fluid dynamics, expert advice in exercise physiology, and exciting findings in cognitive psychology (how we learn) and neurobiology (train the brain as specifically as any muscle.)

However, the strongest influence has been the needs and goals of those we coach. TI enthusiasts are:
  • In mid-life, 40 to 60-plus;
  • Pursuing full lives, personally and professionally;
  • Yet motivated to pursue challenging goals.
Consequently, we've developed training methods that are:
  • Efficacious- Never waste a minute;
  • Precise - No more one-size-fits-all training;
  • Holistic - Sustaining, not depleting, mental and physical energy to perform at your best in all areas.
Most importantly, Total Immersion methods work
Eight TI coaches have been national or world champions in Masters swimming (pool and open water) and two have set World Masters records. With one exception, none were high-achieving swimmers before they came to Total Immersion.

Competitive swimmers and triathletes around the world are also training with TI methods and creating an impressive record of improvement and achievement.

And if your goal is to swim purely for health and fitness, with no thought of competing, Total Immersion training will help you maximize the health benefits of swimming while also improving focus, mindfulness, and a host of other qualities not only critical to performing your best in the water, but also living at your best.

Does Swimming Harder make you Better?

If you've pursued a distance or speed goal in swimming, you're probably familiar with conventional thinking about training--summarized in three catchphrases familiar to all swimmers and coaches:
  • Get the yards in.
  • Get your heart rate up.
  • Move your arms faster.
They've become widely accepted because similar prescriptions do work reasonably well in other endurance sports:
  • Runners who increase mileage improve.
  • Cyclists who increase intensity improve.
  • Runners or cyclists who increase leg speed go faster.
But the vast majority of swimmers have very different outcomes. Often, they go slower. And even when they go faster, it's not for long--because the increased effort isn't sustainable.

In fact, the only guarantee is that you'll fatigue faster.

[Don't forget the millions who have tried and failed to complete even a single pool length: Their hearts were racing, and their arms turning like turbines, when exhaustion stopped them in mid-pool.]

The reason swimming doesn't work like other sports is because of the Three Percent Problem, a challenge unique to swimming.

Solving the Three Percent Problem

Whether we wish to swim one length or a marathon, to improve a modest best time for 100 meters or break a world record, we face the same challenge-one unique to swimming among sports measured by distance or speed.

In the water, we are transformed into' energy-wasting machines.'

The average human swimmer converts just three percent of energy and power into forward motion. Even an elite swimmer, in the course of breaking a world record, converts less than 10 percent of energy into locomotion.

(If this seems low, consider that it's 300% more efficient than average swimmers. Elite runners and cyclists are only 15% to 20% more efficient than everyday athletes.)

Your path to any swimming goal will be far smoother and more satisfying if your training is focused on Solving the Three Percent Problem.

Total Immersion Training: Core Principles

Total Immersion, alone among all approaches, makes the reduction of waste-in effort, energy, and time-the foremost consideration in its training programs and prescriptions. This leads logically to applying these core principles to the planning of any training cycle (a period of several months, focused on a particular goal), session, set, or repeat.

Principle #1 Seek continuous improvement
Because our inherent efficiency is so low to start with, our potential to improve it is limitless and lifelong. Thus, your foremost intention for each practice or swim should be to improve your swimming.

Before each practice, identify an improvement opportunity, choose the means by which you can achieve it, and how you'll measure improvement. Afterward, assess how you improved, what you learned . . . and how eagerly you anticipate your next practice.

The goal of Continuous Improvement has proven so valuable to so many, that the Japanese term (and philosophy) Kaizen-the art of making great and lasting change through small, steady steps-has become a byword for thousands of TI enthusiasts.

[As an example of consistency in applying this principle, when Terry swam across Gibraltar Strait in October 2013, his intention as he stood on the shore in Tarifa Spain, prior to starting the swim, was to improve his technique for breathing in waves and chop and thus to be a better swimmer upon reaching the shore in Morocco.]

Principle #2 Effort-less Endurance
A common feature of traditional workouts is directives to swim hard. As well, traditional drills and sets (breath-holding, drag devices, etc.) are often designed explicitly to make you more tired.

But swimming is plenty hard enough already; we needn't try to make it harder. When your intention is to work harder, the only guarantee is that you will work harder. And almost certainly more wastefully.

Your consistent and conscious goal should be to seek the easiest way to accomplish any task. This doesn't mean we avoid challenging tasks. Rather that--though they may be difficult initially--you focus brain power on lowering the difficulty, instead of muscle power on pushing through it.

When you seek an easier way, you'll nearly always find one, and become more efficient as a result. We call this Effortless Endurance

Principle #3 Minimum Effective Dose (MED)
Minimum Effective Dose (a physician's axiom for prescribing medication) is the smallest dose that produces a desired outcome. Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. Apply the MED principle as follows:

Make every stroke count.
Strive to get maximum results from the least training. Avoid any training for which there is not strong evidence of efficacy. As TI swimmer Hadar Aviram says: "Never take a stroke in vain."

Take small steps.
Whenever you increase some element in training--distance, stroke rate, pressure applied to the water-make a small change, then assess how it impacts the trade off between speed and efficiency or effort. Before raising the bar again, recapture the efficiency or ease you felt prior to the change.

Should you swim farther?
When you ask yourself if you should swim farther-in a repeat, set, or practice-the best reason for doing so is that will help improve your swimming. Swim farther because it provides more opportunities to hone or imprint a skill. Or do so because it may reveal a weak point-which you can then focus on improving.

Train for Life: It's Not Just About Swimming

Following these efficiency-oriented principles will greatly improve your chances of achieving your endurance, speed or performance goals. You'll also finish every swim feeling energized--in body and mind-ready to give your best to the rest of your day.

And finally, by converting swim training from a lap grind to a problem-solving exercise (solving the Three Percent Problem), you'll develop thinking and learning habits you can apply to anything.

More Useful Links

Total Immersion:
How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too

The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Free Booklets from Total Immersion

To download the free booklets click one of the links below to be redirected to the TI head office website where you will need to login or register for free.