I was recently asked by Terry Laughlin if I would represent Total Immersion in “The Great Swim Debate” at the USAT Art & Science Symposium, Las Vegas, NV, Sep 13, 2014.  The swim debate would be with former Olympic Swimmer and Gold Medalist, Sheila Taormina, and Exercise Physiologist, Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas aka “Dr G” –  two heavyweights of the industry and they’ve worked with many elite swimmers such as Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Ryan Lochte and Gary Hall Jr to name a few.

Although I was quite enthusiastic of this opportunity and honored to represent TI, as well as be on the same stage with Sheila Taormina and Dr G, negative thoughts of “what the hell was I thinking going up against these two giants” frequently clouded my mind.  But then reminded myself,  most of the coaches and athletes in attendance have similar triathlon experiences, and like me, came to the sport with a non competitive swimming background – and I’ve been trained by, coached by, collaborate and work with, some of the best coaches in the country and world.

The debate format was simple, after short introduction by Rob Urbach, CEO USAT, each participant would deliver a 10 min presentation followed by question and answer in discussion and debate.  Sheila T was first to present, then followed by me and Dr G in that order.   Unfortunately each presentation ran over 10 mins and before we knew it the hour was up.  But Rob held us back for another 10 mins while he asked several questions of his own.

The Great Swim Debate

Sheila’s rather spirited presentation opened with, “this is really more of swim relay than a swim debate”, sharing information from different perspectives.  However once making that announcement, she described “gliding la-la-la strokes” as bad and acted out long strokes exaggerating a significant pause of the recovery arm at hip – certainly not what we teach at Total Immersion, but was an indirect reference nonetheless.   I was expecting this since I know she has issue with TI’s emphasis building the foundation of balance and streamline as a priority, that’s no secret.  Sheila’s emphasis is on the pulling arm manipulated by the shoulder and high turnover, fast turnover = speed.  While this has always been conventional wisdom and a convincing argument –  this advice often comes from an elite swimmer or an elite swimmer turned swim coach, one who has grown up and adapted into the sport, already has a solid foundation of balance and core stability, and thousands of hours of swimming.  This advice may benefit an elite swimmer, but quite naive of the triathlete facing the swim leg in triathlon.

Dr. G’s presentation however, was surprisingly in line with what we prioritize at Total Immersion, emphasis on balance and core stability – head position is critical.  He also noted a swimmer *must not* use arms and higher turnover to make up for a lack of balance, but rather “fix balance first”.  Again, in line with what we teach.

Dr G developed a testing process that syncs video footage with swim speed, measuring acceleration/deceleration timed with swimmers stroke in video.  This test is called the “Swim Power Test” – very impressive with the data collected.  He had an example test and video of a “10k distance swim champ”, and the test clearly showed the deceleration on the breathing stroke.  The swimmer’s head lifted too high, rotated more to get breath – leaving even an elite distance swimmer out of balance, sinking and slowing for a brief moment – deceleration was measured.  This amount of deceleration, although small, would add up over longer distances breathing on two’s.  And with this metric gem, one could easily estimate the added time over a 10k distance.  Great stuff and sobering statistics that would certainly prioritize fixing the breathing/balance issue of any swimmer, elite or otherwise.

The intention of my presentation was three fold:  1. Connect with coaches and athletes that were present – the adult onset swimmers.  2. Articulate clearly what Total Immersion is and priorities of balance and core stability – and why.   3. Challenge the assertion Total Immersion creates slow swimmers.

Challenging the assertion TI creates slow swimmers, I countered with “The Right Turnover, not High Turnover”.  I’ve had several IM triathletes come to my Masters swims to improve their times and have got them all into the top 20% of the 2.4 mile IM times, some dropping 30 mins or more – and one most recently now swimming sub 1 hour (56:33) for the 2.4 mile swim .   This swimmer came in with a stroke rate of 70 strokes per minute at 24-26 strokes per length and a busy kick (75+ kicks per length).  Roughly a 2 minute 100 yard pace, and 1 hour 25 minutes for the 2.4 mile IM swim.  He was stroking at a rate far beyond his skill level and using a busy kick to remain stable – but (before coming to me) that’s what he had been told to do in order to go faster.  After a couple of months developing balance and core stability, learning to hold or ‘catch’ an arm full of water, he was swimming comfortably at 55 strokes per minute averaging 15 strokes per length, easy two beat kick (15 kicks per length) which put him at a 1:23 (1 minute 23 seconds) 100 yard pace, and sub 1 hour 2.4 mile Ironman swim – with far less effort.  Balance, core stability, streamline, and economy of movement, SKILL makes a faster swimmer.  High turnover with lots of kicking, more yards and harder sets, does not necessarily mean faster swimming as common wisdom and perception has lead us to believe.

My presentation slides are attached (with a bit more context for those not present at the USAT conference) along with a before and after video of a former age group competitive swimmer: The Great Swim Debate (slides and video)

Although I wish there were more time for discussion, debate, and challenging assertions – it was a great experience, one that I would embrace again given the opportunity.  I have discovered among most coaches, there is far more in common than what separates us – but too often end up in divisions that only add to confusion which create skewed perceptions.  It all comes down to what each coach believes are the right priorities for each athlete and know what makes them tick to become smarter, better and faster swimmers.

Coach Stuart