This guest post was submitted by Mary Livingston.  Mary is a Total Immersion coach in the Summit, NJ Area and New Jersey Shore. She is an avid Triathlete picking up the sport in her “mid life crisis” at age 49 (and her first open water experience!). Since then she has completed 82 triathlons (with a goal of 100) where she has earned several platform finishes.  Mary pursued her interest and passion for coaching TI, since retiring as an executive at AT&T in Global Sales.

Two weeks ago I had the thrill of tracking my client to the successful completion of his first triathlon.

I realize that doesn’t sound like much, but this phone call is how it began…

Ken: “Hello Mary, Robert suggested I give you a call. He said you would be able to help me.  I’m doing my first triathlon and, well, I put on my wetsuit and went into the Ocean and I panicked and realized I can’t swim well enough to do this.”

Mary: “No problem. What tri are you doing?”

Ken: “Maryland Ironman”

Mary: “Uh, your first tri is an Ironman?”

Ken: “Yes.  It is early October”

Mary: “Oh (no!).  Let’s see. That’s (gulp) 9 weeks from now?! Meet me at the pool”

Ken: “One more thing you should know”

Mary: “Oh? (No!)

Ken: “I’m 50 and I’m overweight, by a lot”

Mary: “Oh (my). Will Friday work?”

Fast forward 9 weeks.  On October 7th Ken completed his Ironman and the swim was his best leg.  Going into training his longest swim was 34 lengths and he would do four lengths and stop, then continue.  His stroke count was 24 for 25 yards.

He finished the Ironman swim 42 minutes under the cutoff — 13% better than his goal for the swim and 30% better than his best pace for an open water 1 mile swim.  His stroke count after 6 lessons dropped to 17 for 25 yards.

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How did Ken do it?

Before taking lessons he did laps at a pool and usually ended up tired and frustrated. Occasionally he did 2 hours, but then he realized he had the endurance (running and biking) so trying to swim longer or more laps wasn’t really what he needed. He needed to maximize his efficiency. This revelation came after doing a stroke count and comparing it to what would be his green zone, or efficiency count, based on his height.

After getting some Total Immersion coaching, he totally reworked his practice to focus only on the skills and technique that were the focal points of his last lesson. Still training 2x a week, the practice was solely skills and drills — time and distance were left behind. The speed with which he was able to “rewire” his mind/body was phenomenal.

“What seemed to help me the most was an understanding of high elbow, reaching forward, hand entry, and change in pocket (streamlining)” he said. The “finger tip” drill was very helpful and finding the safe pocket to breathe. Knowing head position with breathing with Popeye practice helped a lot. “

“I struggled to integrate various aspects like hand entry and spearing forward. Initially these were separate steps in my mind, but then I realized it was one integrated effort and that was an “aha!” moment.

“I really focused on technique….every stroke….every lap….I focused on just one of things I was taught. Stroke count initially gave me a benchmark for my efficiency, but I did not focus on that after the first test because it got in the way of my focal points. Counting strokes drove me crazy. “

“I wasn’t a big fan of the tempo trainer at first, probably because I wasn’t swimming rhythmically. But then it helped me understand my inefficiencies, caused by drag or waste in my technique.”

“I found ways to make this interesting. I would break my focal points into 15-30 minute sessions. The way I judged my progress was how tired I was or wasn’t after the interval. If I wasn’t tired, I reasoned that I had improved my efficiency.”

“The other way I measured my progress was how fast I would glide into the wall after 10 strokes. This gave me a sense of speed.”

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In the 9 weeks we had to prepare, Ken had 6 lessons. (Don’t forget, during this time he was running and biking also) During that time it was also important he got some open water practice. He completed 2 Ocean Mile swims and did well. (He commented after his 2nd open water swim that he felt great and thought he could do the 2.5 mile Ironman swim!) I was a little concerned about extrapolating that from two 1- mile swims but there were no nearby opportunities for another competitive swim and after Labor Day there were no more lifeguards. So we scheduled a 2.5 mile pool swim, no wetsuit, and the swim had to be no stops. This was a big confidence boost and we were both confident he was ready.

And he was ready, as demonstrated by his great results. I’d like to take all the credit but clearly his success was a function of focusing his mind on the details, investing his time as efficiently as he needed his swim to be, his willingness to be a bit “vulnerable” and ask questions, and not letting “almost” be an acceptable answer! Ken practices “kaizen” in his professional life as a CIO, and could readily connect to the Total Immersion Approach!

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