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This post was originally published by Terry Laughlin on December 14, 2012.


In a post on the TI Discussion Forum forum [from the 2012 archive], Steve asked:

“My practices are limited to 100-meter repeats because I get too winded to swim farther. Though I can swim as much as 2000 meters in a pool session, I still need to stop and rest every 100 meters. How can I swim farther without becoming winded?”

Craig Arnold, a TI enthusiast from the UK replied:

“When swimming a longer distance, why don’t you call it a warm up? That way, you give yourself permission to swim more slowly. Swim with a balance focus, concentrating on a weightless head, then marionette arms, with no splashing or bubbles. When I start out that way, before I know it I’ve swum 1000 meters.”

Craig gives good advice, but his phrase “permission to swim more slowly” is especially powerful. Though I began swimming 47 years ago, it took me over 40 years to give myself permission to swim more slowly.

My good friend Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champion, long-time editor in chief of Runner’s World for 30 years–and a TI swimmer since turning 60–revealed to me that world-class Kenyan marathoner runners typically warm up for a race at a pace of about 9 minutes per mile—barely more than half their racing speed.

Compared to the Kenyans’ ability to run slowly, I was pretty poor at swimming slowly. At that time, my racing pace for the 1650-yard free was about 1:15 per 100 yards. I realized I never swam at anything remotely close to 2:30 per 100. All of my swimming was in a narrow window between 1:15 and 1:30 per 100. Immediately I decided that henceforth, I would start most practices with up to 10 minutes of swimming at the e-a-s-i-e-s-t pace possible.

The effect was instantaneous. I felt and swam much better in everything that followed. As it happens, my “superslow” pace turned out to be only a few seconds slower. I was amazed how little speed I sacrificed when I went much easier.

Striving to achieve a state of profound relaxation at the start of practice resulted in several surprising benefits:

1. I became hypersensitized to the interaction of my body and the water. I felt as if I was aware of the water at the molecular level.

2. My balance and stability were far better tuned — and I could feel the difference at every faster speed.

3. To swim faster after those initial laps of deep ease, I didn’t have to push the throttle. My pace seemed to pick up effortlessly as I continued.

Within a few months I had swum the 1650 in a pace of 1:12 per 100. Giving myself permission to swim slower made a clear difference in enabling me to swim faster.

Teaching regularly in an Endless Pool, I’ve found it’s a rare student who knows how to swim well . . .  slowly. Students who would finish far behind me in a race cannot keep from crashing into the front of the pool when I set the current at moderate speeds. They find it eye-opening when I turn the current way down and swim in place with impeccable form and no interruption in rhythm.

I explain that there’s a wide spectrum of both power and tempo. The vast majority of swimmers constantly push the upper—or physical–end of the spectrum and ignore the lower—or artful—end. It’s at the lower end where you learn most about how to form a partnership with the water.

3 Specific Ways To Swim Slower

1) Observe your hand speed as you begin your stroke. Allow a moment-of-stillness after you reach full extension, then begin stroking at slowest possible speed and lightest possible pressure.

2) Explore how slowly you can bring your arm forward over the surface, without discontinuity in recovery or instability in balance.

3) If you swim with a Tempo Trainer, turn it down gradually. Can you maintain flow at a tempo of 1.80 strokes per second?

I promise you’ll discover these are exacting skills requiring great focus and great body control. And therefore invaluable to swimming any faster speed.

Find more tips like this in the Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Handbook, a richly-illustrated, easy-to-read 140 page guide to understanding freestyle technique in depth. It comes along with 15 downloadable videos and a learning and practice workbook in our Self-Coaching Toolkit.