Terry teaching 1

This post was originally published by Terry Laughlin on Apr. 6, 2011.


S.G. posed a common concern on the Total Immersion Discussion Forum:

Six months ago, I could barely swim 2 pool lengths. But with the help of TI’s Self Coached Workshop DVD, within 3 weeks I swam my first mile. By November I could swim 3 miles without stopping. If you’d told me when I started that I’d be able to swim 3 miles that quickly, I’d have called you crazy. Once the question of finishing a mile was settled, I began to time myself. I progressed quickly from 40 to 36 minutes. By last week I was down to 33 minutes. Again, I couldn’t believe it.  Now I have a goal of breaking the 30-minute mark. But I’ve discovered there’s a big difference between  swimming 50 yards in 57 seconds and doing it in 51 seconds. In doing short intervals, I can’t swim 51 seconds even once. This leads me to ask: Do we have personal speed limits or are they imagined? There’s no better feeling than breaking what you thought was a personal limit, but how do we know when we’ve reached our ultimate speed?

Terry’s reply:

In most endeavors we improve quickly at first, but improvement slows, then stops. What happens next is a defining moment for all of us. There’s no question each of us does have a physical limit on how fast we can swim. Mainly because drag increases exponentially with speed, while our aerobic fitness and muscular power are not only finite — they decrease as we age.  Because drag increases exponentially with speed (5% faster = 25% harder), getting faster – at any distance from 100 meters to a mile or more — is similar to climbing a mountain. At first, it’s an easy walk with quick progress. As we climb higher, and the terrain steepens, we work steadily harder to go ever slower. The nice thing about working to improve your pace for a mile is that there’s a lot more gentle slope before you hit the steep stuff.

The sub-40 minute range was the bottom of your “mile-high mountain,” but those hefty improvements also represented sizeable increases in pace — and thus, in the resistance you need to overcome. It’s therefore natural that, as you approach a 30-minute pace, progress  will come in smaller bits, not large chunks. It will also require better skills, keener focus, more resourceful — and especially strategic – thinking. Consider the following:

Adjust Expectations. Aim for improvements of 60, 30 or perhaps 15 seconds, rather than 2 or 3 minutes.

Embrace the Challenge. You can’t predict the destination (your personal limit), nor would you want to. Instead focus on the journey (day-by-day — indeed minute-to-minute — learning and experience) as you strive to improve.

By embracing the challenge, you create the possibility for a level of self-knowledge and personal power that trivializes the question of whether your Personal Speed Limit for the mile is 33 minutes . . . or 29.


In his 1992 book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment, Aikido Master George Leonard describes what you’re facing as a defining moment for all of us. In most endeavors we improve quickly in the early stages, but improvement slows, then stops, as the skill requirements increase. (Because drag increases exponentially, this is a far more tangible matter in swimming than in, say chess, music or math.) What happens next reveals something fundamental about character.

Leonard says that when progress slows or stops, most people fall into one of two categories:

The Dabbler makes good initial progress. Upon encountering the plateau he loses enthusiasm, gives up and tries another activity . . . then repeats the pattern.

The Hacker hits the plateau, then defines satisfaction as status quo. Rather than seek instruction or adjust his approach, he contents himself with that level.

But a fortunate few progress to a third category:

The Master displays mental discipline, persistence, and flexibility as her learning curve flattens. She understands that lessons learned more slowly have more meaning and permanence.

The Plateau is where you need to remind yourself why you took up swimming in the first place — health and happiness. When you started, you acknowledge having had no expectations for how fast you might be and that simply completing one mile, let alone three, left you ecstatic.

Does your temporary inability to swim it in 30 minutes diminish your accomplishment? Heck no. Only 1% of the human race can swim a mile at any speed. By that measure you’re already in rarefied company.

This isn’t a Plateau. It’s a Crossroads: You now have the opportunity to choose a Master’s Path, where 33-minute miles (and 32:30, 32:15, etc.) are only waypoints along the path.

Doing so will bring the health and happiness benefits far beyond any you imagined when the thought first occurred, “Maybe I should try a triathlon.”

In Loving the Plateau, the second installment of this series, I’ll describe the attitudes and habits of those who achieve Mastery in Swimming. Or any endeavor.  

[Editorial Note: Check out “Loving the Plateau” in our next blog!]

Take Your Swimming to the Next Level!

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