Guest Post: Swimming for Life, Distance, Speed – and Flow States
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 5th, 2011

This is the first Guest Post on Swimming That Changes Your Life. Guest blogger, Steve Howard, a 58-year old engineer, lives with his wife Debbie in Broussard LA. In 2008, weighing nearly 300 lbs., a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes prompted him to get serious about eating and living healthfully. By taking up cycling and adopting a mostly-vegan diet, he lost 115 pounds. The following year he became a TI/Kaizen swimmer.  As a result of weight loss and becoming an avid swimmer and cyclist, he is not on any medications. Steve will take the TI Coach Certification Course Nov 10-14 in Coral Springs FL.

 

In December 2009, I made my first serious effort to learn to swim—i.e. without fins and a snorkel–as a way to cross-train with distance cycling. It wasn’t a promising start: I could swim only half the length of a 25-yard pool. My wife Debbie had given a copy of Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier to our son-in-law. He read the book and reported immediate improvements in his swimming. I borrowed the book from him on a Wednesday and by Friday had read the book cover to cover. As an engineer, I was instantly drawn in by Terry’s discussions about becoming slippery in the water and the hydrodynamics of swimming. And, having tested my time-trial bike in the Texas A&M wind tunnel I well understood the benefits of drag reduction.

The day after I finished the book, I excitedly went to the 25-meter outdoor pool at Red Lerille’s heath club in Lafayette, Louisiana. The heated pool had fog coming off because of the near-freezing air temperature. Like our son-in-law, I experienced immediate improvement, swimming four lengths without stopping—an 8-fold increase just by applying ideas like Release Your Head and Swim Taller.

Four months later, my son-in-law did the Ochsner New Orleans Half Ironman. I was so inspired that on that very day, I signed up for the Oklahoma Redman Aquabike (2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride) in September 2010. I knew I could ride 112 miles but preparing for a 2.4-mile swim in five months’ time loomed as a daunting assignment.

I continued to work on TI skills on my own while trying to build endurance by joining the local Masters. Within two months I’d gained enough skill and confidence to undertake my first open water swim, a half mile in the Indian Creek Triathlon. I completed the swim in 25 minutes but experienced significant panic and struggled to override my mammalian instinct to turn around and retreat to dry land! I had a similar experience in a 1.2-mile Aquabike swim in Louisville–fighting off panic for 15 minutes, but eventually finishing in 70 minutes. Same thing a few weeks later in Nashville–1500 meters and slightly over an hour of heart-in-throat before I could reach the comforting familiarity of my bike.

In August I traveled to New Paltz NY for a few hours of instruction in an Endless Pool with Terry. A few days later, I swam the Betsy Owens 1-mile swim in 35 minutes and the 2-mile swim in 1 hour 22 minutes in Lake Placid (wearing a wetsuit). Even more significant than the vastly improved times was feeling comfortable while swimming outside the familiar rectangle of a pool, and with occasional contact. From there forward my experience of open water swimming as joyful has grown steadily. I completed the 2010 Redman 2.4-mile Aquabike swim in Oklahoma City in 1 hour 44 minutes only 10 months after being stymied in trying to swim without the help of fins and snorkel.

Steve exits the water at Redman

Over the winter my enthusiasm for open water continued to grow. I steadily increased my training swims from 2 to 7 miles, including swims of 5 and 7.3 miles without a wetsuit. In July 2011 I completed the 6-mile Kingdom Swim in Lake Memphremagog, Vermont in 5 hours and 17 minutes, wearing a wetsuit. Following the swim I emailed Terry to tell him I’d decided to attempt the 10-mile edition of the Kingdom Swim in 2012.

Terry responded that, after a year devoted to building distance, he thought I’d find it more challenging and stimulating to shift my focus to improving speed or pace. Terry believes middle-aged swimmers should choose goals that ‘grow new brain cells’ and promised that training to swim moderate distances (1 to 3 miles) at a brisker pace would offer more cognitive and neural difficulty. Finally, he ventured that working on the ‘Math of Speed’–with stroke count and stroke tempo (using a Tempo Trainer)–would appeal to an engineer’s preference for empirical data.

So I shifted my training emphasis and was encouraged by seeing incremental, steady and measurable improvements to the basic metrics of stroke count, stroke rate and duration. I returned to New York in August for the 2011 Betsy Owens event, designated this year as a National Masters Championship, stopping in New Paltz for a few days before proceeding to Lake Placid. After watching me swim, Terry prescribed a Swimming Taller emphasis by, in his words, “opening my axilla.” I practiced this to the focus-deepening beat of a Tempo Trainer during sessions in the 50-meter Ulster County Pool and Lake Minnewaska.

My efforts were rewarded by a time of 1 hour, 22 minutes for two miles, a pace significantly faster than previous non-wetsuit swims. This improvement was partially due to eliminating the panic phase at the start, during which I would make only halting progress while trying to breathe normally. A larger factor was neural rather than physiological—my nervous system had adapted to achieve a brisker tempo without sacrificing efficiency.

After returning to Lafayette I practiced with my TI swim buddies Sal Lopinto and Nell Hahn focusing on arm positioning and controlling leg splay. I’d enjoyed my previous trip to the Adirondacks so much that just two weeks later I returned for the Lake George Swim Races on August 27. I chose the 10k distance, two-tenths of a mile farther than I’d swum the previous month in the Kingdom Swim. I focused on staying smooth and fluid for each of my approximately 12,000 strokes and finished in 4 hours 12 minutes—over an hour faster than my Kingdom Swim six weeks earlier.

Steve completing his 10k at Lake George in 4h12m.

A few taps on a calculator reveal that I’d maintained a pace of 3 minutes 16 seconds per 100 meters during the Kingdom Swim. At Lake George, I improved my average pace to 2:32 per 100 meters. Even considering that conditions can vary from one open water swim to another, that’s still an eye-opening difference for a period measured in weeks.

What I learned is that it’s possible to make significant improvements in open water swim capability in a relatively brief time via the TI Method—complementing technique practice with training that targets Stroke Length and Tempo. By gaining efficiency and comfort, I’ve progressed from swimming 100 meters to 10,000 meters (the swimming equivalent of running a marathon) in only 20 months.

And between July 9 and August 27—a period too brief to achieve any gains in fitness or strength—I improved my marathon pace by 25 percent working on objective measures like stroke count and stroke tempo—while continuing my previous focus on stroke refinements. I’ve also learned that training with the support of like-minded swimmers (i.e. TI enthusiasts) is an extremely valuable improvement tool. Their feedback and encouragement will help me make Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) of details like the sequencing of stroke, weight shift and kick and to better control my leg-splay habit. These will not only further improve my pace; even more important they’ll sustain and deepen my passion for swimming.

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4 Responses to “Guest Post: Swimming for Life, Distance, Speed – and Flow States”

  1. Susan says:

    Steve,

    A great post and extremely inspiring. Like you, I’m a cyclist first and foremost, although I’m finding I really am starting to enjoy swimming. I will enjoy it a lot more as I work on and make the kinds of improvements you describe. What you’ve accomplished is incredible!

    I’ve been swimming just since June, when I signed up for the Redman Half Aquabike which this year falls on my 57th birthday. I was too much of a chicken to sign up for the full… maybe next year. TI has helped me immensely, my confidence in the pool has grown by leaps and bounds – OWS – not so much. Right now I’m focused on being able to do the distance of the Redman swim, and afterwards I plan to work exclusively on getting my stroke right. I hope to be able to take a workshop before next summer.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

    Susan

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  2. Swimming 7 miles is extremely difficult let alone 2 miles. After a 2 mile swim, my muscles are finished. Much training is needed

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  3. You must not be practicing TI.

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