Swimming Better: Do we learn more from Science or Intuition?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 2nd, 2011

In a lively thread on the TI Discussion Forum discussing the Mail Slot entry, Haschu wrote the following in Post #115: Little is known scientifically about swimming . With drag, propulsion, vortices, waves, Newton, Bernoulli,… . swimming is very complex.

An example: Last time I was swimming I practiced breaststroke kick. During the glide I felt sudden acceleration at some point. You cannot actually accelerate while gliding – no propulsion. I tried to watch what happened and it became clear: the kick initiated a wave; the wave was faster than my glide and when it passed me it gave me tangible acceleration.

So, if we talk about hydrodynamics we also have to consider waves.

In swimming most that is known comes from experience. Understanding why something works is very helpful although you can be a fast and wonderful swimmer without having any clue why. Vice versa, you may know everything about hydrodynamics, the characteristic of water and so on, but your knowledge is worthless without experience.

Scientists who have studied amazing ‘swimming machines’ like yellowfin tuna and dolphins have confessed the inadequacy of theoretical tools to explain how those creatures achieve speeds far higher than available horsepower would predict.

But surprising moments such as Haschu’s extra propulsion clue us in to the value of pursuing experience via water play rather than mindlessly plowing back and forth ‘getting the yards in.’

In my last post I described Wu Wei as coming from “being attuned to your environment and heeding physical intelligence and intuition.”

Direct experience has been the source of my every significant insight, such as Mail Slot entry which I discovered one day around 2000 while ‘noodling’ with my stroke at a health club in Atlanta, after a workshop. When I entered my hand at an angle that felt way too steep I immediately felt a thrilling surge of invisible power and acceleration. I didn’t understand whence  it came but thought  “Anything that feels that good merits more practice.”

That was reinforced in late 2004 after I ruptured the biceps tendon in my right shoulder while lifting weights. When HMO policy delayed surgery for 5 months. I kept swimming because (1) I didn’t know how serious my injury was but thought gentle arm movement might be therapeutic; and (2) If I did have surgery I’d recover faster if I maintained strength leading up to it.

Through experimentation I found that if I carried my right arm forward with rag-doll relaxation, then let it drop into the water of its own weight in a silent, splash-free entry,  I could swim without pain. (At the same time, I couldn’t pour tea, flick a light switch or put on a seat belt without pain.)

Not only did this allow me to swim therapeutically, but in time I was actually swimming faster than before the injury. After surgery, when I learned I’d been swimming pain-free and fast with a bicep that had been torn from its shoulder attachment I was shocked. And convinced this was a hugely important technique.

I’ve remained hungry to better understand the physics of a technique overlooked (even criticized) by the mainstream swimming world – yet which the direct experience of thousands of TI swimmers – has confirmed helps you (i) swim faster, (ii) with effortless power [wu wei] and (iii) virtually eliminates shoulder pain. Even so, the explanation won’t actually help me coach – or swim – better. Rather it satisfies a desire to understand and provides rhetorical tools for persuasion of those who want ‘proof’ beyond experience.

I swim primarily because it’s the healthiest way I know to experience Flow States and because I expect it will help me remain strong and supple for many more years.

Everything important I’ve learned in swimming – and my happiest moments – have been the product of experience and intuition.

Mail Slot Rehearsal

Shinji's Mail Slot Entry

Learn Mail Slot in Lesson Five of the Easy Freestyle DVD and/or Lesson Six of the Self-Coached Workshop/10-Lesson Series DVD.

4 Responses to “Swimming Better: Do we learn more from Science or Intuition?”

  1. sukh says:

    very interesting. can you comment on the craig marshall and his philosophy of running barefoot to avoid injury. Seems to have a many similarities with TI.

  2. Dan says:

    Hello Terry,

    Have you ever had any studies on the cardiac system as it relates to long distance swimming freestyle.

  3. I know such studies exist but haven’t participated in any or spent much time investigating them. I’m more drawn to the grace and esthetics. I trust my heart will grown strong through practice.

  4. I’m not familiar with Craig Marshall so I can’t comment.

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