How to Gain Maximum Benefit from Swimming Easily
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 14th, 2010

In my last post, I asked, Do You Swim Easily Enough.  Nearly all goal-or-performance-oriented swimmers swim too hard, too often. By doing so, they actually limit their improvement and hurt their performance, in three ways:

  • Physiological improvements – the body’s “superadaptation” to the stresses imposed by training – occur during periods of recovery or restoration. In training cycles, you stress the body, then de-stress, in measured ways, to allow stepwise improvements in strength and work capacity. Those who never de-stress limit the body’s capacity to do that.
  • Swimming is unique. In running and cycling 70% to 80% of improvements come from increases in physiological capacity. In swimming, 70% to 90% of gains in speed or endurance come from improving the “neural programs” for efficiency. Those improvements virtually always come during easier practice.
  • The vast majority of adult swimmers are more interested in swimming well for a mile or more, rather than for 100 meters. To swim well for such distances, you need to feel very controlled, very much at ease, for most of the distance. If you go “hard” it will likely be for just the last few minutes of a swim that lasts 30 to 60 minutes. If you feel as if you’re swimming hard earlier than that, it’s far less likely you’ll be able to sustain to the end.  Thus it makes sense to spend much of your training time rehearsing and imprinting the thoughts and feelings you hope to have while swimming a longer distance, possibly in open water without pushoffs to give your arms a rest.  This is even more the case if you have to cycle and/or run after finishing your swim. Yet on the occasions when I swim with a Masters group, I observe that the great majority of others there, many of them triathletes, do almost everything hard.

Easy doesn’t mean Lazy. Easy swimming is valuable even if you aren’t doing it to recover from the physical stress of harder efforts on land or in the water. It’s the best pace for examining your stroke, improving your efficiency and imprinting new skills. When I swim easily – something I do as much as 80% or more of the time – my practice repeats include one or more (often all) of the following elements:

  1. I think about how I would like to feel on a brilliant long swim. In the middle of a 2-mile, 5km or possibly 20+ mile, swim how would I feel if I swam better than I ever have in my life. Not just ease but complete harmony with the water. I strive to make every stroke feel that way, to imprint the movements and sensations of brilliance into my brain, nervous system, muscles and even my psyche.
  2. I strive to maintain lower stroke counts, with a feeling of rhythmic continuity, than I could maintain if swimming harder. Once that higher efficiency begins to feel “settled” I’ll increase effort , tempo, or pace very slightly (often with a Tempo Trainer) to test if I can keep the SPL and the feeling of relaxation I established previously.
  3. I strive to maintain – and sometimes even improve – pace as I continue for as much as two to three hours, and often as I increase repeat distance.
  4. I strive to avoid sensations of fatigue.
  5. In sum I try to swim as fast as I possibly can – and yet do so effortlessly and in a way that feels almost limitlessly sustainable.

Kaizen Ease Swimming easily is most beneficial when it’s technically exacting and when you add as much or more mental energy to make up for the physical energy you subtract — when you still strive to swim better than you ever have before, and to leave the pool a better swimmer than when you entered it.

17 Responses to “How to Gain Maximum Benefit from Swimming Easily”

  1. steve lissau says:

    i appreciate what you say, but find that my stroke deteriorates with the fatigue of distance swimming. I seem to maintain a cleaner, smoother stroke by doing sprints at about 3/4 effort.
    Am I going too fast on distance?

  2. Nick says:

    At what point are you swimming too easy? When I swim easy (usually when I’m doing my warm-up) I’m not moving very fast (2+ min 100), but I sure feel like I could go for a long time.

  3. Alan says:

    Your last few entries have been ‘best’ thus far!
    You’ve always stressed the ease aspect in the past but seemingly in a more round about way. Lately, the attention to this specific “skill” has me, and hopefully many others, high for more kaizen swimming. I feel fortunate that I embraced this mindset/practice early on and attribute that specifically to my successes thus far. Thank you, much luck and by all means carry on… oh and please, with a smile!

  4. mark says:

    Hi Terry,

    I love the blog, I’m a regular reader after picking up your book and dvd a couple of years ago, i now like to think that i swim with a smile.

    recently ive slowd up my stroke with the use of a tempo trainer and i’ve noticed that my body rotation rather than my arms is the key driver of my pull at slower stroke rates 1.5 1.6 sec but once i speed up my stroke rate to say 1.2 -1.3 i feel as if my arm strength take over.

    should continue to imprint the technique at the slower stroke rates, go even slower or mix it up some?

    thank you in advance


    p.s. i’m training for the UK Vitruvian in September its a half iron man.

  5. Mark
    1.5 to 1.6 is more than slow enough already. I believe the way to maintain the feeling that weight shift, rather than arm pressure, is the driver of your stroke is to start at the fastest tempo where you clearly have that feeling, then increase tempo by the smallest possible increment – i.e. .01 sec per stroke. In other words if you can clearly feel your stroke is hip-driven, rather than arm-driven, at 1.40, then see if it still feels that way at 1.39. Be patient about working your way down to faster tempos. This is a such an important benefit of easy swimming that I believe I’ll dedicate a blog post to it.

  6. Nick – “How easy is too easy?” is a great question. Another good topic for its own blog, paired with “How hard is too hard?”
    The quick and simple answer is when your balance and body control become compromised, resulting in an increase in drag and turbulence. In my experience, it’s movement speed, more than ease, that causes that.
    However, while teaching in the Endless Pool I did notice many times that a student whose average swimming speed was far lower than mine found it exceptionally hard to avoid crashing into the front of the pool when I set the current quite low. Whereas I could easily stay in place over the mirror. In other words I could swim both faster AND slower than they could. Another worthy topic for its own blog post.

  7. Steve If you can’t maintain form on a longer swim, that indicates your effort level is too great earlier in the swim. Find an effort level and pace you can maintain indefinitely, then build from there.

  8. mark says:

    Hi Terry,

    Thank you for your reply,

    I shall hit the pool on Saturday and give it a go.


  9. Steve says:

    Great advice. I’ve found that my stroke has been deteriorating lately. I was swimming next to a fellow who was clearly using TI and noticed his stroke count was significantly slower than mine yet his lap times weren’t much different. So I relaxed more and concentrated on body roll and hip thrust more in order to get the most out of my stroke and they were the most effortless laps I’ve done in months. I need to re-focus, slow down and stop being a ‘protestant’ as far as my effort level. Thanks for the post.

  10. cs kim says:

    Hi Terry.

    I am a swimmer in South Korea. I had been swimming for about 2 years 8 years ago. At that time I had been struggling while swimming like many other swimmers in Korea. After a long break, I started swimming again three month ago and this time with your DVD, Easy FreeStyle. I know that I made improvement in my free style, to some extent. I appreciate what you say and show.

    However, I’ve been feeling much fatigue in my arm and thinking that I need to make change in especially my arm’s movement under the water. Now I know that the keyword is hip-driven not arm-driven. I think I do not have the feeling of hip-driven, spearing through the water with hip drive. I need to practice to find the feeling and imprint in my body.
    By the way, is the fist glove helpful to find the feeling of hip-driven core body rotation?

    p.s. Don’t you have any plan to setup a workshop in South Korea? I am looking forward to participating in TI workshop.

  11. chris baker says:

    Terry–I am a first time reader of your blog, but am anxious to continue. I have been a TI swimmer for three years, learned a lot, had a half dozen lessons in Rochester, NY, and look forward to another successful triathlon season in the Finger Lakes of Central NY. Thanks for your efforts on behalf of the many of us who have needed encouragement and instruction. c.b.

  12. jose arcega says:

    easily swim its better than i learn swim in my varsity career.thanks master!
    now i’m preparing for 50 kilometer swim for conservation of coral refs here in archipelago island Philippines. i’ll practices effortless swim easily. what are good tips you offer?
    thanks and More power TI TEAM!

    jose aarcega

  13. Jose I post practice examples regular on this blog. In particular, check the blogs I posted between early Feb and early April for many examples of marathon-oriented training and my thoughts on why I planned those practices as I did. Good luck in your 50k swim. That’s highly ambitious.

  14. CS – I’d love to have TI workshops in S. Korea, but would need to see that originate from a local coach . . . which means we need to have a swim coach or instructor there express interest in being trained to teach TI locally. It’s possible that might also originate from TI Japan. I hope to visit Korea myself sometime before 2012.

    Consider focusing on Hip Nudge, rather than Hip Drive.

  15. Vic says:

    I do triathlons and am limited to the distances I can compete in because of my swimming. If I’m not moving forward, I sink. Although I have been working on this for two or three years my improvements are very incremental. However, very recently I have taken serious stock of how I am swimming and concentrating on small things (as you have suggested). I had one of my better swims yesterday and I think it is because I improved my ‘grab’. I do have the TI dvd’s so I guess I’ll get them out again. I need to do something if I’m going to do a half iron in the fall.

  16. Vic – If you retain the sense that you’ll sink if not moving forward at sufficient effort or speed, it’s highly likely that the roadblock to further improvement is balance. How often do you start a practice – or perhaps a set – with some short reps of the drills that do the most to increase your sense of “weightlessness?”

    An example of this would be
    4 or more repeats of Superman Glide. Don’t kick. Hang your head, extend on Wide Tracks. Streamline legs and allow them to gradually sink if that’s what happens.
    3 to 4 or more rounds of SG in one direction and SG + 3-5 strokes in the other direction. Simply aiming to maintain what you feel during SG after you begin stroking.
    4 or more rounds of SG-to-Skate, alternating one rep going to Right Skate and one rep to Left Skate.

    Tuneups like these can really change how you feel when you begin swimming longer repeats.

    Also have you posted queries and requests for help on the TI Forum. 100s of improvement-minded swimmers have gotten invaluable suggestions there.

  17. Eileen Maneely says:

    I would love to buy a dvd on teaching children TI. I have a 9year old and a 5 year old. I am working with the 9 year old graddaughter but it is tough getting the concepts across to her from the drills. She is improving but I don’t feel confident and my T I video is a bit advanced for her. As far as the 5 year old goes; he just does not get the concepts at all. I just let him do his thing because he loves the pool and I want him to enjoy it. I do try to emphasize to him about relaxing in the water and floating, etc.

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