Video: “Work Less, Swim Better” in Triathlon (or anywhere)
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 18th, 2010

In June I gave a video presentation for USA Triathlon’s NW Region in Boise ID explaining how to “work less, swim better” by learning the Perpetual Motion Freestyle (PMF) technique. We’ll post my 60-minute talk on-line in segments averaging 5 minutes. Segment 1, below, explains why PMF is advantageous in Open Water – or any — distance swimming.  This excerpt from the Outside the Box ebook explains how open water racing experiences led me to evolve this specialized adaptation of the ‘crawl’ while training in the pool, starting some 10 years ago.

From Chapter 5 “Different Strokes: Open Water vs. Pool Technique”

While others at Masters workout focused on pool speed, I used every repeat, no matter how short, as a rehearsal for open water races.  On short repeats, most would swim with aggressive, high-turnover strokes – some taking 21 or more strokes for 25 yards, while I limited myself to 15 SPL, regardless of how brief the swim or how hard the coach urged us to swim.

I probably could have swum those sprints faster by taking more strokes. But since my favored races were long open water swims, rather than pool sprints, I preferred to imprint the optimal way to swim during them. On “sprints,” rather than take more strokes, I focused on getting more out of those I took. I felt this would help program my muscles for the faster parts of open water races-–the start and finish. I was unconcerned that my sprints were slow by pool standards, so long as they developed open water speed.

Beyond the question of stroke count, I’d also begun to refine my sense of technique adjustments that minimized fatigue without sacrificing pace, a years-long process that included an unhurried catch, a higher-elbow-but-lighter-pressure stroke, and a patiently-tuned 2-Beat kick.

My goal was to avoid reliance on fatigue-prone arm and shoulder muscles by drawing ‘free power’ from weight shifts and untiring core muscle. This required the patience to work in a longer time horizon: While my pool-mates were thinking about racing to the next wall, I thought constantly about how I hoped to feel during open-water races months-–or years–in the future.

To swim your best in open water you must make a strategic choice to swim in a way that could slow your pool times, at least on shorter repeats — and, during a period of adjustment, possibly on longer ones as well. However, any swim that lasts over a minute should benefit fairly quickly from the reduced energy cost of Perpetual Motion Freestyle.  But first, you must be willing to defer the immediate gratification of short-term speed for long-term gain.

*  *  *  *

Will myelin improve my  swimming?

At 1:23 of the accompanying video, I play a brief clip from the Outside the Box DVD, showing me swimming in the 2006 World Masters Open Water Championship in San Francisco Bay (clip shot by TI-Japan Head Coach Shinji Takeuchi.) It shows me swimming through a pack of swimmers from waves which started 5 to 10 minutes before mine. The difference between my technique and theirs is striking. I explain their struggles as resulting from “not enough myelin.” This excerpt from the Outside the Box ebook explains the significance of myelin.

From Chapter 10: “Increase Sustainability by Secreting Myelin!”

Muscle memory is a metaphor for a physiological change in your neuromuscular system. Swimming efficiently requires a specific set of muscles to be turned on (and off) in an exacting and non-instinctive pattern. With each stroke, an electrochemical signal travels from your brain to instruct motor units to contract or relax. Each time the signal crosses that circuit, a bit more myelin, a fatty substance that acts like insulation on electrical wires, is secreted, strengthening the signal received by your muscles. A relatively faint signal is good enough to keep the movement consistent while swimming slowly for short distances in a low-distraction environment. It takes a strong signal, i.e., a lot of myelin, to remain efficient as your fatique increases when you swim a mile or more at higher speeds with waves smacking you or avoiding collisions with other swimmers. . . . in the rough water of San Francisco Bay, the main difference between me and those I’m passing is myelin secretion. Thicker insulation, laid down during thousands of focused, purposeful rehearsal repeats allows me to swim with virtually the same stroke as in the pool or a serene lake. Lacking it, most others swim with a “barely coping” stroke.

9 Responses to “Video: “Work Less, Swim Better” in Triathlon (or anywhere)”

  1. Heidi says:

    I actually just tested this out for myself. I just finished my Total Immersion coaching here in Salt Lake and am very new to open water swimming. I had my first open water race last weekend. The water was about 4 degrees colder than I was expecting and it got a bit choppy near the end. Some large swells also picked up (which almost tipped the canoe my rowers were in). Instead of panicking (which would have been very easy to do as a novice), I kept my stroke right on track. It was comforting to be able to concentrate on arm placement, two beat kick, body roll, etc. instead of what the water was doing around me. My husband filmed me near the end and I’m pleased to say that my stroke looks pretty dang good :). I had imprinted the stroke well and it got me through that first race! I’ll keep on practicing, obviously, so that on longer, crazier swims I can do the same. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!


  2. Congratulations Heidi. Not only do the stroke characteristics of PMF give you more stability and control in choppy water, but the concentration you employ maintaining them creates a “cocoon of calm” that, as you experienced, blocks the stuff that so often causes anxiety for triathletes who are not experienced ‘outside the box.’ Delighted to hear it.

  3. Chris Norman says:

    Hi Terry.

    I just finished my first olympic triathlon last Sunday. Last year was my first sprint triathlon and my first competition since high school (I am 41). At the beginning of last year I could not swim 50 meters without gasping for air. I swam consistently three times a week for 9 months and the most I was ever able to swim without needing a break was 150 meters.

    I got a hold of your material and tried my hardest to implement what you advocate. At the beginning of this year I focused as much as I could on relaxing and I went from a max of 150 meters to the very next swim of 2000 meters. I was in total shock. It was the day it all began to click, and I turned the corner.

    I absoluttely owe everything to the Total Immersion philsoophy. I have been working on form and technique ever since. Last week before my olympic tri I swam in a friend’s lake, and I swam nearly two miles. Afterwards, my friend said, “You didn’t seem to be swimming real fast, but what I did notice is that your first stroke and your last stroke were identical.” He could not have given me a better complement. I know speed will eventually come. My focus, however, continuous to be form.

    Next year I plan to do a half iron man and a full marathon. When it comes to my swim practice, I do nothing unless it is endorsed by TI. While there is a lot of material and philosophies out there regarding becoming a better swimmer, in my mind, TI is the authority in everything to do with swimming. I would love to find a similar philosophy and authority in the area of run and bike. Do you have any suggestions? What is fascinating to me about TI is that it both preserves energy and allows you to become faster (too seemingly contradictory notions).

    Because I am a novice in all three sports, I don’t know if there is anything in the run and bike arena that is similar to the TI philsophy. In the last couple of days I have come across Chi Running. I see some similarities. What do you think? What I like about TI is that I don’t get confused by all the competing theories. I know TI works, and I am sold out to it. I would love to find the same thing in the other two sports so that I can become the best triathlete possible.

    Thank you for everything. Any insights you have would be appreciated.

  4. Chris Congratulations on the strides you have made via self-coaching. Teaching yourself not only benefits your swimming skills. It also teaches you habits and insights – and brings self-confidence – that will benefit other endeavors.
    Chi Running would be the best way to adopt a TI-complementing approach for running. In cycling, look into Shane Eversfield and Zendurance. Shane is a TI Coach and ultra-triathlete (IM is a relative sprint for him). He was drawn to TI because of the similarities he noticed to how he coaches cycling.

  5. Joe Novak says:

    Are you seeing differences with people who are trying to “swim fast” and win the 25’s at practice? As you are well aware, your coaching made me fast, so could we say that learning to swim this way is not just good for triathlon, but for all types of swimming? Or are there some differences you would teach someone who wants to go fast?

  6. Joe,
    You raise a valid point and thank you for doing so. While the title of this presentation references triathlon, that’s because I gave it at a triathlon conference. In fact, any human body moving through the water would benefit from the efficiencies I describe. To swim fast over a shorter distance or duration – like the 20.0-second 50 yards you swam in 1999 at Army – you would mainly change Stroke Rate and the kick — 6-Beat, rather than 2-Beat.

    As you note, your focus wasn’t to “win the 25s” in practice, but to learn to swim them as efficiently and effectively as possible, but usually at a Stroke Rate more than twice as fast as mine. The coordination required for that might be doubly difficult to acquire.

  7. Alen Kalodjera says:

    Is it only me who notices that most of the swimmers in the video where Terry is overtaking everybody are mostly ladies? Is there a segment of the video where Terry is overtaking male swimmers? I am not “hating”, I am simply curious? What would be a rough average speed in pool terms that Terry swam in this race? i.e. 100 m splits?

  8. The video we showed is all the video we have from that race which shows me clearly. There’s other video which shows large – and anonymous – groups of swimmers. Shinji Takeuchi was the camera person and on the referenced portion he was standing on a point of land where the field passed close by.
    The most important point of that video is to show the dramatic difference in my form, compared to everyone else who’s visible. Women’s waves and men’s waves started separately, so it’s certainly likely that at some points I would have been passing through a pack of women who had remained relatively close together since the start. At other points you would likely have seen a larger proportion of men.
    My time in that event was 48 min for 3km. This is 1:40/100m approximately, a time which reflects the rough conditions you see. A month earlier, in a calmer lake, I’d swum 3.2km (2 miles) in a 55-59 national record of 47 min, a pace of 1:28/100m.

  9. […] Part 1 解釋了為什麼在開放水域(Open Water)或長距離游泳(distance swimming)PMF是有利的。 […]

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