Balance – In Water and On Snow
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 17th, 2011

Yesterday was my first day of cross-country skiing this winter. It was my best ‘first day’ ever, and in the Top Ten of all days in nearly 20 years of skiing. I do a form called Freestyle or Skating, which requires a stronger sense of balance than the more familiar Classic style.

Skating looks like it sounds. You glide and push in a V-pattern – a shallow V on a gentle downhill, slightly wider on flat terrain; spread your ski tips more on uphills. It’s like this: Lift one ski and step  toward that side. Roll toward your instep — keeping the heel weighted — as you push outward, shifting your weight — and hips — the other way. Lift the other foot, drawing it toward the pushing ski, then step the other way and repeat.

I’m not remotely as skilled as this, but this short video will give you the idea.

If your timing and balance aren’t precise, it’s exhausting. When you get them right, it’s magic — fluid, rhythmic and easy — even on moderate uphills. I skied the Overcliff Trail at Mohonk Preserve yesterday. It’s dazzlingly scenic, but the first kilometer (KM) is gradually uphill. Usually I find myself sweaty and tired as I reach the highest point, but yesterday, while I still didn’t have the timing and balance, I wasn’t struggling and felt relatively fresh as  I completed the uphill. Then it turns slightly downhill for the next KM and I just sailed. I sometimes test balance on gradual downhills by seeing how long I can glide on one ski with the other slightly raised. Yesterday I glided quite far with one ski raised.

I continued over rolling terrain for an hour, then turned back. When I reached the KM I’d glided over earlier – now an uphill – I changed strategies. I would only continue so long as I felt rhythmic ease. The moment I felt struggle I would pause for 5 slow nose-breaths, while visualizing rhythmic ease. I completed about five cycles like this. Each time I sustained rhythmic ease a bit longer after the pause. Finally, the sense of gliding uphill remained constant until I completed the rising KM. The final KM, now downhill, was simply the best I’ve ever skied.

I pondered why I felt so good, despite having skied only once in nearly two years  (I spent most of last winter in San Diego training for swim marathons). Possibly because I’d roller-skied twice a week since mid-November. But perhaps also because I spent last week swimming in ‘rolling terrain’ at our Open Water Experience in Maho Bay in the US Virgin Islands, teaching balance, relaxation and rhythm to 28 open water enthusiasts. On our final day I accompanied a group for a 5k swim. Most had little or no prior open water experience and this would be their longest – and most open – swim ever.

I paddled for the first 2.5k, then traded places with Dave Barra for the return trip, and swam with them while he paddled. The observations I made while paddling gave me a clear sense of priorities for any swimmer who wishes to be balanced, relaxed and rhythmic in waves and chop. In other words to be able to swim farther than you ever have before, enjoy it more, and feel energized when you finish.

1) Keep your head low. This is critical to balance — i.e. keeping your hips and legs near the surface — at all times. And usually this is less of an issue in salt water. But in waves or chop, less experienced swimmers tend to lift the head while breathing. This would sink their legs, and increase drag. They would barely regain balance before breathing, and losing balance again. Keep your head low while breathing. Roll more if chop makes it harder to breathe.

2) Breathe bilaterally.  When breathing to one side, every cycle, it’s hard to extend fully to a long, streamlined position. Breathing every 3 strokes allows 2 strokes of unimpeded extension. It also means you don’t have one side that’s permanently shorter because of single-side breathing (the right side for a left-breather.)  Note: In the race excerpt shown at 1:26 below, you see me breathing only left. That’s because the shoreline was to my left and I navigated at that point by following it. Others kept looking forward, but it wasmuch easier to keep my head low by navigating this way. This  is more important than bilateral breathing. In the rest of the video [and other parts of that race] I breathe to both sides.

3) Enter through a Mail Slot. Hand should enter first, cleanly. Then slide forearm, cleanly, through the ‘slot’ cut by your fingertips. (A relaxed hand and  forearm on recovery is necessary for this.) This puts your hand 12 to 18 inches below the surface as you complete extension. This (i) aids balance and relaxation and (ii) puts your hand in the best position to begin the next stroke.

In this video, note how I use pool and open water practice to wire my brain so strongly around these habits that – in contrast to everyone around me in the race section (2006 World Masters Championships) – they don’t break down in rough water or the pressure of a race.

10 Responses to “Balance – In Water and On Snow”

  1. Craig Pate says:

    Hi, I just had my first beginner swim lesson at the local high school. I’m 52 and want to compete past my duathlon races. I decided to install an indoor bladder-type pool in my basement for the winter to finally learn how to swim and then hopefully swim well. I also have access to a 25m pool at the club. I’m engineering a swim current generator similar to the Endless Pool. But until then, I purchased a product called RipTide which is an 8′ tether connected to swim socks. So my question is, can a person like myself learn the TI method on a tether? Obviously the drills can be done at my convenience. Once I get hooked on something I’m motivated to improve. And I’m patient so I’ll put the time in. What are your thoughts? I was going to purchase three of your DVD’s right away.
    1. Easy Freestyle: 21st Century Techniques for Beginners to Advanced Swimmers
    2. 02 in H20: A Self-Help Course on Breathing in Swimming
    3. Happy Laps
    Is this a good mix? I won’t have a swim buddy but I can set up an underwater camera in my pool. I just won’t have instant access for review until I’m out and can download it to my computer.

    Thanks…motivated to learn.

  2. Craig
    The most valuable tools you have at your disposal are (1) your inclination to set a demanding goal – learning to swim well and starting to do so at the age of 52; and (2) your self description as someone who is “motivated to improve.”
    I’m afraid however that the Rip Tide is highly unlikely to be a useful aid. I’m not familiar with it but your description of it as an “8-foot tether connected to swim socks” causes great concern. Reading descriptions of such tools always leaves me convinced that their designers are
    (1) Utterly clueless about the dynamics of efficient swimming, or
    (2) May not have even used their own tool in an effort to improve their own swimming.

    My experience with swim tethers – combined with millions of yards of improvement-oriented swimming and thousands of experiences trying to help others do so – strongly indicates that only a narrowly specific kind of tether, used by a relatively rare kind of swimmer, has the potential to be an IMPROVEMENT AID, rather than a DEVICE FOR WORKING HARD.
    To act as an Improvement Aid a tether needs to be the following”
    (1) Long enough and stretchable enough (yet still quite strong so there’s no danger of it snapping) to allow you to make forward progress with each stroke, for somewhere between 12 and 25 strokes, in freestyle, or about half as many in breaststroke.
    (2) Attached to you by a waist harness and anchored to the wall a few feet above the surface. This ensures that the resistance will be back, while the tube and its attachments will not interfere with either your stroke or kick. If attached at the surface, it increases the risk that your legs will hit it repeatedly. If attached at a high angle, the resistance will pull you upward, causing you to spend energy compensating for an upward force.
    To gain benefit from such a tether, the swimmer should have a relatively strong mastery of Balance and Streamlining and have at least some basic foundation in Propulsion skills.

    The problem with short tethers is they begin tugging back immediately, so on every stroke you get a sensation of your body bouncing forward-and-back repeatedly. Your energy goes into trying to keep yourself from being pulled back, rather than moving forward.
    A particular problem I see with socks is the impossibility of (i) any kind of balance; and (ii) any kind of natural movement by your legs.

    If you have the mechanical ability and ingenuity to create a smooth-current generator, you should be able to use your bladder pool with some success. I’d say the pool needs to allow you at least 12 feet of maneuvering space, but 14′ would be better.

    Your best combination for self-directed improvement is more likely to be Self-Coached Workshop DVD (10-Lesson Series) – plus the O2 in H20 DVD, if you have significant breathing issues – and the 25m pool if it’s got a shallow area of perhaps 10m where you can stand and push off easily, back and forth.

  3. Doug Alt says:

    Regarding skiing on the downhill sections: have you ever tried using the OUTSIDE edges to extend the one-leg segments, much like a figure skater in ice skating?

    By this I mean, as you are completing a power stroke with the right foot, place the left foot down PARALLEL to, and close to, the right foot. This places your weight on the left foot while it is headed toward the RIGHT side of the trail. By leaning across the outside edge of the left ski you can cause it to make a left turn (hopefully, before you have toppled over onto your left ear) and get it headed toward the left side of the trail for the next left foot power stroke.

    I don’t know how cross-country skis would respond to this, but I have had some very enjoyable days seeking out the flattest down-hill Alpine skiing trails I could find to cruise along on my relatively-long down-hill skis utilizing this technique! Singing a favorite song lustily, to enhance the rhythm, can add to the peak experience.

  4. Doug
    Exactly! On gentle, but sustained, downhill sections I have almost no turnout in my skis. I push off the inside edge then, even though it may remain off the snow, bring it back so my heels are nearly touching. It brings such a great sense of control.

  5. Barbara says:

    I taugh myself to swim at age 58, by watching Total immersion before and after on youtube and reading the TI book. Many swimming miles later at 61 , I am devoted.
    I had tried swim lessons but had failed. The ideas in the book, made perfect sense and I went from not being able to put my face in the water, to seven months later swimming 1 1/2 k in the Hudson River a part of the New York Nautica Triathlon. I now love to swim , do a lot of triathlons and I thank you all.
    I still breath only to the right. I know I am picking my head up because I feel myself sinking while breathing on that side. Any suggestions? Thanks again, I tell everyone about TI

  6. Barbara
    Congratulations on your improvement. Perhaps the next stage of your improvement may benefit from a more formal and organized learning approach with the aid of the Self-Coached Workshop DVD. The first 3 (of 10) lessons should build a foundation of balance that will enable you to breathe to both sides efficiently.

  7. Jon says:


    Interesting and very helpful article. But I have to offer a correction as regards balance in skate skiing versus classical skiing. Classical skiing actually requires as much, if not more, balance to do well–it’s just easier to mask poor balance in classical, partly because so few people do it well.


  8. I wouldn’t disagree. I did classical for years as a kind of energetic shuffle. Learning to kick and glide transformed it. And then my heart was stolen by skate-skiing first time I saw someone do it well.

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