Examined swimming

By Terry Laughlin

Feb. 23, 2007 — In Can You Learn Talent, I explained why the makings of “overachievement” are in all of us. I’ve noticed that, while virtually all of my students made material improvement in stroke efficiency, some managed to progress much farther — and not because they had great physical gifts. It suggested to me that overachievement — like a smoother stroke — is a skill that can be learned. Thus my attention has increasingly turned to understanding the habits of mastery. Unlike endurance or power, for which we all experience declines over time, our capacity for mastery should only increase with age.

Because swimming occurs in a medium that is utterly uncooperative for unskilled movement, it offers almost limitless opportunities to improve through greater awareness of how your body behaves in that environment. But exploiting those opportunities may require a wholesale change in your concepts about training.

As I wrote previously, an almost universal habit of masterful performers in many fields is a tendency toward examined practice rather than unexamined high-volume repetition. I learned my first lessons about examined practice when I began to practice yoga in my early 40s, which led to a shift in how I spent my pool time from how-much/how-hard workouts to swimming as a practice in the spirit of yoga. Ever since, I’ve begun to understand the interaction of my body and the water — and see improvement — like never before.

I came to yoga initially because I hoped to regain the flexibility most of us lose between youth and middle age. I soon realized it worked as much on strength as on suppleness — but differently from weight training. Yoga strength, developed from working movements, not muscles, felt integrative and functional. And it felt remarkably like the way my muscles work while swimming.

It took longer — years in fact — to appreciate a more meaningful insight. That was the capacity to be present in my swimming. For 25 years, my training had been oriented to: 20 x 100 — Ready, Go, which often felt like “99 Bottles of Beer on the wall.” Count the repeats down. Add another few thousand yards — or strokes — to my totals, then on to the next set Who has time to think about the intricacies of each stroke?

But in yoga, we never bothered with totals. When doing a warrior pose, we might do one, or two, or four, but who’s counting. Turn your right foot out and left foot in. Are left ankle and right heel aligned? Bend your right knee. Is it over your ankle? Not quite? Sink a bit deeper. Has your left hip turned out? Draw it back. Has the outside of your rear foot pulled up? Press it down. Are you aligned from left hand to right — with shoulder blades drawing in? Now remember to deepen your breath. After you’ve taken inventory, then balance effort, relaxation and mindfulness so you can hold the pose without overexertion or fatigue. Because in a few weeks or months, you aspire to move seamlessly from down-dog to right-leg-lunge to warrior to extended side bend to . . . changing positions with each breath, automatically arriving in a relaxed strong position with ever-increasing ease and refinement. Completing 60 or 90 minutes with grace and flow takes as much mental as physical endurance.

I soon realized that every one of the 1200 to 1500 strokes I took in the course of a 1.5K race — possibly dealing with three-foot swells and/or jabbing elbows and flailing feet — was a metaphor for these yoga poses. Each stroke including countless details that matter — the moment-by-moment position of every body, balance and alignment, how I breathed or rotated or kicked or recovered. All of it happening at eye-blink speed in an unsupported, high-resistance environment, rather than with the firm floor, mirrored walls and deliberate pace of yoga practice.

How familiar are you with the details of your stroke? Do you have ways, in the middle of a training set, perhaps while trying to keep up in a lane-circle, to keep your awareness acute? If you can tune into such details, how finely — and acutely — can you adjust them? How can you bring the elements of yoga . . . or tai chi . . . or martial arts practice to your swim practice?

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Can you learn talent, or do you take the same stroke 100,000 times?

By Terry Laughlin

Feb. 2, 2007 — Swimming is unique among all sports in the opportunity it offers to compensate for physical ordinariness with superior mindfulness. Moving a human body through water requires so many subtle skills that the combination of time and clear focus can add more to your mastery than whatever age may subtract from your physical capacity.

In 1963, at age 12, I tried out for my elementary school swim team. Though this was as grassroots as swimming gets I didn’t make the cut. In fact, my tryout lap prompted one coach to attempt a rescue. At 15 I tried out for my high-school team and made it — not because my swimming had progressed much; our first-year team was accepting all-comers. I fell so in love with swimming that I was undiscouraged when, as a senior, I qualified only for the novice championship, racing mostly against freshmen. As a college distance swimmer I managed to win a few races in dual meets against minor rivals, but nothing in first 10 years of swimming suggested any particular promise.

Yet this year, upon turning 55, I set three goals that can only be called audacious for someone with such an unremarkable history: (1) to win a National Masters Long Distance Championship, (2) to break a National Masters Long Distance record and, (3) to medal at the World Masters Championship. Last summer I accomplished all three – in fact winning two national titles (at 3K and 2 miles) and breaking two national records (for the mile and 2-mile cable swims) for good measure. 

This raises two questions of relevance to virtually all triathletes: (1) What level of swimming achievement can we aspire to, and (2) What role does talent play? If someone as average as me can break a national record, what goals are realistic for others? Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and colleagues worldwide have studied expert performers in disciplines from sports to surgery, music, chess and stock picking. They discovered that talent is highly overrated and masterful performers are nearly always self-made, not born.

Many of us limit our potential by believing we were born ordinary. While it often appears to us that talented people make it look easy, Ericsson says, “The best performers almost always practice the most.” For example, winners of piano competitions practiced over 10,000 hours by the age of 20, while also-rans only practiced 2,000 to 5,000 hours.

But sheer doggedness doesn’t explain why some people become better than others. Tiger Woods dominates the PGA Tour, but his rivals aren’t exactly slackers. Ericsson and his colleagues found that the best performers practice in purposeful and thoughtful ways. I call this mindful (or examined) swimming.

Average performers tend to feel they’re getting the job done if they simply grind out long sets of freestyle repeats. But too often that just means the same freestyle stroke imprinted thousands of times. Expert performers tirelessly experiment or refine with every drive, swing or stroke. They set specific goals, tirelessly self-check, stay in the moment and never become complacent. Tiger Woods scrutinizes videos or snapshots of his swing, analyzes each part, then drills subtle tweaks until they’re automated responses. Further, his swing is never good enough. Even when he was already winning more than anyone else, he took it apart, endured a year of adjustment (and – for him – mediocre results) then emerged more dominant than ever.

While average swimmers focus mainly on recording a certain yardage figure, satisfied to repeat the same unimproved stroke over and over, Alexandre Popov, the world’s fastest swimmer for an astonishing 11 years, constantly tinkered and polished. When asked why Popov sometimes trained six hours a day for races that lasted less than 50 seconds, his coach, Gennady Touretski said, “More opportunities to imprint correct technique.”

The most relevant message in all of this for adult athletes is that we should tackle new challenges — especially those we thought required talents we’re not sure we possess. Swimming is unique among all sports in the opportunity it offers to compensate for physical ordinariness with superior mindfulness. Moving a human body through water requires so many subtle skills that the combination of time and clear focus can add more to your mastery than whatever age may subtract from your physical capacity.

In this new series of articles for triathletemag.com, I won’t be suggesting “three great sets” or “the drill that will transform your next race.” Instead I hope to pose questions and suggest a philosophy of excellence that will help you examine your own approach to swimming and arrive at an understanding that provides a context to answer nearly any question that arises and to be able to guide your own swimming progress with confidence and success.

I welcome your comments and hope each installment sparks interesting and revealing discussion.
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This is the first installment of top coach Terry Laughlin’s ongoing swim-training series on triathletemag.com. Terry Laughlin is the founder and head coach of Total Immersion Swimming. To read more articles like this please visit www.totalimmersion.net. Click here to comment on or discuss this article..