Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin

My copy of Total Immersion (TI) is actually pretty worn. I will probably have to buy another one soon. But that makes sense given the fact that I've probably had the book for almost 10 years. Taking this into account, I'm sure some folks would wonder why I'm taking the time to write about a book this old. I'm writing about it because I sat down recently and read it again. For the third time, I think. I heard somewhere that the number three is magical to our subconscious. A friend of mine swears that if you want to really learn something, you should either read an authoritative source three times or find three varied sources and read them all simultaneously. Maybe he's right because I'm really coming to appreciate what Terry Laughlin is trying to say in this book.

The basic premise of the book is that swimming, due to water's being 1000 times more dense than air is a hugely difficult medium to move through. Because of this generating more force in order to move faster through the water is a poor strategy. To illustrate his point he uses the equation "V = SL + SR," where V is velocity, SL is stroke length and SR is the stroke rate. From the equation, one can also derive that increasing velocity by favoring either stroke length or stroke rate is essentially a "zero sum" game. This means that as you increase your stroke rate to achieve more speed, your stroke length gets shorter. In essence, as your arms move faster requiring greater and greater amounts of energy to move shorter and shorter distances. Ultimately, even if you could achieve super stroke rate you would run out of gas. For triathletes in particular, this strategy would potentially have devastating results in that valuable energy necessary for the bike and the run would have been expended in the swim where time gains are really minimal.

So to address this zero sum problem, Laughlin attempts to shift the reader's perspective by advising three important things:

1) Look at the body as a vessel (like a ship) moving through water creating as little drag as possible.

2) Look at swimming as a technique sport more in the way people think about golf and tennis as opposed to looking at it as a strength sport like running or cycling.

3) Because swimming is a technique or skill-based sport, just like golf and tennis, these skills can be taught.

The rest of the insights in the book, as well as the drills provided, do support these three tenets. My personal experience however, after my first reading was not as promising. When I first read this book, I was working out with two very good friends and we had all started doing triathlons at about the same time. For a while we all did the drills but instead of seeing our swim times decrease, we all saw our times in races stay the same while our times in the pool were a lot slower. By the end of the season both of my friends had abandoned the book altogether. I kept using the book on and off and was a regular at a masters swim group. This would be my routine until I stopped racing five years ago.

At some point during the five years away from triathlon training and racing I read the book again and used it to structure my workouts. Total Immersion places a lot of emphasis on counting your strokes so most of the actual swim sets are structured around how many strokes you take and not how long it takes you to get from one end of the pool to another. Because of this element I sort of stopped timing myself altogether and shortened my time in the pool to about 30 minutes. This is specifically how I swam until spring of 2006.

In spring of 2006, I had planned to start racing but didn't because of a severely pulled hamstring. My rehab for this injury consisted of weekly rolfing and acupuncture treatments along with short sessions (about 30 minutes) of cycling and swimming. Because of the pain in my leg, I was forced to swim even slower and by and large all I could really manage to do were some of the basic TI drills. It was then I read the book for the third and final time.

For some reason reading the book the last time and spending all of that slow, focused time in the water I saw something I missed completely. For Total Immersion to work the way Laughlin envisions, you have to be able to completely connect with how your body is positioned in the water at each moment during the stroke cycle and make subtle adjustments to your position on the fly. This really isn't explicitly pointed out in the book at all. Even here for all of Laughlin's talk of looking at swimming in a different light, I think his falling back on using the term "feel for the water" while accurate does not convey the state of mind necessary for the drills to work properly.

Over the years as I've used these drills so many people have come up to me to ask why they aren't getting any faster or to say the drills are boring. Some have been to the TI seminars, enlisted TI coaches, and used the videos. What I also find telling is there aren't many people I've run into that come out of the water in that first wave that credit TI for this. Part of the fault for this I believe is Laughlin's in being unable to communicate what is really necessary for the drills to work the way people want. But part of the fault is also our society's. By and large our society is interested in quick solutions. That is why we buy our stuff on Amazon and our food at McDonalds. It is fast. We have it and we move on.

Terry Laughlin is exactly right when he says Total Immersion is like Yoga or Tai Chi. These are more than just workouts or stress relievers. They are both practices which are deeply spiritual in essence and require a commitment to a different way of seeing and living in order to integrate them fully and successfully into one's life. When you look at the numbers of people who actually study and understand Tai Chi or Yoga, you can understand why Total Immersion doesn't seem to work for large numbers of people.

The drills in Laughlin's book are really just a series of dots he leaves you to connect to create your own perfect stroke. The book is sort of like "connect the dots" meets a "coloring book" of effective swimming. If you were to go to a Tai Chi class taught by a master, you will be shown a small series of movements which are a blueprint on how to move your body from one point in space to another. Each week this is repeated until you master this series and a new series can be introduced. In my own experience with Tai Chi, my teacher taught a form consisting of only 39 postures. Within each posture I was shown no more than 3 movements. Each week I practiced the 3 new movements and added them to what had come before. It was almost 18 months before I had learned all 39 postures. It was at this point my teacher said, "Now you understand the basic movements, create your own Tai Chi form."

Total Immersion for me was no different. After the third reading I decided to give TI the same commitment I gave Tai Chi and now give my Yoga practice. First I mastered all the drills. I noticed which ones made me faster in the water and which ones didn't. I focused on my body in the water and how it moved there. Once I mastered the drills I found made me faster, then I refined them. Now the majority of my practices focus on two objectives. The sensation of sliding through water and counting my strokes. I work out either 30 or 45 minutes depending on what I feel like doing. My workouts consist of anywhere from 60% to 75% drill work. I swim sets no longer than 300 meters at once. And now I am faster in the water. This year I lopped 3 minutes off my 800 meter open water swim time. So the bottom line is Total Immersion does work, but for it to do so you have to be willing to change how you relate to swimming, how you relate to the water, and how you relate to yourself. In this respect, Total Immersion isn't just the title of a book, it speaks to the level of commitment you have to be willing to give in order to change everything for the better.

6 comments:

Jason said...

I'm very impressed with your take on TI. I've taken a good look at the program in my own training and back in my coaching days. For me I think your post is the first time heard or read about what it actually takes to use the drills properly. As stated, most people just stay at the same speed, rather than making the changes that are important for race day. Put simply, on race we want to be faster.

ps. thanks for the review a few post ago re: Base training. As a result I've found your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it.

ace said...

Thanks for your comments. I think when used properly, TI can show a person how to create speed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great way to explain the TI way. As Jason said in his comment "what it actually takes to use the drills properly" I would like to add "what it actually takes to UNDERSTAND the complete Total Immersion filosofy and foundation. thank you
love
jana Sweden

Gurudutt Mallapur said...

It is heartening to read your review on Total Immersion esp. on connections with Yoga and Tai-Chi.

I recently started learning to swim around a month or so back.
I'm blogging my own learning experiences (including the way it feels when I fine tune and make adjustments on the basic drills).
http://swimming-notes.blogspot.com

I want to be able to lookback on these sensations and experiences and convey the same to any other interested readers. Right now the posts are basically point-wise brain-dumps of things I observed or tried. Hope to re-write them as I review my own progress.

Gurudutt Mallapur said...

It is heartening to read your review on Total Immersion esp. on connections with Yoga and Tai-Chi. I actually annotated the Title page on my book with the exact same words!! :-)

I recently started learning to swim around a month or so back.
I'm blogging my own learning experiences (including the way it feels when I fine tune and make adjustments on the basic drills).
http://swimming-notes.blogspot.com

I want to be able to look-back on these sensations and experiences and convey the same to any other interested readers. Right now the posts are basically point-wise brain-dumps of things I observed or tried. Hope to re-write them as I review my own progress.

Jim said...

Completely agree.. total immersion rocks. I also like that it is something you can do through a lifetime, like Yoga, and always improve how you do the drills. In a way, you never truly "master" it.