Propulsion in the water

Editor's note: There is no one in our sport more accomplished in swimming than Sheila Taormina. In 2000 she finished sixth in the first-ever Olympic triathlon, and she did so four years after winning an Olympic gold as a pure swimmer.

If a study was conducted to determine which athletes invest the most resources into their sport, then triathlon would have to rank at the top. The financial investment is obvious; so is the time spent training. More striking to me, though, is the degree to which triathletes invest their time and money learning about their discipline.

The questions primarily arise about swimming, which makes sense because of the technique-intensive aspect of it, and because most triathletes come from a background other than competitive swimming.

There are few triathletes who haven’t heard of Total Immersion (TI). TI has captured the triathlon market, and it has helped in many ways. I haven’t met a TI student yet who hasn’t asked questions relating to it, and very often the individual will also go on to say that he or she really hasn’t seen an improvement in speed after months of working on the TI drills. Therefore, I’m going to suggest a different way to look at the problem of swim technique.

I coach swimming differently than TI. When I am working with triathletes or masters swimmers (I don’t coach many youth age-group swimmers because kids just want to show you how fast they are—no time for technique in their world yet) my first question is, "Do you want to be competitive in the swim or just to get through without having a panic attack?" For those individuals who are new to swimming and want to learn how to be smooth and how not to flail through the water, TI is perfect. I would send such athletes to a clinic at the first opportunity, or to direct them to buy the book. However, for those triathletes who are driven and want to take the next step, I must respectfully speak my opinion on the TI version of swimming—it does not teach about propulsion.

TI focuses on body position in the water and reducing resistance as well as reducing stroke count. These are very important aspects of swimming, but that is where TI appears to me to stop. I compare it to an engineer who designs a car that is so sleek and aerodynamic but who neglects to focus on the drive-train.

For the athlete who wants to increase speed, you have to look at side-two of the equation. Side-two is the propulsion system that takes your hydrodynamic body through the water. The problem with teaching side-two is that it is difficult to learn, and requires much effort and exertion of the student. Actually, the concept is easy to understand, but applying it takes a few months of focus. There is another obstacle for the TI-trained swimmer, which is that TI techniques, as good as they are, can be construed by the student as running counter to my focus on propulsion. It is less that the TI techniques are wrong; rather that I find that it is typical for a TI alumnus to have over-applied the TI advice. Propulsion in swimming involves "holding" the water. You’ve probably heard the phrases "feel for the water" or "catch," and if you’ve watched the top swimmers you’ve probably noticed that their bodies seem to glide over the water. Well, they are doing just that. If you have the correct hold on the water, then your hand locks on at the catch phase of the stroke, and then you pull your body over your hand rather than your hand slipping through the water.

The primary disagreement I have in learning the TI version of reduced stroke count lies in this principle. TI teaches you to lower your count by reaching and gliding out front. Yes, this increases your stroke count, but it kills your stroke rate ("rate" being the swimming analog to cycling cadence). You may be able to take the same number of strokes to get across the pool as does Ian Thorpe, but are you taking twice the amount of time to do those strokes? It may appear that the top swimmers are gliding out front after the catch, but they are not. When the hand catches the water the work begins immediately. It’s difficult to tell this observing from above the water, but the fact remains that if you have a hold on the water, then the hand is locked on the water out front and the body begins to glide forward over the hand. No top swimmer takes a break during the front part of the stroke by virtue of a "glide phase."

The way to reduce stroke count while going fast is to learn to hold the water in such a way that your hand is slipping as little as possible. This propulsion system requires a position with the hand, elbow, and arm that is unlike any motion you do in a day-to-day activity (unless you make a living climbing over walls). If you can get access to the tapes of swimming in the Olympics, then watch the underwater shots of the swimmers. You will see the high elbow under the water, and you can see that they are not doing catch-up stroke. The front-quadrant swimming that people are learning in TI is therefore in contrast to my view of what ought to happen at the front of the stroke. No swimmer is waiting for the recovering arm to "catch up" to the hand out front before beginning the pull out front. Like I said earlier, the work is beginning immediately, but it is difficult to tell unless you slow down a tape and watch the catch and process of pulling the body over the hand.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from years of studying swimming and from speaking to people who have taken the TI course is that TI is easy to learn and will save you energy in the water. It’s shortcoming is in the adherent’s inability to use TI techniques to greatly improve speed. The propulsion element to swimming is difficult to learn, and it will take more energy in the short run, but it will become second nature once you’re physically adapted, and it will make you fast!