Q & A
Can you not swim yet?
Actually, I think maybe I can …
Yes, really. All these lessons have paid off, but I feel as though I finally managed to properly grasp the mechanics of freestyle on an intensive swimming weekend, using the Total Immersion method.
Total Immersion. Good grief. That sounds slightly terrifying.
It does! But once I'd reassured myself that it wasn't about being repeatedly forced into situations where you might drown unless you swim, I got quite excited about it.
What's Total Immersion about?
It's a method created by a US swimmer, Terry Loughlin, who realised that elite swimmers move through the water in a highly efficient way rather than trying to beat the water into submission. Not everyone can become an Olympic swimmer, but everyone can learn how to swim in an efficient way. He calls it fishlike swimming instead of human swimming.
What's the difference?
Humans have a tendency to flail around, to struggle for breath, and to exhaust themselves by pushing against the water. Fishlike swimming is relaxed and aerodynamic, with minimal but highly effective movements to move you through the water without wearing you out. The idea is to create a small "hole" in the water, and then to slip yourself through it, like a fish. It's a style that looks relatively effortless.
What did you do on the weekend?
We had four pool sessions where we worked through a series of drills that broke down the freestyle stroke into component parts. The idea was to create muscle memory for a good position in the water and to increase our mindfulness of each element of the stroke by practising it in bits.
Total Immersion makes you run through swim strokes in the same way you practise yoga positions, with each action building on the previous, until you are making a complete swim stroke. At the same time, breaking down the stroke encourages you to be mindful of each aspect as you concentrate on it. For example, you might do one drill and purely focus on the position of your arms, forgetting everything else. Then you'll repeat the drill but with a focus on breathing. Gradually we built up the blocks into whole strokes, and the result was filmed at the end of the weekend to show us our progress.
How did you find it?
At the beginning I could only just swim a length of front crawl, coming up and gasping for air, moving my arms and legs in a movement that I hoped desperately would propel me forward. I'd get to the end of the pool exhausted and knowing that what I'd just done was nothing like the elegant and effortless swimming I admire. I don't want to be an elite swimthlete, but I would like to make it a length or two without being exhausted, and having splashed out half the pool en route.
By the end of day one, I could do that. And I wasn't tense or afraid. In fact, I was stunned at how efficient I was. I learned how to rotate from my hips and how to use that to propel me forward. The position of your body and where your arms come into the water makes you more streamlined and keeps your hips high to the surface of the water so you're not creating drag with your legs and having to kick them hard to keep moving.
Sounds good, but probably not for beginners?
No, it's not for absolute beginners. There's no way I could have done a weekend like this when I first started learning to swim, though you can learn to swim from scratch with this method too. They have coaches all over the country who'll give you a one-to-one session if you do want to start from nothing, but the target audience does seem to be those who can swim a bit and would like to swim more effectively – for a triathlon, for example. If like me you've learned enough to be able to manage a scrappy length of rubbish crawl, then the drills are very doable and can vastly improve your swimming.
So have you got an elegant Olympic-standard freestyle stroke now?
Not at all. Like learning anything, the key to it is to keep at it until you've mastered it. I've still got a lot to practise, but I've now got the tools to improve my swimming for myself.