Does It Work: Total Immersion Swim Training

>> Thursday, February 04, 2010

(Note: it’s been a few years since I’ve used Total Immersion [TI], so I might get some small details wrong. And I don’t have our TI kit in front of me as I’m writing this, so I might get some bigger details wrong. My apologies. God help me.)

Pharmie (my wife) got into triathlons in 2004. My attitude was always “Good for you, but you’ll never get me swimming like that. So I’ll cheer for you, but don’t try to push me into this.” She did an Olympic Distance tri in 04 and 05, and her sister and I cheered her along.

In December of 2005, she was going to “re-teach” herself how to swim. She bought a “Total Immersion” kit, which included a book, a DVD, and waterproof flashcards to take to the pool. With no pressure from my lovely wife, I said something like “You know, I think I’d be up for going through this program with you... and then trying a triathlon next summer...”

Pharmie read the book. We sat down and watched 1 section of the DVD each time before heading to the pool to work on that specific drill. (Each section of the DVD was only about 3-6 minutes long.) She would give me the theory behind that movement or drill from the book (I skimmed parts of the book, but never read it cover-to-cover).

Doing this with a partner was GREAT! In the pool, we could watch each other’s form and yank each other’s body around saying “...but it looked more like THIS in the DVD...”

We spent 15-40 minutes at the pool for each drill. There were around 15 drills (maybe 14, maybe 16, but close to 15). I did NOT rush it: if I was on drill 3, I’d do a quick lap of drill 1, another lap of drill 2, and then move on to the new movement. Sometimes, I’d spend 2 or 3 days at the pool working on 1 drill until it felt more natural. I REALLY took my time. I think Pharmie wanted to go faster, but I wanted to really “get” each step before moving on.

For newbies, it’s great because you don’t actually put your face into the water until around step 5. Before that, you’re on your back the entire time. And even for a few steps after that, your face goes in and out of the water, but you’re not face-down for long.

I got to the final drill, but I didn’t master that. It was how to breathe. Yeah, kinda a big one. So I did my first Oly, my first sprint, my first half IM, and my first full IM doing this: 3 strokes, quick breath, 4 strokes, roll to my back for 2 quick breaths, repeat. Swimming like that, I was SLOW, but it was easy. Here were my swim splits for 3 out of those 4 races:

- Oly, 2006: 42:25 (my first triathlon)
- Half IM, 2007: 44:35
- IM, 2007: 1:29:10

Notice in that half IM and full IM, that I had 1 pace: my full IM swim is EXACTLY double the time of my half IM swim! To the SECOND!

I mastered my breathing with the help of Andrea, the swim coach at the Y. I met with her twice, and she got me the rest of the way. Last year, my half IM swim at IM 70.3 NO was 37:53 (38:44 officially, once I got “stripped” and ran up the beach to the timing mat). And my 2 Olys were 28:07 and 29:38. So I’m still a pretty average swimmer, but I’m working on that speed.

I really couldn’t have started swimming without TI. You can’t just “figure out” swimming without some instruction. TI got me comfortable. It taught me to be smooth in the water. It taught me to “shoot” into the water better when I want to go faster, and that pulling and kicking harder will just tire me out.

Here’s a video of a BT member taking a TI class. (You can take a TI class that usually last 2-3 days and is usually around $500.) Here you can see a BIG change from day 1 to day 2, and even more improvement by day 3:

Direct link:

You can see her stroke ease up, and she seems just so much more at ease on day 2. Faster? No. But more comfortable, for sure.

Total Immersion for someone just learning how to swim: Grade of A. You’ll get comfortable in the water. You won’t be freaking out. You’ll be slow, but with a little work, you’ll be able to go forever. Really. And as a beginner, the thought of just being able to go for a long time seems impossible.

Total Immersion for an “intermediate” swimmer: Grade of B-. It will be helpful to master some of the drills. You’ll be able to cruise through some of the first sets of drills. But (at least initially) it won’t make you faster. Smoother? Yes. More comfortable? Yes. But not necessarily faster.

Have you used Total Immersion? Has a close friend used it? What do you think? And don't forget to check back at 2 am and 2 pm every day this week for more “Does It Work” posts. Click on the “Does It Work” tag to see all posts in this mini-series.

BTW, tomorrow I'm doing my normal "Friday Funny" post, but I'm going to do 2 of them (at 2 am and 2 pm like I've been doing) that will still fit in the "Does It Work" week of posts. But they'll be lighter / funnier than most of these (but still very true). So check back!


trimybest 2:10 PM, February 04, 2010  

i agree that it is good to learn how to be comfortable in the water and will have a beginner who is thrashing about swim more fluidly.

HOWEVER, ive never seen a person swim fast using TI.

personal anectode: i started out swimming TI for my first couple seasons then abandoned it and started swimming faster. i went from a 42 minute half ironman swim to a 30 minute swim.

also have you seen how ungraceful the 50 minute ironman swimmers are? they are definitely not using TI!

Steve Stenzel 2:15 PM, February 04, 2010  

Trimybest, that's TOTALLY true. I always marvel at how "inefficient" FAST swimmers are. I have NO IDEA how they get out of the water that fast!!

ShirleyPerly 6:18 PM, February 04, 2010  

I learned to swim from a TI instructor a few yrs back. I'd not put my face in a pool for over 30 yrs and had major worries about goggles leaking, water getting up my nose, breathing, etc., but the TI steps were great for getting me to be comfortable in the water. BUT, I was soooo slow and all the rolling from side to side on longer swims made me nauseous. A couple yrs later I took lessons from a well known masters swimmer in Kona who taught a very different style of freestyle (near straight arm recovery and very little rotation through the shoulders, only at the hips). I am now significantly fastER (but still not as fast as I'd like to be) but most importantly, I am no longer getting motion sick on long swims and I now like swimming!! (not easy to like a sport where you feel like barfing every time you do it)

Anonymous,  6:30 PM, February 04, 2010  

i know several swimmers who have learned with TI. What i have noticed with that is that not only are they not very fast, but they are also not in anyway interested in hearing about or learning other tips and tricks that might help them go faster.

Unknown 7:57 AM, February 05, 2010  

Thanks for this review Steve! I love TI because it gave me the confidence to get into the pool for the first time and then eventually get into tris. But, just like you said, it has done nothing for my speed. On Tuesday I have my first non-TI swim lesson and am very excited to try another technique.

Philip 11:10 AM, February 05, 2010  

I'll chime in here. I was a 1:25 IM swimmer...then used TI to redefine/rebuild my stroke. My best IM swim is now 1:04 and I have a 1:07 in there too (not blazing I know, but for 10K to 12k yards per week...I'lkl take it) I kind of chuckle when I hear people say you can't swim fast with TI...There's nothing in the TI world that says you can't swim fast, it just says don't swim with a fast turnover if you can't hold a decent stroke count. It's not that TI doesn't work for swimming's that most swimmers just aren't fast. But that's my 2 cents :) ... Swim Happy!

sheba 9:10 PM, February 05, 2010  

I am working on learning TI with the video too. My brother has been doing it for his triathlons and suggested it. I wish I had a partenr to train with though. sounds like you had a good system. Overall my impression is that it is not as much about speed as it is about being efficient and saving energy for the bike and run.

Jes 3:48 PM, February 07, 2010  

I took TI lessons with an instructor at school. Sadly I never did get free style swimming down... which is why I have yet to do a triathlon. I always turned my head and my face would still be under water. For now I'll just stay clear of the water.

Irondust,  2:47 PM, February 17, 2010  

Hi, just finished a TI clinic two weeks ago.
Up till now I was always struggling with the water, somehow getting forward, but at such an energetic cost! Which is why I finished all of my half IM's in breaststroke ...
As I want to do a full IM this summer I signed up ... and swimming has completely changed for me! It's no struggle anymore, i feel one with the water and doubled my swim sessions overnight! My tri coach doesn't know what's happening!
So yeah, for me it totally worked and rocks my world!

Coach Suzanne 12:07 PM, September 18, 2010  

Hi Steve, I am the TI swimmer posted in the video. Since that weekend, I have gone on to become a TI coach and have trained additional coaches as well as teaching my own lessons.

I am much faster since that weekend, and yes, it's because of TI. Most people who learn TI from a book or even a weekend workshop get "stuck" in their development as swimmers, but are totally satisfied to be swimming freestyle comfortably.

Terry Laughlin, founder of TI, held the national record for the 1 mile cable swim for over 4 years and has coached the West Point sprinters for several years as well.

The Army Triathlon team is coached by Lou Tharp, a TI coach. The ONLY formal training Lou had a sswim coach prior to starting with the Army team was Total Immersion training.

TI can help you go fast, but the nature of most TI instruction is that it ends after the weekend workshop and then people move on to other instructors.

My swimmers who have gone through the basic drills with me to get a fundamentally sound stroke and then continue to train with me continue to get faster. But most are happy to just swim at ease without fighting the water.

Triathlon Coach Gail 11:46 PM, January 15, 2014  

Hi Steve, I am a TI coach and have a few words to ponder as well. I have people who have swam for years in regular masters classes and came to me because they saw no improvement. Within a few classes they see improvement in reduced effort and increased speed. When someone begins with Total Immersion they learn how to swim right away, they are not expected to figure it out on their own. Once that is learned any work later is built on that foundation of knowledge. Ask yourself if you began swimming with masters instead of Total Immersion do you think you would have ended up in the same place with your swimming at the same time.

Even the best swimmers spend hours on drills and technique work. TI allows you to connect your brain to your body so that you can improve by being more body aware. Then with drills you can focus on what you are hoping to achieve in a specific swim set.

Unfortunately most people like to go to the pool for workout instead of a practice. The workout gives them a feeling of having done a great job because they are tired. Sometimes this is the feedback they crave, a good hard workout leaving them tired at the end of the day like they left nothing behind. I would rather learn how to make swimming easy so when I get out of the water, I am quickly through transition and onto my bike with no dirorientation or dizziness, only purpose and focus on finishing first. Ultimately we all have the same goal regardless of what technique we choose. Don't assume that your self teaching gave you your best attempt at being a great TI swimmer. We can all benefit from coaches observations. Whether they are TI coaches or Masters coaches, having that experienced set of eyes on deck to help you is priceless.

I hope you enjoy your progress in swimming and reach your goals, it is the achievement we all dream of is to reach our goals.

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comments! Have a great day!


Follow steveinaspeedo on Twitter

Facebook Fan Page

All content and original images copyright 2006 - 2020 by Steve Stenzel, AKA "Steve in a Speedo." All Rights Reserved.
Want to use something seen here? Just ask - I don't bite.