Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too

Is it possible to get good at swimming late in life? Yes. (Photo: Shutterhack)

Swimming has always scared the hell out of me.

Despite national titles in other sports, I’ve always fought to keep afloat. This inability to swim well has always been one of my greatest insecurities and embarrassments.

I’ve tried to learn to swim almost a dozen times, and each time, my heart jumps to 180+ beats-per-minute after one or two pool lengths. It’s indescribably exhausting and unpleasant.

No more.

In the span of less than 10 days, I’ve gone from a 2-length (2 x 20 yards/18.39 meters) maximum to swimming more than 40 lengths per workout in sets of 2 and 4. Here’s how I did it after everything else failed, and how you can do the same…

At the end of January, a kiwi friend issued a New Year’s resolution challenge: he would go all of 2008 without coffee or stimulants if I trained and finished an open-water 1-kilometer race in 2008. I agreed.

He had grown up a competitive swimmer and convinced me that — unlike my other self-destructive habits masquerading as exercise (no-gi BJJ, etc.) — it was a life skill and a pleasure I needed to share with my future children. In other words: of all the potential skills you could learn, swimming was one of the most fundamental.

So why is this post only coming out now, eight months later? Because I tried everything, read the “best” books, and still failed.

Kick boards? Tried them. I barely moved at all and — as someone who is usually good at most sports — felt humiliated and left.

Hand paddles? Tried them. My shoulders will never forgive me. Isn’t swimming supposed to be low-impact? Strike two.

It continued for months until I was prepared to concede defeat. Then I met Chris Sacca, formerly of Google fame and now an investor and triathlete in training, at a BBQ and told him of my plight. Before I had a chance to finish, he cut me off:

“I have the answer to your prayers. It revolutionized how I swim.”

That got my attention.

The Method

He introduced me to Total Immersion (TI), a method usually associated with coach Terry Laughlin, and I immediately ordered the book and freestyle DVD.

In the first workout — I’ve never had a coach or supervision — I cut my drag and water resistance at least 50%, swimming more laps than ever before in my life. By the fourth workout, I had gone from 25+ strokes per 20-yard length to an average of 11 strokes per 20-yard length. Unbelievable.

In other words, I was covering more than twice the distance with the same number of strokes, with less than 1/2 the effort, and with no panic or stress. In fact, I felt better after leaving the pool than before getting in. I couldn’t — and still can’t — believe it.

Here are my notes from the Total Immersion book, which I would recommend reading after watching the Freestyle Made Easy DVD, as the drills are near-impossible to understand otherwise. I was actually unable to do the exercises from pages 110 – 150 (I cannot float horizontally and have a weak kick) and became frustrated until the DVD enabled me to attempt technique with propulsion. The theories and explanation after the DVD, however, will change how you view all of it:

Total Immersion Freestyle notes
Total Immersion freestyle notes (click to enlarge)

My Top 8 Tips for Novices

Here are the principles that made the biggest difference for me:

1) To propel yourself forward with the least effort, focus on shoulder roll and keeping your body horizontal (least resistance), not pulling with your arms or kicking with your legs. This is counter-intuitive but important, as kicking harder is the most universal suggestion for fixing swimming issues.

2) Keep yourself horizontal by keeping your head in line with your spine — you should be looking straight down. Use the same head position as while walking and drive your arm underwater vs. swimming on the surface. See Shinji Takeuchi’s underwater shots at :49 seconds at and Natalie Coughlin’s explanation at :26 seconds. Notice how little Shinji uses his legs; the small flick serves only to help him turn his hips and drive his next arm forward. This is the technique that allows me to conserve so much energy.

A good demonstration of a TI crawl.

3. In line with the above video of Shinji, think of swimming freestyle as swimming on alternating sides, not on your stomach. From the TI Wikipedia page:

“Actively streamline” the body throughout the stroke cycle through a focus on rhythmically alternating “streamlined right side” and “streamlined left side” positions and consciously keeping the bodyline longer and sleeker than is typical for human swimmers.

For those who have rock climbed or done bouldering, it’s just like moving your hip closer to a wall to get more extension. To test this: stand chest to a wall and reach as high as you can with your right arm. Then turn your right hip so it’s touching the wall and reach again with your right arm: you’ll gain 3-6″. Lengthen your vessel and you travel further on each stroke. It adds up fast.

4. Penetrate the water with your fingers angled down and fully extend your arm well beneath your head. Extend it lower and further than you think you should. This downward water pressure on the arms will bring your legs up and decrease drag. It will almost feel like you’re swimming downhill. I highly recommend watching the “Hand Position and Your Balance” video at the top of this page here.

5. Focus on increasing stroke length (SL) instead of stroke rate (SR). Attempt to glide further on each downstroke and decrease the number of strokes per lap.

6. Forget about workouts and focus on “practice.” You are training your nervous system to perform counter-intuitive movements well, not training your aerobic system. If you feel strained, you’re not using the proper technique. Stop and review rather than persist through the pain and develop bad habits.

7. Stretch your extended arm and turn your body (not just head) to breathe. Some triathletes will even turn almost to their backs and face skyward to avoid short gasps and oxygen debt (tip from Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman world champion).

8. Experiment with hand swapping as a drill:

It’s difficult to remember all of the mechanical details while swimming. I short-circuited trying to follow half a dozen rules at once. The single drill that forced me to do most other things correctly is described on pg. 91-92 of the TI book: hand swapping. Coach Laughlin’s observations of the Russian Olympic team practice were a revelation to me.

This is the visualization I found most useful: focus on keeping your lead arm fully extended until your other arm comes over and penetrates the water around the extended arm’s forearm. This encourages you to swim on your sides, extends your stroke length, and forces you to engage in what is referred to as “front quadrant” swimming. All good things. This one exercise cut an additional 3-4 strokes off each lap of freestyle.

Gear and Getting Started

Ready to give it a shot? If you have a phobia of swimming or just want to feel the difference a few counter-intuitive techniques make, here are some starter tips:

1. Gents, don’t swim in board shorts. I tried this in Brazil and didn’t realize it’s like swimming with a parachute behind you. Terrible. Get some Euro-style Speedos and streamline. Be cool on the beach and opt for efficiency in the water.

2. Get good goggles. I am now using Speedo Vanquisher goggles, which I find effective if you use a latex swim cap to keep the straps in place. I need to tighten the nose bridge straps every 100-125 meters or so to prevent chlorinated water from blinding me, and leakage with all three goggles I tested seem to be due to eye pieces spread too far apart. I’ll be experimenting with the much-acclaimed Aqua Sphere Kaiman swim goggles, which are simple to adjust and tighten without removing them from your head.

3. Start practicing in a pool that is short and shallow. Use a lane in the shallow end (4 ft. or less) and opt for a pool that is no longer than 20 yards. I’ve since progressed to 25 yards but found focusing on technique easier with shorter pools. Since I’ve adapted to 25 yards, I plan to move to an Olympic-sized 50-meter pool once I can do 10 x 100 yards with 30-45 seconds of rest between sets.

To Finish Up…

I never ever thought I’d say this but: I love swimming.

This is RIDICULOUS, as I have always HATED swimming and avoided it. Now — after one book and DVD — I make time whenever possible to do laps like moving meditation.

I’ll swim for two hours and sneak out to get in an extra session a few hours later. I still can’t believe it.

I encourage all of you — whether you want to overcome your fears or win the Ironman — to give TI training a test drive. It’s the first instruction that’s made sense to me and is 100% responsible for the fastest transformative experience I’ve ever had in the world of sports. Just incredible.

Now, if I can just get from 100-yard sets to 1 kilometer 🙂

[Postscript: The creator of TI himself, Terry Laughlin, has left additional tips and observations in the comments.]

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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454 Replies to “Total Immersion: How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days and You Can Too”

  1. Dear Tim, It’s a really amazing method and that too in a short time. I’ve been trying to swim for a long time but I couldn’t. I hope this method works for me.

  2. Tim,

    In light of the news about Naya Rivera, I wanted to finally thank you for introducing me to total immersion swimming. First of all, I have no idea what type of swimmer Ms Rivera was and I am not suggesting at all that she did anything wrong. Quite the contrary. She is a hero to her child. It is just that stories of water tragedies have always haunted me. Terry Laughlin (through you and through one of his instructors, John Fitzpatrick) change that and changed my life. Despite the best efforts of my parents and growing up on the coast of Maine, I was never a competent swimmer into adulthood. I struggled with fear every time I entered the water. This meant constant anxiety around water vacations that should have been incredible. This fear came to a head while celebrating my wife’s 40th on Anguilla. My fin got stuck in a reef and I panicked. On her birthday, my wife had to save her husband. I knew I had to really learn to swim. I found your advice and followed it. It lead me to John Fitzpatrick in Chicago who took me on a journey where I can now easily swim a mile or more at any time. More importantly, I don’t have the sense of dread or fear when I encounter the water. As you point out, learning as an adult is not as easy. Even John was confused by my questions as many things that are intuitive when you learn as a kid, you must consciously think about as an adult. I provide a few examples below to add to your learnings. I hope you reprise your swimming discussion as I think it would be helpful to people. Here are a few things I learned as an adult.

    1. Master the Elementary Back Stroke. Learning to tread water is actually pretty hard and can sap energy when your technique is poor. The key is to get on your back and allow yourself to relax and breath. And once you do, try the elementary style with a very light kick and without ever having your arms leave the water. It will give you freedom in the water even before you learn more powerful strokes. And it will gift you precious time if you ever find yourself far away from safety.
    2. Understand that swimming is a “breath out” sport. Focus on the out breath and the in-breath will happen automatically. The day this finally kicked in for me, my life changed. The reason you are out of breath is not that you are tired. You aren’t taking enough air in which means that you didn’t get enough air out. And it take a lot of force to get the air out. I also recommend starting by breathing out through your nose and in through your mouth to avoid mental confusion. You need practice the effort it takes to push are out. You can do this standing in a pool or in the bathtub. Stand in a 3 foot pool, bend at the waist and try freestyle with your arms only. You look silly, but you will master what it takes to breath without the fear of sinking.
    3. Expel everything underwater. If you take in water, throwup, sneeze, or do anything else that blocks your airways, push is out underwater. You need the breathing cycle to take in water. If you push it out as the natural part of your out breath, you avoid panic or stopping your flow.
    4. Freestyle (which you ultimately need to learn) is is all about balance, length and body rotation. Kicking actually burns a ton of energy. If you are trying to survive, focus on learning the total immersion drills around balance are very helpful. I do them all every time i swim as a wam up.

  3. Thanks. I’m very interested in TI now. You described so many of my feelings of frustration, embarrassment and a little panic that jumps up and makes me stop at random while swimming, or trying to. Off to buy a DVD and a book. Cheers.

  4. Wow such incredible information! The tips for beginners you write is basically the equivalent of taking swimming lessons they were so detailed! All you need is to find a pool and put them to practice. Just make sure the pool cleaning service responsible for the local or recreation pool knows what they are doing. A lot of companies cut corners. Swimming is a great activity because is can give exercise and socialization – two components to happiness and wellness. This was a great article and a good read. Congrats on your success and I hope you keep writing and hit that 1K swimming target!

  5. Thank you for the help. I bought a copy of TI and watch some of the videos. I have never been a swimmer…never been in the water until I was 71. I am in fairly good shape; i run five miles every day. Learning to swim has been an unbelievable challenge. Your help along with TI has been excellent.
    Vic Bledsoe