Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Total Immersion

Wish there was a book that could tell you how to freedive as well as Herbert Nitsch? Well, there isn’t one, but Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin may be the next best thing.

Total Immersion has liberated millions of pool drones who believed million yard workouts were the cure for a sloppy stroke. Laughlin put the fun back in swimming for triathletes, fitness and competitive swimmers of all levels.

He showed them how to swim with less effort-like fish.

The revolution of Total Immersion is putting efficiency first. "By shaping and positioning the body sleekly, rather than trying to pull powerfully, is the easiest way for humans to become more fishlike," says Laughlin, veteran of over ten years as instructor of his Total Immersion swim camps across the United States. Laughlin developed his swimming philosophy after being inspired by coach Bill Boomer and Olympic Champion Alexander Popov, the best swimmer of the last decade. While Total Immersion is dedicated to the freestyle stroke, Laughlin has published videos and articles in Fitness Swimmer magazine on the breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.

He uses clear examples and anecdotes to remind us that drag is swimmer enemy number one. Marine mammals use active streamlining-moving their bodies along a path of least resistance-and achieve great speeds with little power, to the consternation of physicists. Unfortunately, humans lack the many thousand years of practice in the water, so we must try our best to use swim strokes that create the least amount of drag.

Laughlin takes the reader through a rebuilding of the freestyle stroke with five basic skills that he derives from the efficient stroke of swimmers like Olympian Alexander Popov. Popov won a gold medal in 1992 with ten percent fewer strokes than his closest rival. If that’s not inspiring enough, these drills seem like small miracles once you try them in the water.

  1. Balance your body in the water.
  2. Most swimmers lift their head to breathe, setting off a chain reaction that sinks their hips and brings their legs down, slowing them like the parachute on a drag racer. By pressing your clavicle and neck area into the water, your hips come up and float without effort and drag is reduced.
  3. Make your body longer.
  4. Extending your lead arm for as long as possible and keeping your head down give you a sleek profile on the surface. At relatively slow speeds, a longer waterline is an extra advantage in efficiency.
  5. Swim on your side.
  6. Imagine a race between a rowboat and a rowing shell. The long thin profile of the shell displaces less water and minimizes drag. So, spending most of your time as a schooner, and less time as a barge increases efficiency.
  7. Eliminate drag, and then add power-with your hips.
  8. "Power in most sports-swimming included-originates much lower down in your body," Laughlin says. "In most cases, the arms are just the delivery system." The rotation from side to side provides the power for the stroke. Like propeller blades connected to an engine, the hands brace against the water to propel the body forward.

The key to putting all these concepts together into one fluid freestyle stroke is what Laughlin calls "sensory skill practice." This is what sets Total Immersion apart from other books on swimming.

How often have you been learning a new skill, feel it "click" for a second or two, and then lose that feeling and the correct technique? If you are lucky, you might feel it again later in the drill. But it is a frustrating way to learn. Laughlin has designed a way to use your nervous system to make learning faster and permanent.

Sensory skill practice (SSP) is designed to heighten "the kinesthetic or sensory experience of how ‘right swimming’ feels." This kind of practice makes the skills a swimmer learns automatic. Each practice targets the feeling of a technique done properly. The swimmer is invited to ignore the pace clock and swim shorts repeats of 25 metres or less and be completely immersed in the sensation of swimming well. The goal is to build on that fleeting instant of swimming right and extend it for as long as possible. It requires complete focus and sometimes feels like a meditation.

Sounds like freediving, doesn’t it?

Reading Total Immersion from a freediving point of view will improve your awareness of drag and stroke mechanics. Many freedivers are already spending time in the pool and the ocean to make their dives more efficient. Laughlin’s ability to break down technique into simple drills that are easy to perfect is a valuable strategy for any athlete to imitate and has helped my own freediving immensely. The benefits to open water diving and dynamic apnea are considerable.

But take Laughlin’s approach a step further and you realize that it applies to breath-holding as well.

Say your goal is an easy three minutes of apnea. First, recognize that relaxing, proper breathing, the last breath, and reducing tension as the urge to breathe increases are all skills you can work on. Although there are many physiological factors involved in breath-holding, there are things you can practice and perfect.

Your original plan might be to do as many maximum effort statics as is takes to reach the magic 3:00 mark. Instead, using a sensory skill approach, the watch disappears and you begin every apnea training with several short statics, before any real attempts. The goal is to feel as relaxed as possible in all stages of the breath hold, including the warm-up. Think of tension in your body as the drag that slows a swimmer down. It is something you create by trying harder with bad technique. As soon as you give in to the tension and start to fight it, your static will suffer.

Prolonging the "comfort zone" is a valuable skill in apnea competition-it is even more beneficial to recreational freedivers. Why not enjoy your few minutes underwater? It is worth the time spent in practice. A similar approach can help you freediving in the ocean. Focusing on technique-on the sensations of a freedive-is also a great way to relax underwater. Just make sure you have a buddy along.

Total Immersion provides valuable information about minimizing drag, stroke mechanics, body positioning, and training techniques. Each drill is designed so that the reader can easily give herself a "freestyle make-over." Sounds like something you would find at beauty salon. But after a while, people will be oooh-ing and aaah-ing over your fluid freestyle stroke as you ease past the guy churning furiously down the lane with hand paddles like a runaway steamboat.

Laughlin also offers tips on dry-land training, fitness swimming, competitions, weight loss, intervals training, training toys, and injury prevention. He also includes sample workouts in the appendix. For those interested in improvement of other strokes, his website at has several free articles available.

There is no need to wait for Terry Laughlin to write a book on freediving; you can write your own Total Immersion with a little patience and experimentation.

Buy Total Immersion at now!

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
Peter Scott freedives in British Columbia, Canada. After competing in the World Championships for Canada in 2001, he has continued his exploration of the ocean through writing, art, photography, freediving, swimming, surfing, windsurfing, and travel. Visit his website at


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