Total Immersion: Advancing Beyond Beginner

This all started after my last session with Coach Shinji. I had been working with him since July of 2009 and been spending all my time with a combination of drilling, swimming, and tempo trainer work. But something still bugged me.
I would watch videos like this one of Ryan Cochrane at the Commonwealth Games:

Man, can you see the bow wave generated by these Olympic quality swimmers? Of course, they are also moving so much faster than me.
I would also watch Coach Shinji’s videos like this one, of his 9 stroke for 25 yards:

I found out later that his tempo was 1.6 seconds to swim 9 strokes. Of course, after I found out, I put my tempo trainer at 1.6 seconds and swam 25 yards at 12 strokes. He was, for the same tempo, 3 strokes more efficient than me!
Comparing to Coach Shinji was easier than a comparison with Olympics class swimmers because of physical similarities between Shinji and me. We are of comparable height and build, versus most Olympics class swimmers who are much taller than me. But yet, despite Shinji’s height and body type being a lot closer to mine than me to a Ryan Cochrane, he was able to achieve a 3 stroke efficiency over mine! I think that other more subtle body differences may make him more naturally more efficient, but I think I should be able to still get much closer to his stroke count than 3 apart!
In this video, I saw other differences between what TI has been teaching me:

Most notably for me was the spearing arm being so horizontal rather than spearing more downward which is what we are taught in the beginning. But yet, Terry Laughlin in all his videos would teach and demostrate a much deeper spear. Why was there a difference?

Overall, questions were forming in my mind all based on the fact that I was learning TI and thinking that I was performing a lot of the TI concepts very well, but yet I was not getting noticeably faster; nor was I achieving more efficiency than my current situation.
Last Thursday, I had a session with Coach Shinji. I armed myself with a printout of questions and got there early to discuss it with him before I jumped into the pool. Here was the list of questions:
1. Acceleration too low – spear + stroke back needs more force or faster?
2. Why no bow wave? How to get bow wave?
3. Angle of spear at extension
a. Dave Cameron video shows him nearly horizontal
b. Shinji is slightly angled down
c. Should I be deeper to get hips up?
4. When to relax hand for catch? I feel water resistance against back of hand if dropped too early.
5. Flat back?
6. Shinji’s hips break the water surface. Where are mine?
7. Recovering elbow for Shinji is very forward before dropping into water. But I feel no pull on lats at full forward position. Should I turn shoulder downward as it comes forward?
8. Is my head coming up? Should it be deeper?
9. How angled should my body be? Is it angled enough?
Shinji took me through every one of my queries. He micro-adjusted my stroke bit by bit until I started swimming more like him, Dave Cameron, and ultimately was able to produce a bow wave, albeit a small one.
Some of the micro-adjustments:
1. The head must be higher than where I was holding it. My head was totally submerged by 2-3 inches and this was my attempt at keeping my hips high in the water. The back of my head should just be touching or slightly breaching the water. Cutting through the water in this position creates the bow wave generated by elite swimmers.
By the way a higher head made it easier to breathe also. With my head so deep before, I had to lift my head up and/or turn more to breathe.
2. I had to change the angle of the spear to be more parallel with the surface of the water and thus more horizontal. When the angle of the spear dips down, there is resistance against the water for every bit of surface area exposed to the frontal direction. A horizontal spear presents minimal surface area to the frontal direction and minimal drag.
3. As the recovering arm comes forward and reaches the shoulder, the spearing/lead arm’s shoulder should begin to relax and start to dip downward as the recovering arm begins its spear into the water. The dip downward is also the beginning of the catch.
4. Spear-kick-stroke back timing was very off. I needed to keep the glide and be patient as the recovering arm enters the water and the spear is going forward – then I kick. The spearing arm then begins the catch and strokes back.
5. The spear and stroke back do not happen together at the same rate. The spear happens first, and the stroke back happens almost as the spear is ending and potentially you are catching water so much that you cannot move the stroking arm back as fast as the spearing arm is going forward.
6. I was arching my back too much and need to have a flat back. A flat back provides a more streamlined body shape and has less drag. This is achieved by rotating the pelvis forward. The feeling I have when this happens is more that there is a arching of my lower back although that is not the action to be performing as you don’t want to arch your whole body and your legs start bending down. You need to hold a horizontal body while flattening your back. Shinji tells me that all elite swimmers hold this position naturally for the entire swim. Visually it can also look like your gut has sucked in, but that is just what it looks like when they are flattening their backs it is not actually someone sucking in their stomach.
7. I need to bring the elbow more forward before it goes down. We have practiced other entry points for the spearing hand after recovery, like at the ear, at the eyes, and at the forehead. Dragging the elbow lead as far forward as possible, and as fast as possible after the stroke back, keeps my weight shift forward and prevents my hips from dropping.
So now I have the basics to transform my stroke to one that is more like more advanced swimmers like Shinji and Dave.
After all this, Shinji then tells me that swimming is a constantly changing activity. He runs me through testing many positions:
a. Spearing deep, medium, horizontal depths.
b. Recovering arm enters water at ear, eyes, and forehead.
c. Recovering arms enter water at wide, medium, and narrow (near head).
This is because in the pool it is an optimal swimming condition. There are lane lines separating swimmers. There are no waves or currents to knock you around. So you can develop an optimal swimming position for this nice stable situation.
When you are out in open water, all bets are off. Add to that, during a race where there are many competitors all swimming and knocking around you, some kicking you or climbing over you, you need to adjust those 3 positions constantly due to environmental conditions as well as your body’s energy and fatigue level.
So we learn with a bit more drag to find balance in the water first, fix our dropping hips, and be able to relax as we glide every stroke. We master the basics and burn those into our bodies first. Then comes the revelations that I had this Thursday.
After going through all this, Shinji then tells me there are about 4-5 people who have progressed in TI to this stage, and that there are 20-30 in Japan who are working now on adjusting their stroke for speed. I state this not to brag about how I’ve progressed in TI training, but rather that I find it interesting that TI has evolved its training to take people through basic work and then now people who stick with it and have reached a plateau working with the typical TI drills can now progress further into swimming faster.
This is assuming they want to; reaching a level of proficiency with basic TI techniques results in a very amazing zen-like calm swimming and a fluency with the water that is very enjoyable.
But now they are developing teaching methods and protocols to take those who want to even further.
Adding to this revelation, I also attended the Total Immersion Tune-Up at SF State on Saturday, headed by Dave Cameron. With Dave’s comments, I can now add some other focal points to work on over the next few months:
1. Upon recovery, my elbow lead needs to come more forward. In my videos I see that sometimes my recovery is messy and my hand comes forward first.
2. Dave ran us through a lap focusing on a slight hip drive with the spear. This really added some power to my spear.
3. We worked on the spear-kick-stroke back timing. Dave had a great drill where he made us wait until the last possible moment to kick, with the recovering arm entering the water up to the elbow by the time the kick happens. When the spear was almost extended, then the other lead arm catches and strokes back.
4. Shinji has shown me how to generate a flat back. Now I need to drill with this focal point to figure out how to maintain a flat back while swimming.
It’s nice to know that Total Immersion is progressing and evolving. More than ever, I am motivated to keep practicing, drilling, and progressing in my swimming skills and look forward to exploring the advanced training of Total Immersion.