Smooth Moves


Aug 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Become More Fishlike Through Balance

Dolphins we're not. "Even the world's most efficient swimmers translate less than 10 percent of their energy directly into forward motion. For the typical 30-plus masters swimmer it drops as low as 3 percent," says Terry Laughlin, creator of Total Immersion, the most popular masters-swimming clinic in the country. "Most of the rest is consumed by wave-making and trying not to sink." Translation: Your flailing ain't pretty. Worse, you're going nowhere, and not fast. Consequently, building power and endurance is less important than reducing energy loss by making yourself more aquadynamic--more fishlike. "Think of it like this," says Laughlin. "You are a fuel line with a catastrophic leak. Patching that leak is more important than putting more fuel in the tank."

The key is to sink into the water in a horizontal position and to convert the movements you use to stay afloat into movements that propel you forward. To breathe, roll your torso like a log instead of turning just your head, which should remain aligned with your spine. Your body should stay straight and long to slip through the smallest possible imaginary hole, and movements should be slow and graceful to minimize splash. As you achieve balance in the water, you'll start to feel weightless and unencumbered, your hips will seem to float to the surface, and rather than fighting for every yard, you'll knife through the water like a moray eel (well, almost).
Laughlin uses a three-step drill to create better balance.

STEP ONE: Float on your back, arms at your sides, with just a sliver of your face, from your forehead to the top of your chin, breaching the surface. The waterline should be at the corners of your goggles. Keep your back rounded like the hull of a boat. Gently lean on your upper back to elevate your hips. Flutter kick from the hips while attempting to remain still enough to ferry a full champagne glass on your forehead.

STEP TWO: Now, from this position, roll slightly to one side, just enough that the knuckles of one hand clear the water. Find a comfortable position in this new rotated alignment--Laughlin's "sweet spot." (After some practice it should be as comfy as floating on your back.) Kick lightly from the hips. Then roll easily to the other side and repeat.

STEP THREE: Reduce your drag by extending your body line. From the sweet-spot position, sneak your bottom arm to full extension (pointing the direction you're traveling), with your hand an inch or two beneath the surface. Kick lightly from your hips. Try to pierce the water like a needle.

Devote one workout a week to this drill by doing laps in each position--as many as you can do without having to use your arms in any way. When your form begins to fail, take a short rest. Be patient. It may take up to six months until this balanced position is second nature. And don't worry, you'll be getting a plenty good workout, too. "Conditioning is something that happens while you learn your skills," says Laughlin. "Once students pick it up, they're stunned at what it feels like to have the water support them." (Get Laughlin's entire program at