A May Day Swim Lesson: “Receive Endurance”

author : Total Immersion
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Most of those thinking about tackling a long swim instinctively feel it’s necessary to Do much to build endurance - more yards, harder laps. But a focus on Receiving is ideal for long distances.


I’ve practiced yoga on and off for 15 years, more regularly since turning 50, receiving countless valuable insights in the bargain. On May 1st, as a May Day observation, our teacher suggested an intention, based on the Celtic festival Beltane, to merge the “male and female nature” in ourselves. As Carrie explained, the male nature is Doing while the female nature is Receiving. Being habitually a Do-er, I decided to Do Less and Receive More during class.

Because I’d been traveling most of the previous two months, and had attended only two classes in that time, I felt a distinct lack of “yoga fitness.” Two days earlier I attended a similar class led by the same teacher. After 75 minutes I was whipped. But after focusing on Receiving, I felt fresh, indeed energized!

Receiving, of course, is a suggestion, not an instruction, and takes imagination to put into practice. Here’s how I practiced Receiving in yoga: In any movement that involved bending or sinking, I focused on feeling myself just respond to gravity. In any movement that involved lifting, or supporting, I focused on feeling as if my arm or leg simply floated up – or on a feeling of “physical expansiveness.” I also focused on using core muscle while keeping my limbs relaxed.

The contrast between these two classes exactly mirrored swim practices I’d done on the two preceding days. On April 29, I’d swum 5000 yards focused on relaxed hands and arms, and a leisurely stroke. I finished feeling completely fresh. The next day, though I swam only 3000 yards, my focus on creating propulsion with my arms left me dog tired.

Most of those thinking about tackling a long swim in open water instinctively feel it’s necessary to Do much to build endurance – more yards for fitness; harder laps for speed. But a focus on Receiving is ideal for swimming long distances. In Feb, 2002, though I’d swum little in previous months, I registered for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, leaving myself only four months to prepare. Though most other entrants swam approximately 450 miles in those four months, in pursuit of extraordinary fitness, I trained just 180 miles, devoted entirely to practicing “extraordinary economy.” I completed the 28.5-mile swim in 8 hours and 53 minutes with no post-race fatigue or soreness. In 2006, I repeated this approach, finishing in about 8 hours, and finishing in the upper half of the field, though I was one of the oldest participants. Here are tips for Receiving Swimming Endurance:

Receive Air.
Breathing easily is essential to swim a long distance without fatigue. Receiving Air is the best way to do it. Focus on an active exhale to fully clear your lungs and they’ll fill effortlessly on the inhale, since nature abhors a vacuum. Practice this by listening to the bubbles coming from your nose the entire time your face is in the water. Or by regulating your speed or effort in a training set by the energy of your exhale. Exhale gently while swimming more easily. To swim faster, try simply increasing the intensity of your exhale.

Give in to Gravity.
Inexperienced swimmers often waste vast amounts of energy trying to stay afloat. But the human body’s natural position is to have 95% of our mass submerged. We swim through the water, not over it. Rather than fight gravity, relax into the water. An unexpected dividend of giving in to gravity is that there’s much less drag below the surface than right at it. Practice this in training by: (1) Relax your head and neck completely and allow the water to support its weight. (2) Let your hand sink below your forearm on entry – fingers pointing down. These actions should help you feel your hips and legs become lighter.

Take the path of least resistance.
Our instincts incline us to muscle our way through the water especially the chop or waves we may encounter in open water. But water resistance is much stronger than any power we can generate. Instead, cut through chop with a long, sleek bodyline. Rather than pushing water back with your hand, focus on spearing it forward, then lining up your head, torso and legs to follow your arm through the “channel” it creates as it spears forward into the water. The other hand will be pushing back as you do; just let it happen while you concentrate on the one going forward.

Soften your hands.
When we were young, most of us were taught to turn the hand into a flesh-and-bone paddle for moving more water. But a relaxed hand not only holds water perfectly well; it’s also more sensitive to the best way to work with the water. Right now, hold your arm forward with your hand hanging limp from your wrist. If your hand is like this as it spears forward, it will help your balance and be in a better position to hold water as you stroke. If your fingers separate during recovery and as you begin your stroke, you’ve got it right. If they’re pressed together, your hand is too tense.

Receive awareness.
Because the water is dense and completely enveloping, we swim through a literal “sea of sensation” receiving more input from our surroundings than in any land sport. But first you must pay attention. The most effective way to heighten awareness is to simply listen. Anything you do more quietly in the water will be more efficient. Quieter means a hand entering more cleanly, a foot working more effectively and a body more streamlined.

Receive success.
If you do enter a race, your best strategy is to not race. Virtually everyone else – unless they practice Total Immersion techniques – will work too hard in the first 100 to 300 meters then spend the next 1200 or more meters slowing down. When they do, you won’t have to chase them; they’ll be swimming back to you. To make this work for you, just pick one of the focal points I suggest above – likely the one that makes your stroke feel best – and give that your full attention from the start, while everyone else is thinking about racing. Just keep practicing your focus, one relaxed stroke after another. Before long, without even trying, you’ll notice yourself passing other swimmers. Enjoy!

This is another installment of Terry Laughlin’s ongoing series of swim-training articles. Terry is the founder and head coach of Total Immersion Swimming. To read more articles like this please visit

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date: June 11, 2007

Total Immersion

Terry Laughlin is Founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming.