Swim Confusion – Gliding and Overgliding

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NOTE:  If you want to learn more about what I talk about in the article below, try coming to one of my clinics at the Olympic Training Center.

Since I became a Total Immersion Coach in August of 2010, I have seen many forms of TI criticism. The number one concern I have heard is that TI teaches slow swimming. These comments are often from people that haven’t actually tried TI techniques or they have simply done a few drills and they feel it hasn’t helped them to get to the other end of the pool faster. My experience has been a very different one and so has most, if not all, of the people I have taught over the last 18 months.  My half mile open water time went from 23:30 in 2005 before TI to 10:55 on the same course in 2011 (and was in the top 30 of all 600 racers).  Anyway, I could spend a series of blog posts describing why I don’t believe TI teaches slow swimming (and maybe I will someday), but what I want to focus on heavily in this post is a criticism that I have heard a remarkable number of times over the past few months and I have a nagging itch to write about.  Here is the criticism in a nutshell: “TI puts too much emphasis on the glide”.

I want to spend some time talking about the “glide” in swimming and hopefully clear up what TI is teaching, what I teach as a TI coach, and why I think some people misunderstand glide.

What TI is Most Certainly NOT Teaching

First, I just want to be clear that Total Immersion has never taught and never will teach any swimmer to pause at the back end of the stroke at the hip/thigh in favor of prolonged gliding.  When we talk about gliding, we are not suggesting this type of pause in any way.  I fear that there are far too many people who envision gliding as exactly that.  A picture is worth a thousand words, so I put together a short video that shows more specifically what we are NOT teaching when we talk about glide.

Other notable things I will say about this type of gliding is that I HAVE seen a number of TI enthusiasts take the TI drills (which do start with pauses on purpose which are later worked out) to an extreme and end up with a hitch or pause in the stroke.  In addition, some TI enthusiasts have taken some teaching about stroke length and some workouts and posts about stroke counting to the extreme and have done anything possible to get their stroke count as low as some other swimmer even to the extreme of artificially lengthening their stroke with pauses to achieve some “magical” stroke count.

In either case, the end result is not being actively cultivated by Total Immersion but is rather an unfortunate effect of a misunderstanding of the principles behind what is actually trying to be conveyed.

What TI Most Certainly IS Teaching

So, what TI is teaching and what I as a TI coach am teaching is meant to hold on to your speed and maintain streamline until the right moment.  In the simplest terms, good gliding involves leaving the lead arm out front until the recovery arm is ready to strike forward for the next full extension.  It does not mean that you pause at the back end of the stroke but just that you leave the lead arm out until the right moment.  The propulsive and recovery arm follow a continuous path back to extension and the lead arm holds you in streamline until the right moment.

Now, the only question is, when is the “right moment” to begin the catch and pull with the lead arm?

For almost every swimmer, the answer is quite simple: Leave the lead arm out until three things are ready to happen almost simultaneously:

1) The recovery arm has moved far enough forward with an elbow lead that it is ready to strike and extend forward

2) The high hip and shoulder are ready to rotate down with a snap in conjunction with the strike and extension

3) The leg opposite the recovery arm is ready to give a tight and snappy kick to initiate 1) and 2).

When those three things are about to happen, the lead arm can begin it’s catch and pull…or, more appropriately, it’s catch and hold of the water. If you begin the catch and pull phase with the lead arm too early, you will NOT get the full benefit of the three things described above. Those three things, when timed properly and executed effectively, provide profound forward propulsion.  Check out this video to get a more visual description:


More on the other schools of thought or misunderstandings

There are a number of proponents on the web, especially in the triathlon industry, for pulling immediately after extension with no regard for where the recovery arm is (or, essentially without regard for stroke rate). Some have even tried to quantify the time in seconds between when a swimmer finishes one stroke at the back end and starts the next stroke at the front end and correlate that with swim speed.  The problem is that it does not take into account the stroke rate that the swimmer is swimming with or the distance the swimmer is swimming.  There is NO WAY to correlate stroke overlap or glide time without involving stroke rate…it simply doesn’t make any sense.  To say that someone that is swimming a 50m sprint has less time between stroke finishes and starts than someone who is swimming a 1500m event and is therefore a better swimmer because their swim speed was faster is simply absurd.  Also, it does not explain why Jason Lezak was able to beat Alain Bernard in the final leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay in the 2008 Olympics when he was down by 0.5 seconds going into the last leg.  Watch the video here and read the blog to see as Lezak has a far slower stroke rate but a longer stroke and thereby takes the gold from the French.  Notice that Lezak strokes at a rate of about 0.71 sec/stroke and Bernard strokes at a rate of 0.55 seconds/stroke.  At stroke rates that fast, I would expect the time between strokes to be very low but I challenge any of you to go into the pool and put a tempo trainer on and set it to 0.55 or even 0.71 and maintain that for even 100m with any form whatsoever.  This is all just more proof that you can’t correlate time between strokes without incorporating stroke rate.

I have also heard several very high level triathlon coaches (coaching elite level triathletes and pros), doing swim analysis and telling top level athletes to get rid of the glide in their stroke so that they can “get to the next propulsive phase quicker”.  This is, again, a misunderstanding of how propulsion in swimming works.  It is not a lot different than the advice one of my clients got from his previous “swim coach” at the YMCA where he lives: “Well, you just need to go to the gym and get stronger so you can pull harder and then you will get faster”.  This simply comes from the idea that the more you pull and the harder you pull, the faster you will go.  This is simply NOT true in swimming.  Pulling harder and earlier often comes at the expense of several things: Grip, balance, energy expenditure, and streamline/drag. At some point, the expense outweighs the gains in speed and all is lost.

So what really happens when you pull too early?

There are several things that happen when you prematurely release your glide (or eliminate it altogether):

1)  When you drop the lead hand into the catch and pull phase before the recovery arm is ready to strike, the hip is ready to rotate, and the opposite side kick is ready to initiate the strike, the pulling action causes the body to begin rotation too soon.  Understand, as I explained earlier, that those three motions work in concert and if you begin the rotation before they are ready, they will not have the same effect.  You will basically be wasting the potential energy of the high side shoulder, elbow, and hip by slowly rotating it too early.

2)  When you pull too early it is often a hurried pull that does not “grip” the water but rather slips through the water.  You want to think of your lead arm as anchoring in the water and holding it’s position rather than pulling back and any focus on “getting to your next propulsive phase quicker” will most likely cause you to move your hand through the water rather than holding your position in the water and moving past it.

3)  When you drop the lead hand into a catch and pull too early it affects balance and causes you to sink a bit in the water.  Most don’t notice this because they compensate with a strong kick to prevent it but it is very evident on those swimmers that drop their lead hand early only during breathing strokes…they often have an even harder time breathing because they are over-rotated and are lower in the water.

4)  When you drop your lead hand into the catch and pull too early, you introduce drag at the same time you are trying to introduce increased propulsion. If the increase in drag is greater than the added propulsion you are trying to get, then all you have done is add energy expenditure.

So what do you need to do (because you are thoroughly confused now, right)?

The quick and simple version of what you need to do:

1)  Make sure that you do not let your lead arm pull until the three keys in the good gliding section above are ready to go.  In other words, wait for the right moment to pull…don’t just pull when the arm reaches full extension so you can meet some unfounded number or so you can “get to the next propulsive phase quicker”.

2)  Work on making your stroke longer without artificially elongating it with a pause.  This involves working at lower stroke rates and working to lower your stroke count across the pool…but NEVER do that by pausing at the back end of the stroke.

3)  At the same time, work on taking this longer stroke into faster and faster stroke rates.  What you will find is that there comes a point as your stroke rate gets faster that you can’t maintain form and you start adding strokes to your stroke count very quickly.  Continue to work on holding form and stroke length at these faster stroke counts while maintaining the body glide stroke.

For items 2) and 3) a tempo trainer is an invaluable tool because you can lock yourself into a stroke rate and work on lowering stroke count (again, without pause) or lock yourself into a stroke count and work on increasing stroke rate (which you can do VERY slowly with a Tempo Trainer…in small increments as low at .01 seconds).  I cannot give you every method of using a tempo trainer for improving your swimming right here in this blog but I have written a few blogs here and here on it and Terry has written extensively on it on the TI site in the forums and his own blog here.

So, just to summarize, your glide is something that happens while the recovery arm is coming around for the next spear and NOT with a paused recovery arm. The amount of glide time in seconds is a function of stroke rate and is not something you need to measure, so don’t try to match a number on graph that doesn’t correlate to your goals.  You simply need to make sure that you are patient with the lead arm until the right moment and then work to hold that form and grip at the fastest stroke rate that is comfortable for the distance you are swimming (it will change with distance even with elite swimmers).

If that doesn’t make sense, shoot me an email or leave a comment and let’s talk!

NOTE:  If you want to learn more about what I talk about in the article, try coming to one of my clinics at the Olympic Training Center.


  • Wendy

    May 11, 2012

    Nice article, well written

    • BASEtraining

      May 11, 2012

      Thanks, Wendy! I appreciate that. Glide well.

  • Eric Doucette

    May 17, 2012

    It sure does help to understand the mechanics, very well explained, thanks.

  • Bill Brennan

    June 5, 2012

    Good article and good demonstration.

    Bill Brennan

    • BASEtraining

      June 5, 2012

      Thanks, Bill!

  • Robert

    June 5, 2012

    This is the best explanation I have seen on this subject and is useful for the seasoned TI swimmer as well. It is easy to forget the fundamentals from time to time, and this description provides a new pathway to think about the TI glide skills. This discussion will also help those who drill to maintain good body position when they are deliberately pausing – for partial stroke mechanics only.

    • BASEtraining

      June 5, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Robert! Glad it helped!

  • Markku Siipola

    June 5, 2012

    Thanks for the video. I almost gave up TI, after visiting and reading at the web site “down under”, when I was diagnosed as an overglider.

    • BASEtraining

      June 6, 2012

      Yea, I don’t know what the intentions are over there but I can guess. Misguided information that is VERY well marketed and is catchy. They use language that hooks people but when you dig into it (especially their stuff on glide), they don’t have all of the pieces and it ends up being smoke and mirrors that seems directed specifically at winning over TI clients. You have to relate glide time to stroke rate and they don’t.

  • david

    June 7, 2012

    Very practical explanation. Thank you.
    I wanted to know if you agree with me
    to add another issue, consurning the “when you pull too early” list.
    The effectivness of the catch is much more limited because of flexibility issues.

    • BASEtraining

      June 7, 2012

      That is a good point, David. Getting the forearm vertical and keeping the elbow high when pulling before the rotation is limited by flexibility and becomes less effective. Agreed!

  • Thomas Switala

    July 10, 2012

    Awesome article, I had revelation into the glide last week while training with my coach. However I was pausing my recovery arm for too long that she pointed out and it is good to actually read this blog now and understand the mechanics behind it. Thanks for that.

    • BASEtraining

      July 10, 2012

      Great to hear, Thomas. Glad you liked the article!

  • Billy

    August 1, 2012

    There seems to be at least one problem with basetraining’s advice: how quickly is the recovery arm moving? It’s clear we shouldn’t pause/stop the arm, but I have ended up moving my arm much slower than most people I see in the pool. Is it too slow? I did tai chi for 20 years and so it doesn’t feel strange to move my arm slowly. But might that be in fact the same as pausing?

    • BASEtraining

      August 1, 2012

      The speed of the recovery arm changes with stroke rate. At slower stroke rates, it moves slower. Whether it is too slow or not depends on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to win a race, then there is certainly a “too slow” for the recovery arm…which just means you are swimming with too slow of a stroke rate. If you are trying to work on increasing length as an exercise and are slowing stroke rate down to work on that, then there isn’t a “too slow”. I have done drills by swimming with the tempo trainer at 2.0 sec/stroke (which feels horrifically slow) to work on balance, streamlining, and length….at that tempo, the recovery arm moves very slow and I could never swim fast enough at that tempo to do well in a race. In a race, I work at the tempo that I have discovered gives the perfect balance of stroke rate and stroke length. Does that make sense?

  • Billy

    August 1, 2012

    It makes some sense. But how does one determine too slow, if not racing but not necessarily working to improve stroke (of course, hard not to try to do that when ‘just swimming’? Should we be moving at the same speed throughout the stroke? Or should we expect some deceleration when in glide mode? Is there a glide mode or moment when arm is out straight and other arm/hand not stroking through water? I would seem that the answer to the last question is yes, there is a long moment of glide as arm is recovering. So how do we maintain speed during that long moment? Being as stremlined as possible would seem to be the answer. But I guess that despite that streamlining, we must be slowing down…..

    • BASEtraining

      August 13, 2012

      Yes, you are correct…there is a moment when the recovery arm is out of the water and the lead arm is out straight and gliding. You WILL get some deceleration during this time. The time is completely dependent on stroke rate. The faster the stroke rate, the shorter the time. The key point is that I believe you gain more by working on streamlining such that deceleration is minimized during that time than you do by beginning your pull phase too early? Why? Because waiting to pull until “the right time” increases the effectiveness of the propulsion phase of the stroke by integrating anchor, pull, spear, kick and all that at the best moment. You pull early and you begin the rotation before you are ready to spear and kick…which diminishes the effectiveness. So, you minimize the decerlation in the glide phase by perfecting streamlining and hold your speed as long as possible that way and then begin the pull at the best moment.

      The best way to determine “too slow” is to use a tempo trainer. Time yourself and different tempos as well as taking your stroke count. If you speed up the tempo, you will likely add strokes. However, if you add strokes with increased tempo but you are still faster and it is sustainable for your goal distance, then you were too slow on tempo before. Using a tempo trainer, stroke count, and time can help you find the right tempo…which will be different for different goals.

  • bpatocchi

    March 19, 2014

    Ernest Maglisco teaches the stretch and the catch much like TI, but he has the in sweep between the stretch and the catch. The insweep is not considered pulling by him it is is not propulsive. But Ti of puts the catch right after the stretch. For TI anchoring the hand is both the insweep and the catch. So what I see is both camps teach that you stretch out and do not pull back until you can plant your hand. I mean both are front quadrant swimming. I think there might be a bit of misunderstanding

  • John Chipponeri

    January 8, 2017

    After 12-years of swimming and coaching under the guides of TI, I was fortunate to be analyzed and coached by Paul Newsome with Swim Smooth for nearly 4-years. Without all of the details, let’s just say TI is wrong and SS is spot on. From my personal account, I was able to overcome a long time plateau and cut 10sec per hundred from 1:45 to 1:35 per 100m, cut several minutes off of my 70.3 swim split and complete a 20km channel swim in just over 6 hours.

    SS’s coining of the term Overglider was not an intentional attack or ploy against TI, it was simply a conclusion from analyzing over a thousand swimmers and finding that there is a population of swimmers out there that have learnt to swim in such a way that they have created a distinct dead spot in their stroke at arm extension and thus experience prolonged deceleration and the need to re-kickstart their stroke. I agree that TI teaches good balance and active streamlining techniques but the pause at the front is and will always be a detriment to a swimmer’s stroke efficiency,

    • BASEtraining

      February 2, 2017

      You’re right. A pause at the beginning of the stroke would always be a detriment to a swimmer’s stroke efficiency.

  • Peter Dwyer

    July 1, 2018

    Hi, A friend who tried TI says that its more suited to taller people. She like me is very short 5’6. What do people think?