“Drills” for swimming – part 1

August 22nd 2023

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

“Drills” for swimming – part 1

What is a “drill”, what constitutes as a drill, are drills a one-size-fits-all and is it worth drilling for the sake of drilling?

It is quite a big topic, so our discussion point are being divided into two parts. In part one we will discuss what a drill is and what constitutes a drill, and the mindset of the athlete when drilling.

What is a “drill”?

 Drills are commonly mentioned in sports; this drill to do that, that drill to do this, this drill is a must, that drill will solve that. We will provide our view and approach to using drills for swimming, but the approach carries across to the other triathlon disciplines, as well as other multisports (swimrun).

Defining the concept of drilling

Search the meaning of “drill” (in a sporting context) and you’ll find something along the lines of:

a physical or mental activity that is done repeatedly in order to learn something, become more skilful.”

to know how something is done: to be familiar with a regular process, procedure, etc.

Simply put; to drill is to practice something specific with the aim of learning / perfecting a skill.

What constitutes a drill?

Using the definitions of “drill” above, a drill can literally be anything related to the activity you are participating in.

Swimming normal front crawl is therefore “drilling” the body to do front crawl. It doesn’t have to be any more than that.

However, mention “drill” and almost everyone immediately thinks of a special action, one that breaks down the full stroke into a smaller, simpler (but are drills really “simple”?) and less rhythmical form of the complete action – such as catch up, side kicking, 6-1-6, etc.

So, if the whole movement of front crawl as well as these broken-down movements can be classed as drills, which has the potential to make you a more effective swimmer?

Potential is used intentionally as there is no magic cure! It takes an understanding of what is required, an intent to execute the movement more effectively and a continual awareness of what you are doing to ingrain this developed movement.

Intent, Exercise or Training

When considering the above (understanding, intent to apply and being aware of what is happening), the mindset, goals and attitude of the individual need to be assessed to determine whether they are training with deliberate awareness and responsibility of their actions and if they are exercising or training.


Drills for swimming, drilling with intentIntent, or being deliberate, with awareness and taking responsibility of the session / stroke is a huge influencer on progressions. “Practice makes perfect”, a widely used saying, but not accurate, “perfect practice makes perfect” is a more fitting saying – being aware of actions and reactions, body positioning, movement patterns, and being able to do the movements at an intensity that allows for control is going to yield far superior outcomes than moving and not “caring” or having an overarching desire to accumulate intensity / quantity rather than quality.

Swimming full stroke front crawl slowly, softly, slow-motion, with mindfulness and control will often allow for any desired correction to be made; negating the need to break the stroke down into smaller chunks, especially for newer swimmers.

 Exercise Mindset

Exercise is doing physical activity for the effect it produces today. Maybe it serves as a stress reliever, to burn calories, or to feel that something has been accomplished (getting hot, sweaty, out of breath, etc – the “no pain, no gain” approach). Often, exercise is a social event, performed with other people which uses the other participants to continue by being an external motivator.

Exercise is random in its content: how long you do the activity, how hard you do the activity, what days you do the activity, what sub-activity (drills, cross training, etc) you do in the activity, are all random in their nature.

Exercise is performed to please the participants current desires, not the long-term.

Training Mindset

Training is very similar to exercise (and often has the same immediate stress relief and health benefits) but is performed for the purpose of satisfying a long-term performance goal. Training involves a systematic and progressive plan with defined session objectives (programming) building to long-term adaptations (physiological, mechanical, strength, movement, etc). The session today matters but is not the destination; the session today is part of the process leading to a future performance outcome. Training often requires more internal drive / discipline; training on your own can be hard, training in groups can be (done too) hard; having the control to adhere to the plan laid before you is vital.

If you are not following a session plan integrated within an overall programme designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned through a specific stress load progression (sometimes more, sometimes less), you don’t get to call it training!

In summary, Exercise is fine for being active / healthy, for socialising, and for satisfying the mind today. But if you plan to race or participate in an event (which is a goal), training will lead to a better long-term outcome / result and feeling of achievement. The better you hope to perform, the more training orientated you MUST be.

Drilling with an “exercise” or “training” mindset

There is therefore a clear difference between exercise and training, one is more “purposeful” than the other.

For the rest of the article, unless stated otherwise in the text, when we mention “drill” we mean the broken-down variety, not the deliberate full stroke “drill”.

So, when exercising, drills serve as a form of enjoyment. They add variety and are often performed with an unawareness of how and why the drill is even being done. Variety and entertainment serves the now! Knowing how to perform the drill doesn’t necessarily come into the equation. The long-term outcomes (consequences) of drilling in this way are not considered.


Drills in a training plan are (should be) specifically chosen to develop, and perfect, a part of the overall skill (front crawl) more efficient, stronger and / or resilient.

Variety is for the weak minded” – Joel Filliol

Not all drills are needed, and any chosen drills might not be needed all the time. Only the drills that best suit the individual’s needs at that time in their development should be included. When the drill served its purpose (achievement of a skill) the drill can be discarded. And, importantly, if the drill is not effective from the start and is clearly not helping, then it should also be discarded.

Sport specific drills and cross training “drills”

Can you drill for swimming out of the water? Another frequently asked question when discussing drills.

Specificity is the name of the game here. Sport specific drills are those completed whilst training in the sport itself. Swim drills take place in the water, using your body, the water and swim tools. Swim specific!

Swimming drills performed on land could be called “cross training” or “land training”. They will use body weight, weights, bands, etc. Trust us, no matter how much you try to make land training mimic swimming, they aren’t sport specific.

The only way to acquire sport specific skills is to do sport specific work / drills. The environmental demands, pressures, whole body activation / movements, control when fatigued, etc can ONLY be replicated in water. No land-based training can replicate swim in water and the specific (unique) demands it places on the body.

Do complex drills help in these environments?

Cross training CAN help develop strength, and even raise awareness of some movement patterns through visual referencing or loading, but it is not an effective method for acquiring sport specific skills. For example, swim resistance band movements or performing a plank on land can both potentially develop some strength. However, neither will be equal to the effect of swim drills!

Basically, if you want to become more skillful at swimming, swim. If you want to try to gain some strength, and you have the time, incorporate strength training. Make it general strength training though, NOT swim mimicking “strength” training.

To wrap it up

This is where part 1 finishes. Takeaway points:

  • Drills are repeated actions aimed at improving skills. Swimming full stroke front crawl is drilling. Breaking the full stroke down into “parts” can be a drill.
  • Intent, or deliberate control and taking responsibility is going to yield huge gains.
  • Exercise and training are two different approaches to sport execution. Exercise is for pleasing the mind now. Training is for future performance.
  • Sport specific drilling is going to give sport skill acquisition better than cross training drilling.

In part 2 we will focus on sport specific drills, drill types and drill execution. There will also be a guide on how to incorporate them in training.