“Drills” for swimming – part 2

September 12th 2023

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

“Drills” for swimming – part 2

Following on from part 1, where we generalised on what drills are, the training intent of the athlete and touched on the differences between sport specific and cross training drills, we will now hone in on sport specific swimming drills, the type of drills, the execution of the drills and incorporating them into your sessions / season.

(Sport specific) Drill progressions and transferability

There are numerous drills that are freely available to watch on YouTube, coaching websites, swim apps as well as the old-fashioned books and magazines. All advocating their regular use and outline the reasons and benefits. It is likely you have been exposed to these resources, so you may have observed that:

  • Some drills are mentioned across sources; different coaches/companies/influencers recommending the same drill.
    • However, they can often be delivered / emphasise slightly different focus points.
  • Some drills look nothing like the full stroke they are (supposed to be) aimed at helping.

Part and/or whole drills

Any drill that subtly or drastically changes the full movement / stroke, isolating a single part of the full stroke, is a “part” drill, working a part of the full movement.

Part drills should be easier to use, they are “part” of the whole movement, right?

They are isolated sections of the whole stroke, but part drills remove the whole body rhythm and balance that occurs in the full stroke. The water confuses awareness of the movement and positioning at the best of times, so disturbing full rhythm and balance with part drills can be a disturbing and detrimental experience for newer swimmers. Besides this, most part drills originate from very experienced athletes training; these athletes coaches needing to develop a certain aspect of the stroke for further progression. These drills then get passed on, and used and spread around the world – if it helped “x” get a gold medal at this competition then it must help everyone else?

The difference is these experienced athletes have accumulated thousands and thousands of training hours and are MUCH more aware and in control in the water than new swimmers; they have full comfort and high awareness of their body and its positioning in the water at all points of the swim (from being on the blocks, diving in, swimming, turning, etc). Their drills are effectively “fine-tuning” an already VERY efficient stroke.

If part drills are to be used, they should ideally be performed way in advance of race day, in fact, ideally being done straight after the last race season to “fix” that seasons weak points, with the intention of ingraining  new movements in the off-season / early-season in time for the next build towards the upcoming the race season.

In contrast, a “whole” drills are either full stroke swimming with awareness and taking responsibility of actions, done slowly, or will retain most of the “parent” movement, rhythm and balance. Because these drills are more “whole”, they are easier to perform and more applicable to newer athletes, children AND adults, and those closer to competition day.

Multiple recommendations / differing delivery

In part 1 we noted that drills can be used for different reasons, such as enjoyment or for training and fixing a specific action. This is the reason the same drills are recommended by multiple sources but described / executed very differently.

As well as these different coaches / athletes / influencers doing a single drill differently, you may have noticed that in a pool with many athletes all doing the same drill, each swimmer is likely executing it totally differently!

It is true that a single drill can have many uses for “good”, being used to allow for focus on various parts of the movement, but there can therefore be many “bad” consequences too. In the case of coaches recommending drills, assuming they aren’t recommending every drill and with the intent of “entertaining” the masses, they are doing so because they believe their way of drilling is most effective.

When it comes to swimmers executing a single drill differently to their peers, it is more an indication of the swimmer’s lack of understanding, strength, fitness, mobility/flexibility, awareness/proprioception or attitude – exercising or training.

What’s the point in doing any drill?

If a single drill can be performed in different, how on earth do you know which drill to choose and which description should you follow – for YOUR own improvement?

First off, as discussed in part 1, if you are training, you are NOT drilling for the sake of drilling. If you are training, you are likely being coached (with the guidance on how to perform the drill) or have a lot of experience and are VERY aware of your movements / rhythm.

Some considerations when picking drill should include:

  • There ARE some useful and effective drills, and there are “useless” drills, which are often very person specific (that don’t help other people).
  • The further away from the full stroke a drill is (part drills), the more disruption there will be to rhythm/balance, force production and application, etc; this will therefore make it harder to re-establish the full stroke.
  • The closer a drill is to the full stroke (whole drills) the easier it will be to perform (especially for less experienced swimmers) and so be more race specific.
  • Some drills require high proprioceptive levels in the water, high flexibility and mobility and an effective kick – which is why beginners (children and adults) struggle with a lot of the part drills. Whole drills are especially better suited to adults (in general – no matter how good they were as youth swimmers).
  • Intent (doing the drills with awareness and purpose); knowing why doing the drill, what the objective(s) is, and how the drill is to be performed – and always remaining aware – is paramount.
  • Drills can be done at various intensities; slower allows for more thought and awareness, whilst performing them faster, with power, allows the neuromuscular system to ingrain the movement better.
  • Whole drills are easier for everyone, but certain drills work better for certain people. With the ability to use drills in multiple ways, the drill that allows the athlete to understand the movement, correction, and maintain good awareness should be chosen, rather than a drill that creates confusion and frustration and as is often the case, slow / no development.

There is a belief that technique is best taught at slow aerobic speeds the fallacy of which has been exposed. The outcome of current knowledge in motor learning and neurophysiology is that racing techniques are best taught at racing speeds. If that is followed, the energizing of the techniques to be used in races will be specific and appropriate.” Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D.

One final point, and as noted above, drills can ruin a stroke; the rhythm and balance can be affected and the whole movement feeling be lost! If this process is repeated, for the sake of “practice makes perfect”, it can cause long-term confusion and harm progress – essentially practicing and “perfecting” the wrong thing!

One or two (specifically chosen) drills per person should be plenty! Especially if a single drill can be performed with varying focus points. More drills add variety, and variety can confuse the body, as well as the mind, and your ability to execute the movement correctly.

When to drill – in the season and sessions

The one or two deliberately and specifically chosen drills can be used for an entire (or multiple) training block to provide plenty of time to repeat and ingrain the developments intended – that’s what drilling is all about!

These drills should feature early in the training season, months away from the goal race, to ingrain effective movements so they are automated come race day. The closer one gets to race day, the fewer drill sets there should be to focus on having more full stroke swimming (which if done with purpose is STILL drilling).

Because drills are chosen to fix an issue, there are two good ways to incorporate them into a session, either at the start of the session when fully fresh or between sets when tired, to rebuild good movements. At the beginning of the season, if you are going to really try to fix an issue with drills, 10min or so just after the warm of each session would be the time to do them.

Drills can be used close to race day, but more to recover and rebuild the movements after harder / longer sets. The major reason for choosing the drill(s), to fix and error, should have been thoroughly worked months before. Close to race day you should be aiming to clock up the race specific fitness needed, not spending valuable time doing drill sets that don’t give your volume or fitness.

A (short) list of examples

Deliberate practice – the most powerful “drill” in the toolbox! Using / learning awareness of the full movement combined with coaching feedback to focus on “fixing” an aspect of the stroke. It could be an alignment issue, breathing timing / placement, breath control, arm movement, effort, rhythm, etc. But the focus and taking responsibility of the “now” with the intent of fixing the issue for the future.

“Whole” drills – a drill that is performed as almost a complete full stroke but with exaggerate timing / positioning such as: catch up, slow-mo, layout, windmilling, fly kick / FC arms, polo swim / breathing, etc.

“Part” drills – a drill that breaks down the full stroke movement, balance and rhythm, such as sculling, kick on side / 6-1-6 / 6-3-6, trailing fingers / zip-up, broken arrow, doggy paddle, etc (there are too many to list!).

There are also “physiological” drills aimed at drilling your body’s aerobic / anaerobic tendencies by varying effort / pace (build / descend / CSS / Rainbow Sets).

Then there are “race specific” drills, aimed at helping with race day encounters: starts and turns, deadstarts, deck-ups, no-wall-turns, etc.

Many drills can be modified (altering the complexity, intensity, feel, etc) with the use of tools such as paddles, pull buoy, fins, snorkel, tempo trainers, kick boards, etc. All of which could be used in the normal full stroke and be classed as a drill, if used with intent.

To conclude

Drill = “a physical or mental activity that is done repeatedly in order to learn something, become more skilful

ALL SWIMMING IS DRILLING – a special broken down part of the full stroke (a drill) is not necessarily the best way to solve an issue. Swimming full stoke front crawl with awareness and intent is often more powerful, and much more time efficient, as you are actually swimming and getting the physiological benefits at the same time, than doing long drill sets.

If you learned, or are learning to swim as an adult, you should choose and learn a limited number of “sport specific” “whole” drills first. Whole drills are simpler to execute and closer to the full stroke / race specific use of a stroke. Find a good coach to ascertain whether the drills will be effective and to confirm which ones to perform. A good coach will prescribe a unique drill for you if necessary.

Part drills are for the fine tuning but require high levels of awareness, fitness, flexibility and mobility. If you are an adult, whether you swim extensively as a child or not, it might never be an effective route to aim for – the adult body is not like that of a child / youth swimmers’ body.

The drill(s) chosen should be the one(s) that best allow you to focus and feel and then master a skill, more variety is time consuming and confusing.

You MUST do the drill (as well as your full stroke swimming) with intent – performing the movements with awareness and control and being ok with going slower initially to learn the movement.

More time might be allocated to drills earlier in the season, long before race day. The closer you get to race day the more volume of race day training you need to clock up, drill sets eat into this time. Drills should be performed either at the start of training session when fresh or between sets for rebuilding and recovery.

TRAIN WITH INTENT, full stroke or drilling, just DO IT WITH INTENT!