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What’s the best drill to improve your swimming?

Here’s a secret – that’s the wrong question!

lane swimming Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

As a swim coach, one of the questions that I am most frequently asked is “what drill should I do?”  I understand why people ask this question – triathlete swimmers typically associate working on swimming technique with swimming drills. Unfortunately, the athletes who ask this question don’t usually get a short answer, because that’s not the right question.

The most important thing to understand is that no drill is a magic bullet. Simply completing miles of a drill will not make your stroke better, even if it is a well-selected drill and you are executing it perfectly.

The purpose of a drill is to break down a complex movement like swimming into smaller, simpler chunks. This is often necessary to learn or adjust a movement that is too hard to focus on while doing full-stroke swimming. For example, a finger-drag drill allows you to focus on a high elbow recovery in a way that may be difficult during full-stroke swimming. Breaking down the complex movement might also allow you to become aware of a sensation that you want to focus on that is too difficult to isolate when swimming full-stroke. Sculling is an example of a drill that helps develop an awareness of the feeling of pressure you want on your hand during the catch portion of the stroke.

Now that we know why we do drills we can shift the question from “what drill should I do?”  to “what sensation should I be aware of?” or “what change should I be making to the way I move?”  These are much better questions and allow us to approach the problem in a totally different way. Instead of focussing on finding the perfect drill, we can now select a drill that allows us to experience the desired movement or sensation and focus on creating that movement or experiencing that sensation. This allows you to use a small range of drills to work on a large variety of technical changes, simply by changing what you are emphasizing while doing the drill.

lane swim COVID-19
Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Related: No pool? No problem. Open water swim training

Once you’ve figured out the desired movement or sensation to focus on, here are some guidelines I use for selecting a drill. Use a drill that is as close as possible to full-stroke swimming. The more your drill is like full-stroke swimming the easier it will be to transfer what you have learned from the drill back to your full-stroke swimming. The ultimate would be to make the modification while doing full-stroke swimming and without doing any drills at all. Conversely, if you find the movement change difficult to make, or find it hard to isolate the desired sensation, you should make the drill simpler. One common way to do this is to make a 2-arm drill into a 1-arm drill.  You could then slowly build back to doing the drill with both arms.

Whatever drill you end up selecting, keep in mind that the question you are asking is the following: “Can I execute the desired movement or feel the desired sensation?” Give the drill a few tries and, if the answer is yes, then the drill is good. If not, you need to find a simpler or different drill. After you’ve been successful a few times at feeling the sensation, or making the correct movement during the drill, go back to your full-stroke swimming and work to execute the change there. After all, the goal is better swimming, not just better drill execution.

With this in mind, hopefully the next time you have a technical issue with your stroke the question you take to your coach will be “what sensation should I be aware of or what change should I be making to the way I move?” Once you’ve answered that question, drill choice can come second.

Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto.  Read more about Darian here or email him at darian@teamatomica.com.  You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.