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6 Best Swimming Drills for Triathletes

Swimming drills are a standard part of most triathlon and masters swim coached sessions, why? Because they do work over time.

In a squad session all swimmers do the same drills together because in a group session the swim set is general due to the numbers. Over time the drills will start to make a difference and give you better proprioception or body awareness plus, if you are new to triathlon, confidence in the water.

It’s worth noting that drills are an over exaggeration of a movement to help with mind muscle connection, strengthening the muscles enabling the movement and to get you used to the movement. For example, when you swim freestyle, you would not rotate your body to 90 degrees like the 6-1-6 drill, but you should be aiming for 45 degrees. Doing the 6-1-6 drill exaggerates your rotation so when you swim normally then it will be easier to reach the 45-degree angle.

Swimming drills work on specific areas of your stroke or your “stroke faults” and if you are doing a drill on an area of your stroke you are already pretty good at, they don’t help much but can be considered part of your warmup. But drills can be used to improve your swim overall.

The key to drills is to select the one that help your specific “stoke faults” and use them instead of lots of general drills.

Below is a list of 6 of the most useful drills along with which area of your stroke they work on. This can be considered a drill selector.

For example, if your coach has told you to rotate more during your freestyle stroke then the 6-1-6 drill would be a good one for you to add to the beginning of each swim session.

6 essential swimming drills

Here’s how to do the drills with links to videos on how to do the drill.

When doing any swimming drill, I would recommend completing 25 yards or metres of a drill then swimming back with your standard freestyle stroke to embed the focal point into your stroke.

1. 6-1-6 Drill

How to do it: One hand out in front, the other by your side and core rotated 90 degrees to the surface of the water (remember to connect your shoulders and hips together as you rotate), do 6 kicks while looking at the bottom of the pool breathing out. Take 1 stroke and roll your hips through under the water to swap sides, take a breath then face the bottom of the pool and start breathing out. Repeat the switch every 6 kicks. Kick from your hips and not your knees for more power.

Works on: Kick efficiency, body rotation and good body alignment

If you are new to this drill, then try using fins. I recommend Finis training swim fins because they are short and can be used in more pools and don’t put too much pressure on your ankle if you are inflexible (runners can have tight ankles).

FINIS Training Swim Fins – $34.99 at Amazon.com

FINIS unisex adult FINIS Zoomers Gold Fins F, yellow, Male 9-10 Female 10-11 Euro 43 - 44 US

If you would like to amp up this drill, try using the Finis Freestyle paddles as these will provide more resistance plus ensure your hand is in the right position when it is outstretched. These are a very good pair of paddles for all paddle sets and drills so worth the investment.

Coaching point: Remember, fingertips below write below elbow throughout the freestyle stroke.

FINIS Training Swim Fins – $19.98 at Amazon.com

Finnish swim paddles at the pool.

2. Water Polo

How to do it: Keep your chin on the surface of the water, look forward and swim full stroke front crawl. For a really good sighting drill, practise keeping your head still by focussing on a point at the end of the pool. If your head stays still, then you’re far more likely to stay in a straight line. You will probably need to turn your arms over faster with this one!

If you find this hard then just do half a length to begin with and work up to a full length.

Works on: Sighting, hand entry, kicking strength, arm turnover and engaging with the water.

3. Straight Arm Recovery

How to do it: Finish the last part of your stroke hard and accelerate your hand out of the water. Keep it moving up and lock your elbow (straight arm) to help reach your hand up as high as you can. As your hand comes over the water, relax and let your hand place out in front of you.

It’s also a good stroke style to master for open water swimming. In open water is may be choppy so you may need to bring your arm higher to avoid the water.

Works on: Hand exit, relaxed recovery, straight alignment on entry.

4. Sculling

How to do it: Use a pull buoy for this one so you can concentrate on the front of your stroke and look down towards the bottom of the pool. With your arms stretched forward and slightly down from the surface, elbows bent push the water outwards from your centre line to just outside shoulder width. Turn your hands inwards and push the water back towards the middle. Some people think it’s like turning taps on under the water. Repeat in a constant motion.

Works on: Hand control of the water and feel for the water in the front of your stroke.

I recommend the Speedo Eco pull buoy as it is good for all levels of swimmer plus it’s made from recycled material to cut down on plastic waste.

FINIS Training Swim Fins – $28.97 at Amazon.com

Speedo Unisex's ECO Pullbuoy Foam, Blue/Green, One Size

5. New Doggy Paddle

How to do it: Use a pull buoy to concentrate on the front of your stroke and take your legs out of the equation. Keep your head facing down so that you can watch your hands and see what’s going on at the front of your stroke. Keeping your hands under the water, stretch forward, bend your elbow outward pushing your hand down, then pressing back past your hips, stretching the opposite arm forward under the water like a spear. Reach and roll with each stroke with a long smooth doggy paddle action. Think about pulling yourself along a step ladder or climbing a rock face one hand at a time. Keep your arms below the water the whole time.

Works on: Developing your catch technique and bent elbow position as you catch and pull through the water. Feeling force on the water all through the catch, pull and push phases.

6. Fists or Closed Hand Drill

How to do it: Swim your normal front crawl stroke but with relaxed fists. The aim of the drill is to use your forearm as a paddle, not just using your hand. The key is to get your forearms pointed down toward the bottom of the pool, get your elbows angled out to the sides and hopefully your arm won’t just slice through the water. Remember not to clench your fist as this may cause your shoulders to tighten too much – stay relaxed.

If you find you are clenching your fists then try holding a hollow golf practice ball in each hand lightly.

Works on: Using your forearms as well as your hands to propel yourself through the water.

KISEER 90 Pack Colorful Plastic Practice Golf Balls – $16.99 at Amazon.com

A couple of the plastic golf balls we use at the pool.

Kicking Drills

If you need to work on your kick then concentrate on engaging your glutes and kicking from your hips. Using a kick board can cause you to “banana your back” so using a Finis Alignment kick board which will help avoid this poor body position. 

Finis Alignment Kickboard – $30.00 at Amazon.com

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Karen Parnell
Karen Parnellhttps://chilitri.com/one-to-one-coaching
Karen Parnell is British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor and ASA Open Water Swimming Coach. She is also a qualified NASM Personal Trainer, Nivel 3 Técnicos Federados FATRI España and IRONMAN® Certified Coach as well as being a Stryd running with power coach. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs ChiliTri coaching and camps. You can find training plans for swimming, cycling, running and triathlon on Training TiltTrainingPeaks and FinalSurge.
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